October 22, 2014

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Browns training camp preview: Top 5 position battles

5 POSITION BATTLES TO WATCH

QUARTERBACK

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer passes during organized team activities at the NFL football team's facility in Berea last month. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer passes during organized team activities at the NFL football team’s facility in Berea last month. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

The competition between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel has already received a ton of ink, and that will continue into camp. There’s no arguing it’s the most important position on the team, with two of its most popular players going head-to-head.

Hoyer enters camp as the starter, and coach Mike Pettine said it will be difficult for the rookie Manziel to overtake him. The key for Manziel will be putting his partying in the past, mastering the playbook and re-creating the magic that inspired the Browns to trade up to draft him at No. 22.

Hoyer has declared himself 100 percent healthy for a while now after surgery last year to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. If he can remain healthy and keep up his solid play, he should get the chance he’s been waiting a lifetime for: a start for his hometown team in the opener at Pittsburgh.

RUNNING BACK
Ben Tate has waited his career for the chance to be a No. 1 back, which is why he signed with the Browns as a free agent. But Terrance West was drafted out of Towson in the third round, and Pettine expects a tight battle.

Tate has a solid pedigree as the backup in Houston for Arian Foster — 942 yards in 2011 — but he’s been bothered by injuries. He’s well-versed in coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme and should have an early advantage.

West didn’t appear intimidated in the offseason program and brings his own set of impressive numbers – 4,849 yards and 84 touchdowns in 37 college games. He’ll have to adjust to the giant step up in competition while grasping the intricacies of the offense.

The coaching staff has yet to see either in pads, so camp and the preseason will determine who gets the the bulk of the carries in Shanahan’s system.

WIDE RECEIVER
There’s nothing clear-cut about the competition at receiver.

All-Pro Josh Gordon will likely be suspended, leaving a huge void. The list of candidates to take his spot is long but filled with question marks.

Nate Burleson and Miles Austin are veterans with quality track records, but both have battled injuries. Andrew Hawkins had a great offseason after being signed away from Cincinnati, but he’s only 5-foot-7, 180 pounds and has also had injury issues.

Charles Johnson (6-2, 215) has the physical tools to get the coaches’ attention, but he’s inexperienced and coming off a torn ACL. Travis Benjamin is one of the fastest guys in the league but is also returning from a torn ACL. Anthony Armstrong is trying to recapture his youth at 31 and after a year out of the NFL.

The coaches will try to mask the position’s deficiencies through formation and scheme, but at least a couple of the wideouts must step to the forefront if the Browns are to have the balanced offense they desire.

GUARD
Last year’s starter John Greco, second-round pick Joel Bitonio and free-agent pickup Paul McQuistan are the top candidates for the two starting guard spots, but second-year pro Garrett Gilkey could be a dark horse.

Greco and Bitonio are the early favorites after taking many of the offseason reps, but McQuistan has 52 career starts, including 14 last year for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Gilkey filled in with the starters during minicamp when Bitonio was sidelined with a high ankle sprain.

Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack are Pro Bowlers, so if the guards live up to expectations and thrive in Shanahan’s scheme that relies on movement from the linemen, the Browns have the potential for an elite front five.

INSIDE LINEBACKER
Craig Robertson was a success story prior to last season. He went from undrafted to starter, and then-defensive coordinator Ray Horton referred to him as an “ace in the hole.”

Then the games began, and Robertson struggled in the spotlight. He started all 14 games he played and amassed 85 tackles, three sacks and an interception, but was picked on in pass coverage. He couldn’t keep up with running backs and tight ends, and it cost the defense dearly.

Enter Chris Kirksey, a rookie third-round pick from Iowa. He was drafted to challenge Robertson and hopefully be an upgrade next to marquee free-agent signee Karlos Dansby.

Kirksey was clearly adjusting to the NFL during OTAs and minicamp, but has the size (6-2, 235) and athleticism to succeed in coverage. If he proves to be strong enough against the run, he could steal Robertson’s job. If not, the coaches could go with a platoon – Robertson in run situations and Kirksey against the pass.

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

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