BEREA — The ironman of the Browns’ linebacker corps is no longer indestructible.
Versatile veteran Chris Gocong, who started every game for Cleveland in 2010 and ’11, suffered a season-ending torn right Achilles tendon Saturday morning at training camp.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur said the seventh-year pro will undergo surgery as early as Monday, leaving the team with a major hole to fill at weak-side linebacker.
“It’s hard to see that happen to anybody, but it’s especially tough after watching how far Chris has come as a player in the last couple of years,” strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita said. “The selfish part for us is he’s a guy we enjoy being around every day and is a great teammate.
“He came into training camp in such great shape and was making so many plays, it’s really unfortunate this happened to him now.”
With fellow starter Fujita suspended by the NFL for three games as a result of his part in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program, Cleveland will be without two of its top defensive players to begin the year.
The leading candidates to take their spots are three-year veteran Kaluka Maiava and fourth-round draft pick James-Michael Johnson. Sixth-round selection Emmanuel Acho, Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort also will be given an opportunity to earn playing time.
Gocong made 67 tackles, including a career-high 3½ sacks, and forced two fumbles last season.
“We’ve got some tough competition in our position room, but losing someone like Chris is really going to hurt,” middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “Like we saw last year, Chris can play all three positions, which is rare. Myself, I really can’t play Sam (strong side) because it’s totally different. He’s comfortable at Sam, Mike (middle) and Will (weak side).”
Gocong, 28, was hurt during practice while in pass coverage against tight end Jordan Cameron. He attempted to jump and make a play on a ball thrown into the end zone by Brandon Weeden, but never got off the ground as his right leg buckled.
The 6-foot-2, 265-pounder immediately grabbed the back of his lower calf and loudly cursed twice, remaining prone on the grass while trainers assessed the situation. Gocong then was placed on a cart, where Fujita cradled his head and consoled him before he was driven into the fieldhouse.
Gocong left the Browns’ headquarters on crutches and later tweeted, “Thanks for all the love from Cleveland nation. Best fans. Firm handshakes all around.”
The standard rehabilitation period for a torn Achilles is six to nine months, so Gocong should be ready for the start of training camp in 2013. He will have two seasons left on a three-year, $16.8 million contract.
Punter Reggie Hodges can empathize with his teammate, having suffered the same non-contact injury one year and two days earlier at a training camp practice.
Hodges praised Browns trainer Joe Sheehan and assistant Andre Tucker for doing “such a good job getting me back and ready to go. I was ready to roll a while before camp even started.”
From a mental standpoint, however, he said Gocong will have a major hurdle to clear.
“I still remember the sound of it popping and not being able to get off the ground,” Hodges said. “That never leaves your mind, but physically, I’m 100 percent ready and feel great. I can’t wait for the season to get started.”
While Gocong and defensive tackle Phil Taylor (left pectoral surgery) will not be in uniform when Cleveland opens its regular season Sept. 9 against Philadelphia, Fujita still hopes he can play in Week 1.
The prominent NFL Players Association advocate had his lawyers file a court brief Friday, seeking to have his suspension overturned. There will be a hearing Friday, the same day the Browns play at Detroit in their first preseason game.
“I’ll be with this team in Detroit,” Fujita said. “My focus in training camp has to be on football, but I get debriefed every few days. I’m hoping for the best.”
Should Cleveland seek outside help at linebacker, it will find slim pickings until other teams begin to reduce their rosters. Brady Poppinga, Ernie Sims, one-time Browns starter Kevin Bentley and Ohio State product Na’il Diggs are among the name players on the market.
“We’re going to have to evaluate that,” Shurmur said. “I’m very fond of the effort Chris puts in to be a good football player, but nothing can stop the train. We’ve got to keep going.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.