July 25, 2014

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Browns counting on Sheldon Brown being the physical cornerback they need

BEREA – Wanted: An experienced cornerback with plenty of tread left on the tires. Must be willing to get physical in run support.

The Browns didn’t place this ad in the classifieds or on Craigslist.com. But if it wasn’t posted on every bulletin board in team headquarters, it was certainly embedded in the brain of everyone in the personnel office.

Fortunately for general manager Tom Heckert, he knew a guy who fit the description perfectly. And the Philadelphia Eagles were willing to part with him.

The Browns have added six players of significance on defense since their last game, and none will likely have a more immediate impact than cornerback Sheldon Brown. He’s expected to start and improve the play against the pass and the run.

Brown’s listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, but he’s earned the reputation as a tough guy who isn’t afraid to stick his nose into the fray.

“If you follow my football game, I’m more of a shoulder-pad guy,” said Brown, part of a trade that brought linebacker Chris Gocong and sent linebacker Alex Hall and two draft choices to the Eagles. “My game is built off of more being physical and tackling and doing that stuff.”

That attitude was missing from the Browns cornerbacks in 2009. Eric Wright is considered one of the league’s better cover guys, but the coaching staff wasn’t thrilled with his tackling technique and effort. Brandon McDonald, who was in and out of the lineup for coverage lapses, isn’t afraid to mix it up, but also struggled with missed tackles.

“Sometimes you have to pick and choose when you take your shots,” Brown said. “But it’s hopefully everybody on one accord, not just me, anybody making the big hit, it’ll amp up somebody else. That’s how we rolled in Philly.”

Brown was a second-round pick of Heckert and the Eagles in 2002. He became a full-time starter in 2004 and has started 128 straight games.

“I think that sometimes it’s mind over matter,” Brown said. “You don’t want to let your teammates down and you don’t want to put another guy in a position if you don’t think he is prepared.

“Sometimes, you just force yourself to go out there and play. I have been very blessed to have been able to finish seasons.”

The durability is more impressive given the way he sacrifices his body.

“He’s a guy that is physical, as far as jamming at the line and plays physical in run support,” Wright said. “He has a big presence out there.”

Brown has stepped in as a starter throughout organized team activities and the minicamp that concludes today. The practices are without pads or much hitting, so Brown’s greatest asset won’t be on display until training camp and the preseason. In the interim, he’s studying after spending his entire career in the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme.

“Feels like a rookie,” he said. “A lot different from the terminology I had in Philadelphia. I’m in the playbook a lot and it’s tough.

“I’m just trying to get mental reps, mentally process everything and be where I’m supposed to be, so when it’s time for me to show up in shoulder pads, I don’t have to think about it, I can work on hitting and trying to get the ball out and those things.”

Brown had been asking for a new deal from the Eagles for years without satisfaction. Heckert said he continued to play hard, and the Browns gave him a $5 million signing bonus when he arrived.

Brown had a career-high five interceptions in 2009 with 17 passes defensed, 68 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He returned one of the picks 83 yards for a touchdown.

“The criteria for evaluating any defensive back is, can they play man to man, can they play in the deep part of the field and can they tackle?” coach Eric Mangini said. “You want to have all three of those elements in order to bring somebody in.

“Sometimes you hear cover corner and usually that’s a nice thing in a lot of ways, but it also means run at him. You want the complete corner that can do all of those things, and Sheldon is a good tackler and a good run support player.”

At 31 years old, Brown is hardly over the hill. But the laws of nature say he’s not as fast as he once was.

He takes inspiration from Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, a former teammate who’s still going strong at 36.

“Performance says it all, it’s not really the age,” Brown said. “Forget the number.

“The more experience you have – you can relax and play, you can anticipate some things – the better corner you’ll be. Having the wits and smarts is better sometimes than having the speed.”

Brown doesn’t run from his age when it comes to mentoring his younger teammates. Rookie first-round pick Joe Haden will compete with Brown for a starting job, yet Brown has been a willing teacher.

“He’s talked to me just like Coach (Rob) Ryan or Coach (Jerome) Henderson talk to me,” Haden said, referring to the defensive coordinator and secondary coach. “Sitting on the sideline, we’re having a one-on-one lesson.”

“Sheldon’s a pro and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay a guy,” Mangini said. “He will provide some leadership in that room.”

Not to mention some much needed toughness.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.