November 26, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
33°F
test

Browns roster check: QBs in spotlight, RBs upgraded, WRs questioned

We’ve seen the rookies. We know the veterans. What’s yet to be determined is how they will mix.

The Browns will make a handful of roster moves before training camp begins in late July, and there are always a couple of minor changes during the preseason. But, by and large, the team that will take the field for the opener against Philadelphia has been constructed.

And it will be on display to the media for the first time Tuesday at a full-squad offseason practice.

This seems like a good time to ask, and answer: How’s the roster shaping up?

First of a two-part series: Offense.

Quarterbacks

No surprise here, but this position will receive the most ink, tweets and TV time until coach Pat Shurmur declares a starter.

Rookie Brandon Weeden has been the heavy favorite to win the job since he was taken with the No. 22 pick. His advanced age, 29 in October, only adds urgency.

Shurmur and the front office will continue to talk about a competition with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace, but unless something goes drastically wrong, Weeden will be the man on opening day.

His performance at the rookie minicamp did nothing to hurt his chances and certainly eased the minds of those inside Browns headquarters. He threw the ball well, looked the part and handled the media like a veteran.

The first step to being a big-time NFL quarterback is throwing the ball, and that’s what Weeden does best. The difference between him and McCoy was obvious from the first pass, and that’s not about to change when they go head-to-head the rest of the offseason and into training camp.

For Weeden, the challenge will be getting a thorough grasp of the offense, reading NFL defenses and handling the pass rush that was nonexistent at the rookie minicamp. Those are huge requirements for a quarterback, and the questions won’t be answered until training camp at the earliest.

Once the Browns settle on Weeden as the starter, the question becomes: Who will be the backup?

I feel it should be McCoy. He’s younger, cheaper and has a higher upside than Wallace. If something happened to Weeden that would sideline him for an extended period, McCoy is the better option.

The potential drawback is that McCoy’s presence could create a controversy. I think Weeden will prove clearly superior, so that won’t be an issue. McCoy also needs to realize he will be a backup anywhere he goes, so why not stay where he knows the system?
Running backs
Trent Richardson is the real deal and a freak. And I’m not just taking Weeden’s word for it.

Richardson hasn’t been in pads yet in the NFL, but his bodybuilder’s physique, gymnast’s balance and dancer’s feet were evident immediately to anyone who watched the five rookie practices. The inner drive he will use to make him one of the NFL’s elite backs was just as obvious in every interview.

As important as Weeden will be in a Browns turnaround, Richardson might be more crucial. If he’s healthy and as good as advertised, the Browns can ease Weeden into life in the AFC North and take some of the massive burden off the defense.

Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson can’t be happy about the addition of Richardson, but they aren’t No. 1 NFL backs and can help the team off the bench.

An interesting subplot in the backfield will be at fullback, where second-year pro Owen Marecic will have to hold off Brad Smelley, a rookie seventh-round pick. Smelley had the best camp of anyone not named Weeden or Richardson.

Wide receivers

The area of great angst for fans is a far lesser concern for the team’s decision makers.

Yes, they tried to sign Pierre Garcon and draft Kendall Wright. But general manager Tom Heckert won’t add a veteran just to add one. He believes the current group has the chance to make a big jump in 2012.

For that to happen, fourth-round pick Travis Benjamin must make an impact. He has the elite speed that was missing at the position last year, but has to improve his route running and prove he can get off the line against physical NFL cornerbacks.

The Browns are also counting on progress from the holdovers, especially youngsters Greg Little, Jordan Norwood and Carlton Mitchell. The key could be Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick in 2009 whose production hasn’t matched his physical tools. President Mike Holmgren expects big things out of Massaquoi, and the first key will be staying healthy.

Weeden should make this group better by opening the field and delivering the ball in better spots. But if the receivers hold back the offense again, Heckert will have nowhere to hide.

Offensive line

Always the smartest group on any team, Cleveland’s unit would make a mean academic challenge team. Mitchell Schwartz, a second-round pick from Cal, got a 34 out of 36 on the ACT and should fit right in with Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston.

Schwartz fills a sizable hole at right tackle, and fills all of it. He’s 6-foot-5¼ and 320 pounds with size 18 feet.
The group has the potential to be one of the league’s best as is, but could reach another level if veteran left guard Eric Steinbach is re-signed. He would allow Pinkston and Lauvao to compete at right guard and add depth that’s crucial on the line.

Steinbach is testing the market after the Browns elected not to pay his $6 million salary, but may find Cleveland his best option.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.