April 16, 2014

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Browns: 10 people/issues to watch as training camp opens

Rookie quarterback. Rookie running back. At least two rookie receivers. New offensive coordinator.
Pat Shurmur’s second season as Browns coach cranks up today with the first
full-squad practice of training camp. He has a normal offseason under this belt after being deprived of one last year by the lockout, is more comfortable in his role and should benefit from the addition of old friend and former Vikings head coach Brad Childress as offensive coordinator.
But there is plenty of uncertainty for Shurmur, who was sharply criticized in his first year as a head coach in 2011 and is desperate to improve on the 4-12 record.
General manager Tom Heckert used the drafts — normal and supplemental — to overhaul the offense. He drafted running back Trent Richardson No. 3, quarterback Brandon Weeden No. 22, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in the second round and receiver Travis Benjamin in the fourth. He then surprised many by taking receiver Josh Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft.
Heckert is counting on the youngsters to reverse the fortunes of an offense that ranked 30th in scoring
(13.6 points per game). It’s Shurmur’s job to get them ready — in a hurry.
The mission fully begins this afternoon with a practice at
2 p.m. Camp opens to the public Saturday with a practice at 8:45 a.m. The first practice in pads will be Sunday morning at 8:45.
Football season has arrived. That’s great news for the screaming, barking, booing Browns fans.
Here are the top 10 people/issues to watch in camp and the preseason:

New ‘kid’ in town
Brandon Weeden hasn’t officially been named the starting quarterback, but the plan is for him to be the guy in the huddle Sept. 9 when the season opens against Philadelphia.
He will turn 29 in October and took the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense throughout minicamps and OTAs. Weeden looked great throwing the ball and comfortable leading his more experienced — but often younger — teammates.
The biggest questions remaining for Weeden are how quickly he can master the intricacies of coach Pat Shurmur’s precision West Coast Offense, and how he will handle the intense pocket pressure he was largely spared in the spread attack of Oklahoma State.
Weeden’s strong arm and accuracy should open up the playbook for Shurmur and coordinator Brad Childress. But scouts aren’t convinced he can maintain his footwork and accuracy when the pocket begins to crumble.
The first real test will come Aug. 10 in the preseason opener in Detroit. Ndamukong Suh will be coming for Weeden.
If the Browns are going to take the significant jump president Mike Holmgren has promised, Weeden must perform like a veteran.

So long, Colt?
What? You thought we’d have a list with only one quarterback? Not in Cleveland.
There’s no quarterback controversy this season — and a competition in name only — but there is intrigue, and much of it surrounds Colt McCoy.
He’s just 6-15 as a starter in his two seasons, but remains a favorite among a vocal group of fans who think he was never given a fair shot. If Weeden falters badly or gets hurt, McCoy will get the chance to prove his supporters right. If not, McCoy could find himself in a new uniform when the season begins.
McCoy has said he wants to finish the job in Cleveland, but a fresh start might be best for his career. The Browns clearly feel he isn’t talented enough to match up with division rivals Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton and view him as a backup.
The rest of the league appears to feel the same way and there has been no trade market for McCoy. That could change if Philadelphia, Green Bay or New Orleans suffers an injury in camp. If the Browns get a decent offer — a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick — they will instantly move him. If not, Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert will have to decide if the team is best served by keeping McCoy, and any potential distractions that might entail.
Veteran backup Seneca Wallace adds a little more spice to the scenario. He has the experience coming off the bench McCoy doesn’t have, but is six years older and due to make nearly $2 million more in 2012. The odds of Weeden, McCoy and Wallace being on the opening-day roster are slim.

Ready to run
When the Browns drafted running back Trent Richardson with the No. 3 pick, McCoy excitedly welcomed him in a tweet. McCoy realized what a reliable and extremely talented running back can do for a quarterback. He just didn’t know Weeden would be the one reaping the benefits.
Richardson will be the starter from Day 1 and is being counted on to occupy the attention of defenses. He was the best back in college football last year, rushing for 1,679 yards and leading Alabama to the national championship. He’s a dynamo of muscle at 5-foot-9, 230 pounds and is valuable running, catching and blocking.
Shurmur and Childress have committed to their feature backs in the past, so it’s safe to assume the game plans will revolve around Richardson. If he lives up to expectations early — and running backs often do — the burden on Weeden will be much lighter.

Receiving attention
Our national nightmare is over.
OK, that’s a little over the top. First of all, it’s a local nightmare. Secondly, it’s too early to tell if the Browns have fixed their receiving corps. But there’s reason for optimism.
The Browns went out on a limb and took Josh Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft. He has a rare size-speed combination to go with good hands. They also drafted speedster Travis Benjamin in the fourth round and signed undrafted rookie Josh Cooper.
Cooper isn’t a lock to make the team, but Gordon and Benjamin are expected to make an early impact. If they do, the Browns might finally have some quality depth at receiver. A rotation of Greg Little, Gordon, Mohamed Massaquoi, Benjamin, Joshua Cribbs and Jordan Norwood should give the coaches and quarterback options that have been missing since the fluke season of 2007.

