July 30, 2014

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Five big issues facing Browns

BEREA — We covered the quarterback competition Thursday, so now it’s time to look at the other top issues facing the Browns.
Health report
What would a Browns training camp be without talk of injuries? This time, however, the focus is on recovery.
LeCharles Bentley (knee), Gary Baxter (knees), Kellen Winslow (knee) and Leigh Bodden (ankle) have undergone surgery within the last year, but all are expected to be on the field at some time during camp. In what capacity remains to be seen.
Bodden is expected to line up as the starter at cornerback, while Winslow is scheduled to start at tight end after easing his way into camp. Baxter and Bentley, the team’s top free-agent acquisitions in 2005 and 2006, are the bigger question marks.
Both were presumed out for this season — and possibly forever — when the Browns finished 2006. But Baxter, a cornerback, has made a miraculous recovery after tearing both patellar tendons. He might not be ready from day one, but a comeback at some point this season now seems like a realistic possibility.
Bentley has had four surgeries on his knee in the last year, as a staph infection sent him back into the hospital after the original procedure to repair a torn patellar tendon. He was cleared by the Giants team physician this week and plans to be ready for the opener. The Browns want him to pass their physical and are proceeding cautiously.
The Browns are counting on Winslow and Bodden, but contributions from Baxter and Bentley would be a bonus.
Line item
Rookie Joe Thomas and free-agent signee Eric Steinbach should upgrade the offensive line immediately. But many questions still surround the team’s longtime weakness.
Will Thomas win the left tackle job? Who will play right guard? Can Ryan Tucker be counted on to finish the season? What will happen to Kevin Shaffer? Will Bentley be a factor? Can the five guys picked to start gel fast enough?
Hank Fraley looks like a lock at center and Steinbach appears set at left guard, but there’s a degree of uncertainty at the other spots. If, as expected, Thomas wins the left tackle job, the Browns would have to do something with Shaffer, last year’s starter at left tackle.
He could compete at right tackle with Tucker, who missed seven games last year with an emotional disorder but says he’s back to normal. Shaffer could also get a shot at right guard, where Seth McKinney is the favorite to start. General manager Phil Savage could also trade Shaffer for a backup running back or future draft pick.
RAC of lame
At best, coach Romeo Crennel is on the hot seat. At worst, he’s a lame duck.
The Browns have gone 10-22 under Crennel. They were 4-12 overall and 0-6 in the AFC North in 2006. Savage’s sermon about stability could change quickly if the Browns falter again in 2007.
Crennel never showed signs of strain last year, despite the repeated losses and questions about his job security. He will surely enter training camp whistling the same tune, but he also knows a fast start is important. The Browns host all three division rivals within the first month of the season, and an
oh-fer on the lakefront could lead to Crennel’s ouster at the bye week.
O, to be young
During offseason workouts and minicamp the offense looked awful. First-time NFL coordinator Rob Chudzinski was installing his new offense, and the players were struggling to execute it. Progress was made as minicamp concluded, but it was far from ready for prime time.
Chudzinski must find a way to get the offense functioning at a respectable level — even if that means streamlining the playbook. His job is made harder by the fact he must audition quarterbacks for a starting job.
Running on empty?
Running back Jamal Lewis owned the Browns early in his career in Baltimore, but he slipped over the last couple of years. He no longer dominated games or the Browns.
Lewis is a Brown now — he signed a one-year deal — and vows to return to the Lewis of old. He says his ankle’s healthy again and he’s ready to be a workhorse.
He better be. The running game must take pressure off the quarterback, and backup running backs Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison are incapable of carrying the load full time.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7136 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.