April 18, 2014

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Minicamp’s over, so let’s assess the Browns

We’ve officially entered the dead time of the NFL calendar. Free agency, the draft, OTAs and minicamps are over. The only business left before training camp is to get the rookies under contract. (And hope nobody on the roster makes the police blotter.)

As coaches and players disperse around the country to recharge the batteries before the grind of training camp begins in late July, let’s take a look at where the Browns stand after offseason practices … and with the regular season about three months away.

WHAT WE THINK WE LEARNED

The receiving corps isn’t as bad as expected.

The Browns didn’t sign a veteran receiver or draft a high-profile rookie, which brought groans from many observers. A huge weakness in 2009 went largely unaddressed.

But minicamp eased some of the concern.

Brian Robiskie has made huge strides and drew repeated praise from coach Eric Mangini. Mohamed Massaquoi, also in his second year, looked more comfortable, as did slot receiver Chansi Stuckey. If Joshua Cribbs continues to develop — and he showed signs with some nice grabs — the Browns might be OK at the position.

Rookies Carlton Mitchell and Johnathan Haggerty also flashed. One thing’s for certain: This group is young. Cribbs is the elder statesman at 27 years old.

Jerome Harrison has company.

Harrison was the first restricted free agent to return to practice, and for good reason. He was losing ground in the battle to be the No. 1 running back. Rookie second-rounder Montario Hardesty made a great first impression, and everyone from president Mike Holmgren to GM Tom Heckert to coach Eric Mangini wasn’t afraid to say it publicly.

Harrison got the message loud and clear and returned to the fray. He split first-team reps with Hardesty and looked good. The thought here is that Hardesty will be the starter for the opener.

But no matter who’s on the field for the first snap, there should be enough carries for both. The same isn’t true for James Davis and Peyton Hillis. Both have talent — and give the Browns quality depth in the backfield — but will have a difficult time carving out a role with Hardesty, Harrison and fullback Lawrence Vickers having plenty of versatility in front of them.

Jake Delhomme is the undisputed leader of the team.

Mangini has reserved the right to not name a starting quarterback until he’s seen Delhomme and Seneca Wallace perform during training camp and the preseason. But there’s no denying that, after just a few months, Delhomme has established himself as the team leader.

He commands the huddle, cheers on teammates and carries himself with the confidence and credibility of a proven quarterback who has a Super Bowl on his resume. Delhomme was upbeat about his offseason performance following a disastrous 2009, but he must prove it when the games begin.

The Browns added enough pieces and made enough progress to make a jump in the standings. All of the gains could be negated if Delhomme can’t outperform the dismal combination of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. He needs to be the difference.

Safety is an issue.

With Abram Elam skipping the offseason practices, draft choices T.J. Ward and Larry Asante took turns in the starting lineup. When the rookies missed time with leg tightness, the true dearth of talent at the position was on display.

Journeyman special teamers Nick Sorensen and Ray “Bubba” Ventrone were forced to play safety with the first-team defense. That’s not a pretty sight, or a welcome thought for when the Browns are facing more than their own second-team offense.

The versatile Mike Adams was forced back to safety by the lack of able bodies but is preferred at cornerback. Receiver Mike Furrey is no longer an option (Redskins), but Cribbs could be after the idea has been floated for more than a year. A veteran free agent could also be added.

Elam isn’t great, but his absence showed the Browns need him this year. He has the chance to earn the long-term deal that he desires.

Phil Dawson isn’t easy to replace.

From the outside, kickers seem expendable. They’re little men who don’t resemble their teammates, miss important kicks and often cost coaches jobs.

Phil Dawson isn’t like most kickers. He’s athletic, loves playing football, participates in team meetings and has been voted a captain on multiple occasions.

Dawson, the only Brown remaining from 1999, skipped OTAs in what’s believed to be a protest over his contract, which ends this season. The Browns signed Shaun Suisham to kick in Dawson’s absence and to send a message to Dawson. Suisham has NFL experience and seemed like a viable replacement.

It didn’t take long for the Browns’ brain trust to realize that Suisham is no Dawson. He missed a number of kicks and was quickly overshadowed when Dawson returned. Suisham was cut last week.

The front office hasn’t talked to Dawson about an extension, but should’ve realized by now he’s underappreciated and underpaid.

WHAT WE THINK WE STILL DON’T KNOW

Who will get playing time at linebacker?

D’Qwell Jackson has been a starter for four years and Matt Roth immediately stepped into a starting role when claimed off waivers last year. But neither reported for OTAs and minicamp, leaving others to get plenty of repetitions in their spots.

Linebacker is the most competitive spot on the roster, and no one knows how the lineup and rotation will shake out. Jackson and Roth have signed their restricted free agent tenders and should be at training camp. But starting and roster spots aren’t guaranteed to Jackson, Roth or just about anyone else.

How long is the leash on coach Eric Mangini?

President Mike Holmgren continues to publicly support coach Eric Mangini. Mangini continues to say he enjoys the new front office setup that features Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.

But the good will will be severely tested under the furnace of the season, and especially when the first losing streak hits. Holmgren and his trusted aides intently watched practice from the field, just steps behind the huddle.

The dynamic is awkward, but Mangini and his staff will have to handle the pressure if they want to succeed. The feeling around the league is that Holmgren won’t wait long to dismiss Mangini if the season starts with a string of losses.

Who will start on the right side of the offensive line?

Floyd Womack at right guard and Tony Pashos at right tackle are the early favorites to be the combination to start the opener against Tampa Bay. But that’s far from settled.

Womack could swing to tackle, rookie Shawn Lauvao could start at guard, incumbent John St. Clair could keep his job at tackle and Pashos could move inside. Mangini loves versatility across the line, so he used a number of combinations throughout OTAs.

The line was at its best last year at the finish when Womack switched from guard to tackle and Rex Hadnot played guard. But Hadnot wasn’t re-signed.

If the right side can regain that form – and the running game can be as dominant as it was during the ending four-game winning streak – the Browns will have a powerful, talented line.

How much will Joshua Cribbs and Seneca Wallace share the field?

Mangini is committed to a diverse, tough-to-prepare-for offense, and in 2009 that meant Cribbs in the Wildcat. This season, Mangini promises a healthy dose of Cribbs, backup quarterback Wallace and a combination of both.

Cribbs was a college quarterback, while Wallace played some receiver with the Seahawks. Coordinator Brian Daboll will spend countless hours trying to find the best formations to confuse defenses.

Cribbs and Wallace’s time together will depend on their success.

What impact will top pick Joe Haden have?

When the Browns drafted Haden, a cornerback from Florida, with the No. 7 pick the quick assumption was he would immediately assume a starting spot.

But the Browns had traded for veteran Sheldon Brown earlier in the offseason, and that gave them options. Brown worked with the ones throughout offseason practices, while Haden saw limited reps with the starters.

Mangini insists learning the intricacies of playing NFL cornerback is more difficult than it seems, so Haden’s transition may take some time. If he doesn’t displace Brown or Eric Wright in the starting lineup, he’s expected to join them in nickel packages.

A team with as many weaknesses as the Browns needs its highest picks to excel – as quickly as possible. That applies to Haden, who could provide a boost to a secondary in the midst of an extreme makeover.