The replacements
Offense will dominate the discussion throughout camp, but we must turn to the other side of the ball momentarily.
Second-year defensive tackle Phil Taylor is out indefinitely with a torn pectoral muscle suffered lifting weights in the offseason, opening a 6-3, 335-pound hole in the middle of the line. The Browns don’t have a fill-in of equal talent, but will try to plug the gap from among veterans Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering and rookies John Hughes (third round) and Billy Winn (sixth).
Paxson lined up with the starters in the offseason but could be pushed by the rookies if one catches on quickly. The Browns hope Taylor will be back by November.
A shorter-term problem will be replacing outside linebacker Scott Fujita, who’s suspended for the first three games for his alleged role in the Saints’ bounty scandal. A lawsuit has been filed to allow Fujita to play, but the Browns must proceed as if they won’t have Fujita to open the year.
Coordinator Dick Jauron expects Kaluka Maiava, who’s entering his fourth season, to start on the weak side with Chris Gocong sliding into Fujita’s spot on the strong side. But rookie fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson could surprise with a strong preseason.
It will be interesting to see how the Browns balance preparing Fujita for the season with getting his replacement ready for the opening stretch.

Josh’s jobs
Cribbs has been one of the few bright spots — and often the most electrifying — during his seven seasons in Cleveland. He’s returned kicks and covered kicks, played receiver and lined up as Wildcat quarterback. He’s scored touchdowns on kickoff returns, punt returns, rushes and receptions.
But the fan favorite is in the final year of his renegotiated contract, which will pay him $1.4 million in 2012, and his future is a bit cloudy. Cribbs said recently he wants to finish his career in Cleveland and will do his best this year to prove his worth.
But the team’s hierarchy doesn’t seem as committed to him.
President Mike Holmgren wants Cribbs to focus on special teams. Shurmur doesn’t like the Wildcat. And the addition of multiple young receivers seems certain to cut Cribbs’ time on offense. The change in the kickoff rules that limited returns in 2011 also lowers his value.
Cribbs, 29, will play hard in whatever role he’s given and make an impact. But the end of his time in Cleveland could come sooner than he wishes.

Backup plan
Richardson will get the bulk of the playing time, but no running back carries the entire load. So Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson will battle in the preseason to see who gets to spell Richardson. If Jackson gets the nod, Hardesty could be looking for a new home come cutdown day.
Hardesty was supposed to be the answer at running back when Heckert traded up to draft him in the second round in 2010. But Hardesty hasn’t been able to stay healthy and was marginalized further by the drafting of Richardson. He has talent and could be a nice change of pace but must prove he can stay healthy.
Jackson has also been a disappointment in his short time with the Browns. He was one of the few free-agent signings in 2011, then missed the entire season with a toe injury. He is healthy again, catches better than Hardesty and could find a role as a third-down back.
Chris Ogbonnaya doesn’t have the talent of Hardesty, but he was solid after joining the team at midseason last year and is stronger on special teams.

Young guns
When the Browns cut high-priced veteran left guard Eric Steinbach in March, it signaled a commitment to the youth movement at guard. Shawn Lauvao (right) and Jason Pinkston (left) started every game in 2011 with Steinbach sidelined by back surgery and showed Heckert enough for him to entrust them with the starting jobs for the foreseeable future.
Lauvao enters his third season after being drafted in the third round by former coach Eric Mangini. Pinkston was a fifth-rounder in 2011 and did a commendable job after being pressed into service by the Steinbach injury. The tandem isn’t a finished product but has good size and intelligence.
Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, 27, is the senior member of the starting line, so the group should be together for a long time and could form a solid foundation for the offense.

One big hit away
Tight end Benjamin Watson suffered a concussion during the first practice of camp last season. It was the first of three for the season, and Watson spent the final three games on injured reserve.
Watson, 31, has been cleared by multiple experts and is eager to continue his career. But another concussion or two could force him, and his family, to reconsider.
Fullback Owen Marecic, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and tight end Evan Moore have also suffered multiple concussions over the last couple of years. Concussions are a hot topic in the NFL, and players can no longer ignore the potential consequences.

First at safety
The battles for starting spots are limited this camp, but there’s a pretty good one at free safety. Eric Hagg, a seventh-round pick in 2011, worked with the first-team defense throughout the minicamps and OTAs, but veteran Usama Young won’t go to the bench without a fight.
Hagg (6-1, 205) recovered from a preseason knee injury to play 10 games last season, working into a rotation at free safety. He brings size and smarts and the coaches like his potential.
Young (6-0, 200) signed as a free agent last season with the assumption of starting but never passed Mike Adams on the depth chart. Young wound up starting eight games when strong safety T.J. Ward got injured and could be better suited there, where he can play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.