September 2, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Browns have plenty of concerns as the season opener approaches

The dreadful preseason finale has finally come and gone, so the focus can shift completely to the regular season.

The Browns had four preseason games and more than a month of practices to get ready, yet many questions remain unanswered. Injuries and a lack of expected development from some players have the front office scrambling to add depth at certain spots while knowing full well doubts at some positions will linger into the season.

Here are the five areas of most concern with a week left until the games count. Miami visits Sept. 8.

Insurance for Trent

Plan A: Hand and throw the ball to running back Trent Richardson.
Plan B: There isn’t one.
Montario Hardesty (hamstring, hand, knee) and Dion Lewis (broken leg) were placed on season-ending injured reserved, removing the first two backups to Richardson. Chris Ogbonnaya was a pleasant surprise as an emergency fill-in the last two years, but he has become the No. 1 fullback and was never a legitimate No. 2 tailback.
Brandon Jackson is a reliable, veteran presence who could play on third downs, but he averaged only 1.5 yards on 28 preseason carries. His lack of burst and two years of inactivity suggest he can’t handle extensive time as the lead back.
The Browns’ best option is claiming a change-of-pace back off waivers — or trading for one — to replace Lewis and allow coordinator Norv Turner to call his complete game. The other key part of the plan: Make sure Richardson stays healthy.

Backed into a corner

The Browns will use three or four cornerbacks at a time this season to match up with three- and four-receiver sets. That sounds like trouble for the Browns.

Joe Haden is locked in as the No. 1 corner. Buster Skrine appears set at No. 2. After that are questions.

Chris Owens has played a lot of snaps in the league, but has missed much of the preseason with a foot injury. He should be back for Week 1, but how ready will he be?

Next is third-round pick Leon McFadden, who recovered from a groin injury in time to be picked on by the Colts and Bears.

McFadden has an upside, but it isn’t around the corner. If he has to cover the opponent’s second or third receiver anytime soon, he should expect a lot of balls thrown in his direction.

Cornerbacks are precious commodities, so the Browns might not find one they like on the waiver wire.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s plan to attack the quarterback will help the cornerbacks. But they still must cover.

Kicking quandary

The place-kicking job was rookie Brandon Bogotay’s to lose, and he did just that by sitting out the last three games with a groin injury. Veteran Shayne Graham was next in line, but missed the finale with back tightness and doesn’t have the power leg ideal for long-distance field goals and deep kickoffs. He will likely open the season with the Browns, but could be replaced with a younger veteran at any point.

Punter Spencer Lanning endeared himself to the coaching staff by filling in for Graham and making two of three field goals against Chicago. He’s also been solid punting — 46.9 average — but got a late challenge from waiver-wire pickup Colton Schmidt. Lanning probably won the job, but the leash won’t be long.

Here’s the catch

The Browns have four receivers they trust, to varying degrees — Josh Gordon, Greg Little, Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin. That’s enough for most games, but the problem is Gordon will be suspended for the first two weeks.

Next in line are David Nelson and Josh Cooper. Not exactly Paul Warfield and Gary Collins.

Nelson has the size desired at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, but hasn’t found his footing since tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the 2012 season opener. He made his preseason debut Thursday, caught four passes, dropped one, slipped twice and limped a few times.

“He’s not ready to play winning football yet,” TV analyst Bernie Kosar said.

That leaves Cooper, a decent slot receiver but nothing more. If a young wideout with potential is cut loose by another team, the Browns should pounce.

Mingo mystery

Multiple national outlets reported rookie Barkevious Mingo is expected to miss Week 1 but return for Week 2 at Baltimore.

The Browns aren’t ready to make that conclusion and will rely on more tests, which are expected to be taken Monday. Mingo, the No. 6 pick in the draft, has been out since Aug. 15 with a bruised lung but has begun light running and work in the weight room.

Coach Rob Chudzinski said Thursday night the next several days “will be big and we will see where it goes.”

The Browns want to use Mingo as a pass rusher and substitute outside linebacker. They can survive without him for a week or two, but would miss his athleticism and need him to make an impact in his first season.

Good showing

Not everything is gloom and doom. The Browns have a deep front seven, a strong starting offensive line and three respectable quarterbacks.

Third-stringer Brian Hoyer showed why general manager Michael Lombardi coveted him with a strong performance against the Bears. He was pressed into starting duty when Brandon Weeden rested and Jason Campbell had the flu, and Hoyer played the whole game.

He had plenty of ups and downs — 24-for-35 for 307 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions — but showed good command of the offense and made the right decisions most of the night. He’s not in the discussion as a starter, but gives the Browns two solid backups.

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