BEREA — Cornerback Joe Haden expects to follow speedy Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace all over the field Sunday in the season opener.
That takes care of one worry for the Browns.
The bigger concern is what happens when Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill throws away from Haden. Buster Skrine will get the start on the other side, Chris Owens will play against three-receiver sets and rookie Leon McFadden is fourth in line.
The Browns have four corners on the 53-man roster, and three of them are question marks. Skrine has started six games in two years, Owens 12 in four and McFadden was humbled in his first two preseason games out of San Diego State.
“I trust that group,” coach Rob Chudzinski said Wednesday. “(Defensive coordinator) Ray (Horton) does a great job overall, and we’ll do everything we can to put our guys in a position to win.”
The Dolphins provide a good first test for the secondary. Tannehill, the No. 8 pick in 2012, expects to make a jump after an inconsistent rookie season and will have Wallace, Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson as his primary targets.
“He’s a young guy. You can see how he’s grasping things on the field,” Chudzinski said of Tannehill. “He’s extremely talented. He’s got a great arm, very accurate. He can really run.”
Hartline, an Ohio State graduate, caught 74 passes for 1,083 yards and a touchdown in 2012. Gibson signed with Miami as a free agent in the offseason. He started 34 games with St. Louis the last three years, totaling140 catches for 1,742 yards and eight touchdowns
“They’re really good. They’re solid,” Haden said. “I wouldn’t say Tannehill is Tom Brady, but he’s definitely a solid quarterback and I think our defense and front seven will be able to just get in there and put pressure on him and try to get him uncomfortable.”
The defensive backs would appreciate the help. Even if they’re too proud to admit it.
Because Skrine will start and is a popular target for angry fans, the sharpest focus will be on him. He gave up too many completions and was called for too many penalties for making too much contact last year. But the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder never stopped fighting.
With better technique and the experience of two seasons, he was among the most improved players in training camp and the preseason. It remains to be seen if the fifth-rounder from Chattanooga has what it takes to be an NFL starter.
“It feels good to be named the starter for Week 1,” he said. “It shows that my coaches have a lot of confidence in me, and I just want to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I became a smarter player this offseason. I recognize a lot more things than I did last year.”
“Buster’s proven himself again and again after challenges,” Haden said. “He’s improving, doing better, knowing his job.”
Skrine beat out Owens for the starting job, but was helped when Owens missed three preseason games with a foot injury. Skrine will move inside in nickel situations and Owens will line up outside.
Owens (5-9, 180) was a third-round pick of the Falcons in 2009 and started six games as a rookie. He fell out of favor and wasn’t re-signed.
“C.O., he’s a talented player,” Haden said. “He’s been in the league for a while now, so I’m not really worried about what he can do on the field, just about him staying healthy.”
When McFadden (5-9, 195) was drafted in the third round, the team’s hope was he would win a starting job by Week 1. Instead, the adjustment was slow, then he injured his groin just as he was getting more comfortable. He missed the first two preseason games along with valuable practice time.
When he returned, he might as well have been wearing a “kick me” sign on his back. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the Chicago backups targeted him in the last two weeks of the preseason, and McFadden gave up several completions, including a couple of long ones.
“I took that like I’m a rookie, I expected them to pick on me,” he said. “I feel like those two preseason games prepared me to go forward. Correcting those mistakes in practice so I won’t have them during the season.”
Haden isn’t backing down from the challenge of covering Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Dolphins after four years in Pittsburgh. Wallace has had only mild success against Haden and the Browns, catching 16 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.
It won’t be a walk in the park for Haden; when Wallace is around, you better wear your running shoes.
“He has rare speed,” Chudzinski said. “He can run by and get behind guys.”
“It’s always good to go against talent like that because going against the best is the way you get to measure yourself,” Haden said.
Haden’s camp performance was a confidence boost for the defense and new coaching staff. He was the best player on the field just about every day and made the plays to prove it.
“I feel like being able to follow around the No. 1 receiver is my job,” he said. “It’s no more pressure than what I already have on myself.”
But he can only cover one receiver at a time.
“I’m very comfortable with everybody out there,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “Good as gold.”
Four cornerbacks on the roster don’t seem like enough, but Chudzinski called it pretty common. He noted that safeties Johnson Bademosi, Tashaun Gipson and Josh Aubrey have experience playing cornerback.
“Our secondary always has a chip on our shoulder,” Skrine said. “We’ve got some good players in the secondary and we’re just looking to go and show it on the field.”
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