As we’re on the precipice of Cleveland Browns training camp, I couldn’t be more excited to see who steps up. The Browns have a lot of question marks as any team should coming off a four-win season. The good news is that there are a lot of new faces to address many of the obvious holes we all complained about at the end of last season. Offensive line, cornerback, linebacker and running back were all areas targeted by the Browns’ front office1 Without further ado, here are my five most intriguing training camp players.
One of the keys to any football team is the play of the offensive line. The Browns used a pretty premier draft pick this season when they decided to nab Joel Bitonio, who for now is still an unknown as either a tackle or a guard. Bitonio suffered an ankle sprain during mini-camp, but indications are that he’ll be ready for training camp and it will be fun to watch some new blood push (pun intended) for a spot in the Browns’ offensive line.
Will he push Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle? Will he push John Greco at offensive guard? Will he slide nicely into the guard spot between Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz? One thing that’s almost certain is that he’s going to bring a nastiness and physicality to the team if he’s good enough to crack the lineup. And if the Browns did a good job scouting and drafting, you have to believe Bitonio was hand-selected to fit in with Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme.
No. 4 – Ben Tate
While many will obsess about the quarterback battle between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, I think the real player to watch might be Ben Tate. The Browns passing attack is an unknown quantity and coming out of last season their rushing attack was even worse. 377 yards for Willis McGahee, 240 for Chris Ogbonnaya, 171 for Edwin Baker and 107 for Jason Campbell who narrowly edged out Trent Richardson who had 105 yards in two games before being traded. Let’s just say it wasn’t a shock when the Browns signed Ben Tate to a two-year deal in March.
Tate will spend camp trying to escape the shadow of Arian Foster once and for all. This will be the first time in his career that Ben Tate will be the number one running back on an NFL team not due to injury. The Browns’ expectations on him have got to be high and for his part, he doesn’t seem to mind with a confidence that borders on arrogance. All the while, he must create a shadow big enough to keep third-rounder Terrance West out of the spotlight.
The Browns’ fate on offense might depend on it. While everyone’s watching the battle between a career backup in Brian Hoyer and a high-profile rookie in Johnny Manziel, the fact remains that the Browns very well might focus Kyle Shanahan’s offense on running the ball with frequency. This could especially be true given Josh Gordon’s up-in-the-air status.
No. 3 – Jordan Cameron
The Browns’ tight end might consider himself a “pass catcher” instead of a tight end, but regardless, his training camp will be very intriguing to me. The Browns are still waiting on word about Josh Gordon and what his status will be for 2014, and with all due respect to Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and the rest of the new faces in the receiving corps, there might not be anybody more important to the Browns’ passing attack than Jordan Cameron.
Consider that the Browns tight end caught 80 balls for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games in 2013. Also, start to ask yourself if you are going to try and pass the ball in the red zone in 2014 and Josh Gordon isn’t available, who are you going to look for? The answer is quite obviously Jordan Cameron. Also consider that Cameron is in the final year of a deal that ensures his current compensation for 2014 is only $645,000. This comes in the final year of his contract after he went to the 2013 Pro Bowl.
Between the contract situation and the Browns’ available cache of “pass catchers,” Jordan Cameron is easily one of the most intriguing players for me coming into training camp.
No. 2 – Karlos Dansby
It’s weird to call a 32-year-old linebacker one of the five most intriguing on the way into training camp, but it’s true. I, along with most other Browns fans, loved D’Qwell Jackson and rooted for him as hard as I did for any Cleveland Browns player over the last decade. He was a tackling machine, an obvious good guy, and a good story as he overcame injuries to play 16 games in each of the last three years with the Cleveland Browns. But I felt like D’Qwell Jackson was putting a ceiling on the Browns’ defense. The defense has to have a leader and that leader has to not only know the right things to do, but also needs to be able to make some big plays. That’s where I’m hoping D’Qwell’s exit to Indianapolis and Karlos Dansby’s entrance from Arizona will pay dividends.
Dansby isn’t a long-term solution, but I’m hoping he can deliver leadership more by example than D’Qwell Jackson did. He had 6.5 sacks in 2013 for the Cardinals, but he also defensed 19 passes and came up with four interceptions. Those are just stats though. I’m hoping, and I’m sure the Browns are hoping too, that the addition of Karlos Dansby to Mike Pettine’s aggressive defense will take the overall Browns D to another level. So much of that starts with the middle linebackers and this year, that’s Karlos Dansby.
No. 1 – Justin Gilbert
We’ve already joked about the fact that it will be a trick trivia question when anyone asks who the Browns took first in the 2014 NFL Draft. Most of the general public will likely answer “Johnny Manziel,” forgetting all about the man the Browns called to the stage well before the Texas A&M star. When it came to making the best selection they could to improve their football team, the Cleveland Browns decided to deliver a very special Christmas present to Mike Pettine as he was looking to get his defense off to a good start in his first year as head coach of the Browns.
There can be little doubt that the Browns selected Justin Gilbert eighth overall with the idea that he’s absolutely ready to start opposite Joe Haden right away. Yes, the Browns made a savvy trade down out of the fourth selection where Buffalo selected Sammy Watkins, but that doesn’t diminish the level with which the Browns liked the six-footer from Oklahoma State.
He remains unsigned (as of this publication) but the Browns absolutely need him to step up and decisively beat out Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden and anyone else the Browns decide to put in the mix there. Barring some unforeseen rise to the occasion by one of those players, it will be bad news for the Browns and Mike Pettine’s defense if Justin Gilbert is unable to win the starter’s job.
There are more than just these give, but these are the ones I’m most interested in. Which other (non-QB) players intrigue you?
- I made the decision to just skip quarterback, by the way. Everyone knows that situation all too well and I think we’ve beaten the Hoyer vs. Manziel camp battle directly into the ground. [↩]