BEREA, Ohio — The sun was shining. A smattering of hip-hop—2 Pac, Birdman, Drake…of course—and classic rock echoed through the speakers. Thousands of Browns fans poured into the Cleveland Browns practice facility, all with hope in their back pockets, each of them getting their first look at the 2014 squad.
There were Superfans. There were signs. There was a little rain, but just enough to get some reporters to close their notebooks for a few minutes. There was Johnny. There was Brian. There was Josh and Jordan and the Joes. Some players rode bikes, others took part in what would stand to be the first day of two-and-a-half weeks of practice time before the collective is forced to synthesize all that’s been provided to them and turn it in to a product worthy of all the fan fare.
And boy was there fan fare.
ESPN had a tent propped up in the corner where a suited Bob Holtzman was forced to wipe his face off after every segment. NFL Network was streaming Browns Training Camp live on their television station as former Browns linebacker Willie McGinest stood by and soaked it all in. USA TODAY and Yahoo! Sports had representation. And don’t forget the typical array of local folks who showed up in droves.
Here are some quick notes on what the fans—and media members—were treated with in what was 2014’s maiden voyage.
• To little surprise, the defense clearly outplayed the offense through much of the intrasquad play. Early in the morning, second-year linebacker Barkevious Mingo made a terrific play in pass coverage, going full extension and hauling in an interception in the end zone. The play drew several hip-bumps and was the first play-drawn roar from the crowd on hand. The defensive backfield disrupted several passing plays and the pass-rush was well-timed.
• Safety Donte Whitner told WFNY that the defense was handed 21 new plays Friday night, each of them having roughly three new terms, that the defense was to learn by Saturday morning. They’ll be getting 21 new ones soon, but Whitner was impressed that the unit was able to learn all of these calls over night.
• Though signed an in camp, first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert ran with the second unit this morning with Buster Skrine starting opposite of Joe Haden. Skrine played very well, drawing some raucous applause when he chased running back Ben Tate down from behind and popped the ball loose toward the far sideline. Skrine, it should be noted, is also no longer the smallest player on the field as newly signed cornerback Isaiah Trufant is liberally listed at 5-foot-8.
• Skrine, when placed in the nickel, rushed the passer on more than one occasion. If you were excited about Mike Pettine’s defense before, this should only lead to increased anticipation.
• On the offensive side of the ball, Jordan Cameron, Miles Austin and Terrance West were the clear standouts. Cameron toasted would-be defenders in one-on-one drills in addition to hauling in a nice seam route pass from Brian Hoyer later in the morning which, in many instances, would’ve gone for six points.
• Terrance West drew several rounds of applause for his work in the passing game, making several tough catches out in the flat. The kid is a bowling ball and appears to have what it takes to transition smoothly to the NFL level. I’m excited about Ben Tate being a Brown, but this West kid could be special.
• It was tough to watch everything, but Miles Austin caught every pass I saw thrown his way. Pettine made sure to verbally applaud Austin following the practice, saying that the veteran receiver not only breezed through the conditioning drills, but did a great job in what was his first team activities since being signed. Nate Burleson, conversely, dropped a few passes and looked to be a bit rusty.
• Speaking of the conditioning test: Several Browns players, including defensive tackle Phil Taylor and tight end Gary Barnidge, have yet to pass it in multiple attempts. Each test is catered to the specific positions—Barkevious Mingo reportedly did so well in his that he would’ve passed the defensive back’s version—but they’re difficult. While Eric Mangini was big on running, Pettine appears very focused on making sure his players are up to snuff in the way of passing these sprint-heavy, timed exams. While there may be exceptions, it appears that players will not get to practice until they pass.
• If it wasn’t clear enough heading in to this weekend, Brian Hoyer is the Browns’ first-string quarterback. It took roughly 90 seconds for “Let’s go Hoyer” chants to permeate Berea as the St. Ignatius product walked on to the field. Not only is he running with the first team, he’s getting more repetitions, he’s throwing more passes, is the first to the podium following practice, and spent several minutes with team owner Jimmy Haslam. Following practice, Haslam iterated that while everyone is excited about Johnny Manziel, they should stop and smell the roses with Hoyer who is a great story in his own right—local kid, a quality guy and a class act. Hoyer was asked to put on weight this offseason and he was able to do so. Barring any injuries or unforeseen issues, it’d be a shock if Brian Hoyer was not under center come Week 1. Conversely, Hoyer also noted that “no one will cheer for a good guy if he’s 4-12.”
• Manziel looked good early, rolling primarily with the second unit and looking comfortable in doing so. He did appear to get a bit winded toward the end, frequently taking a knee when not taking snaps—”taking mental reps,” as he would call them. He addressed the media after practice, answering the same line of questions he has over the course of the offseason. In one of the more fan-friendly quotes of the day, when asked about his jersey sales, Manziel said that it’s not just his name or his number, but also the Browns.
• On the injury front, there is some growing concern about defensive lineman Billy Winn. Wynn failed his conditioning drill and was said to have pulled his hamstring. There were some concerns as rumblings grew about a potential tear, but Wynn was later seen jogging off of the field.
• Josh Gordon was on the field once again, but was transitioned between the starting and second units. Thinking may be that the team wants to get as many reps for players like Austin, Burleson and Andrew Hawkins alongside Hoyer as those will be the guys who will be playing come Week 1.
• I’ll be interested to read about and watch more of wide receiver Charles Johnson over the next few weeks. The kid—who was picked up off of Green Bay’s practice squad only to have a torn ACL—looks like an athletic freak on the field. In speaking with him, he seems humble and very appreciative of having an opportunity to make a difference for this team. The job could be his for the having given the impending Gordon news. We’ll see if he can be this year’s surprise.
(Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY)