August 21, 2014

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Scott Petrak’s top 5 players to watch at Browns camp

Ninety players will report for the first training camp practice this afternoon.

Fifty-three will make the final roster in September.Everyone will have a hand in the Browns’ success or failure, but five, in particular, will play pivotal roles in 2013. They will also provide some of the most interesting story lines.

Here’s a look at those who should be watched closely throughout camp.

Brandon Weeden

The quarterback is vital every season, and Weeden this year is no exception.

As he enters his second season, he must impress a new regime and convince it he’s dedicated, consistent and clutch enough to be a quality starter for the next five years. If not, the Browns will once again go in search of the hard-to-find franchise quarterback.

The jury is still out following a .574 completion percentage, 17 interceptions and a 5-10 record as a rookie. But Weeden, 29, has made strides in his footwork and mechanics in the offseason and appears more comfortable in his leadership role.

Coach Rob Chudzinski refuses to name Weeden the starter, but it’s obvious he’s going to be the guy. He took all the first-team repetitions in the offseason and will continue to in camp. The organization just wants to make sure he earns his status.

If Weeden plays like a top-15 NFL quarterback, the Browns will surprise people.

Trent Richardson

The running back from Alabama must play like the No. 3 pick in the draft. A lot has happened since, but that’s what he was in 2012.

Richardson battled a lower-leg injury during the offseason that sidelined him for minicamp, but he reported healthy for training camp. A minor injury in May isn’t a big deal on its own, but Richardson had surgery on both ankles in high school, a second knee surgery last preseason and played much of the year with broken ribs.

It’s only his second year, but it’s time for Richardson to prove he can stay healthy.

It’s also time for him to show he’s a special back. That means more than 950 yards and a 3.6 average per carry, while continuing to get into the end zone (12 TDs in 2012).

The addition of veteran coordinator Norv Turner should be a boost. Turner likes to pound the ball with his workhorse, and Richardson fits the prototype.

As long as he stays healthy.

Paul Kruger

The team’s most expensive offseason addition (five years, $40 million) was mostly quiet during offseason practices. That’s expected to change when the games begin.

Kruger (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) was signed away from Baltimore to add to the pass rush at outside linebacker. He had nine sacks in the 2012 regular season and added 4.5 in the postseason, including two in the Super Bowl.

Kruger should be entering his prime. He’s 27 years old and didn’t become a starter until last season, when he opened six games. He has 15.5 career regular-season sacks.

If he can match last year’s production, the Browns will be happy.

Jordan Cameron

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound tight end has all the potential in the world. He’s athletic, jumps like the basketball player he used to be and has good hands.

All that’s missing is production. In two seasons, 22 games and eight starts, he has 26 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.

Cameron will be given the opportunity this year to establish himself as a core player. The Browns didn’t re-sign veterans Benjamin Watson and Alex Smith, then didn’t draft a tight end. Journeyman Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis were signed, but they’re viewed as backups. It’s Cameron’s time to shine.

He is expected to be the starter and should be a popular target in Turner’s tight end-friendly system. If he can’t stay healthy or fails to reach his potential, he may never get this chance again.

Leon McFadden

The Browns have options if McFadden, the third-round cornerback from San Diego State, isn’t ready for a starting role. They just don’t want to have to use them.

Chris Owens and Buster Skrine will compete with McFadden for the spot opposite Joe Haden. Owens and Skrine have experience in the NFL, but are better suited for work in the slot or as backups.

That’s where McFadden comes in. He’s only 5-9, but is a solid 195 pounds. The Browns drafted him because they believed he had the physical toughness to compete consistently as a starter on the outside.

If McFadden can win the job, that would allow Owens and Skrine to play in sub packages and give coordinator Ray Horton greater peace of mind.

But it’s no lock McFadden will be ready. He didn’t get much work with the first-team defense in May and June and must quickly get acclimated to an NFL training camp to give himself the best chance to compete.

FIVE POSITION BATTLES TO WATCH

* Kicker: Brandon Bogotay vs. Shayne Graham
Phil Dawson will be missed. The question is: How much?

*Cornerback: Leon McFadden (below) vs. Chris Owens vs. Buster Skrine
The Browns drafted McFadden in the third round to start, but he must prove he belongs.

* Backup quarterback: Jason Campbell vs. Brian Hoyer
Campbell enters with the edge, but Hoyer could push him and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Hoyer in the huddle if Brandon Weeden loses his starting job.

* Guard: Jason Pinkston vs. Shawn Lauvao
Veteran John Greco has a giant leg up to win one of the starting spots after signing a five-year deal Tuesday. That leaves Pinkston and Lauvao to fight for the other. If Pinkston is healthy after blood clots sidelined him last season, he’s the favorite.

* Punter: Spencer Lanning vs. T.J. Conley
Not as exciting as the kicking battle, but still important.