November 25, 2014

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Plenty to watch as training camp approaches, especially these top 5 issues

The time has arrived. On Saturday morning at 9:30, breathless Browns fans will finally get a chance to watch Johnny Manziel practice up close and personal. The rookie quarterback that energized the fan base when he was drafted in May will join 89 teammates, rookie coach Mike Pettine and his new coaching staff as they open training camp and begin the march toward the regular season.

With all the offseason workouts, OTAs and minicamps — and the extensive media coverage they receive — the start of training camp doesn’t always bring the buzz it did in decades past. It does this year in Browns Town.

Johnny Football is the biggest reason — even though he’s No. 2 on the depth chart. The Heisman Trophy winner and NFL leader in jersey sales has captured the attention of the local fan base and national media with his seat-of-the-pants playing style and rock-star lifestyle.

Even without Manziel, the start of training camp is special and remains an important day on the calendar. Football is back, and it will start Saturday in front of a capacity crowd at team headquarters in Berea. (Note: This could be the final season for training camp there. Pettine would like to go off site for camp in the future, and the organization is exploring options.)

It’s an exciting time to live in Northeast Ohio and be a Cleveland sports fan. Manziel is here, LeBron James is back and the Republican National Convention is coming.

If the Browns could just put together a respectable and enjoyable season — their last winning season was in 2007 — it would provide another LeBron-sized jolt to the community.

TOP ISSUES

ANOTHER NEW COACH
You thought it would be a certain position battle leading the list, but you’ll have to wait.

The coach still has a tremendous impact on a football team, and Pettine is next into the revolving door known as the Browns sidelines. He’s the third coach in three years and fourth in five, but plans to stick around awhile.

Pettine is smart, tough and apparently not afraid of a challenge. He handled a rocky start to his tenure – the firing of the men who hired him and reports of the organization’s run at 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh – with grace and has made a strong first impression.

Of course, Pettine hasn’t lost a game. Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski arrived with confidence and left broken.

Owner Jimmy Haslam believes Pettine is different.

Pettine will be faced with a couple of big issues right away: handling a likely suspension of receiver Josh Gordon, and the quarterback competition between Manziel and homegrown incumbent Brian Hoyer.

All coaches think they can manage the Cleveland quarterback circus — until they’re knee-deep in elephant droppings. Pettine vows to stay strong, ignore external pressure and start the man that gives the team the best chance to win. That might be easier said than done.

THE BATTLE
The Browns have staged too many quarterback competitions/controversies in the last 15 years to detail in this space. But I can’t resist dropping a few names of the combatants – Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy.

None of the battles had the layers of Hoyer vs. Manziel.

Yes, Hoyer should be listed first.

He’s the local kid who’s undefeated as a Browns starter. That’s only three games — he couldn’t finish No. 3 after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament — but they left an impression on Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.

As much as his game tape left a mark, what Hoyer did after the season-ending surgery really stood out. He worked relentlessly to recover from the ACL and declared himself full-go for camp. Farmer and Pettine noticed and installed Hoyer the favorite to start the opener Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh.

That was before Manziel started making his weekly stops on TMZ.com.

As popular as Manziel is among fans — he led the Browns to change the attendance rules for camp, implementing advance registration online — Hoyer also has strong support, and leading a playoff trip for his hometown team would be the best story since Bernie Kosar did the same nearly three decades ago.

It will be interesting to see how the fans react to the quarterbacks during camp and the preseason. And how they treat Hoyer if he struggles to open the season.

Manziel energized the fan base and made the Browns a national story when he was drafted No. 22 in May. He was the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and was the most exciting player in college football in his two seasons at Texas A&M.

He’s a major celebrity who continues to make headlines with partying that is chronicled thoroughly on social media. On the field, Manziel is best at improvisation and must prove in practice and the preseason he can play from the pocket and make the necessary throws into the tight windows.

It won’t be easy for Manziel to supplant Hoyer.

“I would say it’s a tall task,” Pettine told The Chronicle-Telegram on Wednesday. “It will be difficult.”

GOODBYE, GORDON
The Browns know a suspension of Gordon, their All-Pro receiver, is coming. They just don’t know how many games he’ll be forced to miss.

Gordon reportedly failed a drug test in the offseason, and a hearing is reportedly scheduled for Aug. 1. The DWI arrest earlier this month can’t help the argument of agent Drew Rosenhaus.

The best-case scenario for Gordon and the Browns is he’s suspended for eight or 10 games, and is allowed to practice and play in the preseason and remain with the team during the suspension in the regular season. The worst case is he’s suspended indefinitely, can’t apply for reinstatement for a year and must avoid contact with the organization.

Gordon can’t be replaced – something Pettine readily admits — but the Browns must find an alternative at receiver to help whoever is at quarterback. They have plenty of candidates – Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, Charles Johnson, Travis Benjamin, Anthony Armstrong – but all have flaws. Coordinator Kyle Shanahan and receivers coach Mike McDaniel are charged with hiding those blemishes and finding the most productive combinations.

The wild card could be Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound specimen who’s yet to practice in Cleveland. He was signed off the Packers’ practice squad last year, but arrived with a torn ACL. He’s finally been cleared to practice, and Farmer expects good things.

SPEED UP THE RUSH
Pettine is a head coach because of his work as a defensive coordinator with the Jets and Bills.

In his only season with the Bills in 2013, Buffalo set a franchise record with 57 sacks. Pettine and first-time coordinator Jim O’Neil – who followed Pettine from New York to Buffalo to Cleveland – must replicate that success with the Browns.

The key will be unleashing outside linebackers Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo, to go along with the always steady Jabaal Sheard.

Kruger and Mingo were the biggest offseason additions in 2013. Kruger signed a $40.5 million deal as a free agent to leave the Ravens, and Mingo was the No. 6 pick in the draft. Kruger had 4.5 sacks and Mingo five.

Not enough.

Pettine and O’Neil will rely on their sophisticated scheme to create mismatches and pump up the sack numbers, and the improved depth at cornerback should help to free the front seven to rush the passer. But Kruger and Mingo must win the one-on-one battles to have the impact for which they were signed.

The improved pass rush should be obvious in camp and the preseason, then really be unleashed in Pittsburgh on opening day.

SUDDEN IMPACT
A team that has lost as long as Cleveland has needs its rookie class to excel in order to have a chance at a dramatic turnaround.

Cornerback Justin Gilbert, Manziel, guard Joel Bitonio, running back Terrance West and inside linebacker Chris Kirksey give the Browns that chance. The aforementioned five have the opportunity to earn starting spots, with Manziel perhaps the longest shot.

Gilbert signed Wednesday and will battle incumbent Buster Skrine for the spot opposite Joe Haden. As the No. 8 pick, Gilbert is expected to be in the starting lineup when the season opens.

Bitonio, a second-round pick, was the only rookie to consistently run with the first team during the offseason, until he suffered a high ankle sprain. He’s healthy and should hold down one of the guard spots.

Pettine expects West, a third-rounder, to push Ben Tate to be the primary ball carrier in an offense that expects to be run-heavy. Kirksey’s coverage skills give him a legitimate chance to replace Craig Robertson next to Karlos Dansby, at least in passing situations.

The Browns would be even better off if they get production from under-the-radar rookies like cornerback Pierre Desir, running back Isaiah Crowell and receivers Willie Snead and Chandler Jones.

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

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