AFC North: Dimitri Patterson

It's Tuesday here on the blog, which means power rankings and the division quarterback report card. A spoiler alert: Don't expect much good news for the AFC North on the rankings or report card. But that's how it's been going these days for the division. Here's your wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is out for the rest of the season with a spinal cord contusion. "He will not have time to heal before the end of the season," coach John Harbaugh said, according to The Baltimore Sun. The Ravens are already without two of their other top inside linebackers, Ray Lewis (triceps) and Dannell Ellerbe (ankle). Baltimore would start Josh Bynes and Brendon Ayanbadejo for a second straight week if all remain sidelined.

BENGALS: Kicker Mike Nugent isn't sure whether he's going to be ready for the Steelers game. He has missed the past two weeks with a right calf injury. "It's one of those things you keep trying to go out there and make it feel better every day," Nugent told the team's official website. "It feels better every day. Treatment and time." Josh Brown has made all six of his field goals in Nugent's absence.

STEELERS: The Steelers need to win their final two games to reach the playoffs. But Pittsburgh has only won once since Nov. 12. "We can still get in, that's our goal," linebacker Larry Foote said, via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We're making it hard on ourselves, but it's still reachable. We can't look at two; we have to look at one. That's going to be a big challenge, playing Cincinnati at our house. I expect Pittsburgh to be crazy. We have to take a playoff approach. We can't lose." The Steelers also announced that they have reinstated running back Rashard Mendenhall after his one-game suspension.

BROWNS: The Browns surprisingly waived cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who signed a new deal in March that included $6 million guaranteed. The team wasn't happy with Patterson missing seven games with a high ankle sprain and thought Buster Skrine was better when he returned, according to ESPN Radio in Cleveland. Also, coach Pat Shurmur talked to Trent Richardson about the running back's post-game criticism of the game plan. "I asked him what he meant by what he said," Shurmur said, via The Plain Dealer. "I said it's very important that when we're all in a state of being disappointed that we lost that we keep our focus on, No. 1, regrouping and getting ready to play the next game."
Here are the inactives for the Bengals (who play the Cowboys), the Browns (who face the Chiefs) and the Ravens (who play the Redskins):

BENGALS: K Mike Nugent, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, RB Cedric Peerman, TE Richard Quinn, DE Devon Still, S George Iloka and DT Brandon Thompson. Note: Josh Brown will kick for the Bengals.

BROWNS: DT Ronnie Cameron, S Eric Hagg, RB Brandon Jackson, FB Owen Marecic, G Jarrod Shaw, CB Trevin Wade and WR Josh Cooper. Note: CB Dimitri Patterson is active after missing seven games.

RAVENS: LB Terrell Suggs, LB Dannell Ellerbe, TE Ed Dickson, CB Jimmy Smith, OL Ramon Harewood, DT Bryan Hall and WR Deonte Thompson. Note: Courtney Upshaw is expected to replace Suggs, and Brendon Ayanbadejo and Albert McClellan will fill in for Ellerbe.

Browns' Joe Haden won't play at Dallas

November, 18, 2012
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Browns cornerback Joe Haden won't play Sunday at Dallas because of an oblique muscle injury, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Haden
Haden, one of the top young cover corners in the league, was considered a game-time decision after injuring himself in Wednesday's practice. He didn't participate in practice Thursday or Friday.

With Dimitri Patterson out again with an ankle injury, Buster Skrine will start with Sheldon Brown at cornerback. They will look to contain Cowboys wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.

This is the fifth game that Haden has missed this season. During Haden's four-game suspension this season, the Browns went 0-4 and allowed quarterbacks to complete 66.4 percent of their passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
It was only a few hours ago when I posted that the Ravens' cornerbacks took a hit. Now, the Cleveland Browns' secondary has received a bigger blow.

Haden
Joe Haden, one of the top young cover corners in the league, missed practice Thursday with an oblique muscle injury. He was limited Wednesday after pulling it early in practice. It looks like he will try to play Sunday against the Cowboys, but he's extremely questionable at this point.

This is bad news for a Browns secondary that is already without nickel back Dimitri Patterson, who has missed the past four games with a severe ankle injury and hasn't been cleared to practice.

If Haden can't play, the Browns would go with Sheldon Brown and Buster Skrine at cornerback. Skrine, who has made two career starts, has been limited in practice with an ankle injury.

Not having Haden will hurt Cleveland's chances of containing Cowboys receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. During Haden's four-game suspension this season, the Browns went 0-4 and allowed quarterbacks to complete 66.4 percent of their passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Wrap-up: Giants 41, Browns 27

October, 7, 2012
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Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 41-27 loss at the New York Giants:

What it means: The Browns remain winless on the season, dropping to 0-5 for the first time since they returned to the NFL in 1999. If it matters at this point, they fall four games behind the division-leading Ravens. Cleveland extended its NFL-worst losing streak to 11 games, which ties a franchise record. The Browns have now dropped 10 in a row on the road.

Turning point: The Browns held a 14-0 lead -- their biggest margin on an opponent this year -- and still found a way to trail by halftime. How does that happen? The Browns turned the ball over twice in a matter of 2 1/2 minutes, which caused a 17-10 lead to turn into a 24-17 deficit. A Brandon Weeden interception and a Josh Cribbs fumble on a kickoff return led to two touchdowns.

Defense in pain: The Browns have more concerns than giving up 502 yards to the Giants. Three starters were injured for a defense that was already playing without two injured starters (Phil Taylor and Chris Gocong). Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson left in the second quarter with a concussion and cornerback Dimitri Patterson suffered an ankle injury on the second-half kickoff. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin also left the locker room in a walking boot.

Questioning the play call: With the Browns up 17-10, they faced a third-and-1 at the Giants' 25-yard line. Instead of running the ball, the Browns chose to pass and Weeden was intercepted. Rookie running back Trent Richardson, who finished with 81 yards rushing, had gained 4 and 5 yards on the previous two plays.

What happened to Gordon? Rookie receiver Josh Gordon helped the Browns to a 14-0 lead with a 62-yard touchdown catch from Weeden. But Gordon disappeared for most of the game after that big play. His only other catch was a 20-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

What's next: The Browns go home to play the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) for the second time in a five-week span.

Browns make changes at cornerback

September, 20, 2012
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The Cleveland Browns will start two different cornerbacks than the ones who began the season. In the midst of Joe Haden's suspension, Cleveland apparently has decided to bench Sheldon Brown.

Buster Skrine, who struggled last Sunday, will start in place of Brown against the Bills, according to ESPN Radio in Cleveland. “I just come in in the nickel package,” he said.

The timing of the move is odd. Many expected Dimitri Patterson to take Brown's spot this offseason after he re-signed with the Browns for $16 million over three years (including $6 million guaranteed). Brown was the worst starting corner in the division last year and regularly got picked on by quarterbacks.

But Brown surprisingly worked with the first team through spring workouts and training camp. It also helped Brown that Patterson was sidelined for most of the preseason with an ankle injury. Brown, though, earned his spot by forcing two turnovers in the preseason.

When Haden began serving his four-game suspension, it was assumed Patterson would start alongside Brown. Now, it looks like Skrine will join Patterson in the starting lineup and Brown has been demoted.

The hope is that cutting Brown's snaps by nearly in half will lessen the wear and tear on the 33-year-old corner.

“Yeah, I mean, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “I told you from Day 1 I’m a team guy. Whatever they want to do I’m going to roll with it.”

Skrine has potential and a lot of speed. The biggest knock on him is he grabs too much, which often leads to pass interference penalties.

Wake-up: When will Mendenhall play?

September, 14, 2012
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It's a Friday during the regular season, and you know what that means. My always popular and mildly successful Friday Forecast will be posted later this morning with my predictions for the games involving AFC North teams. Last year, I went 38-12 (.760) on my picks, which prompted Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga to say it was "nothing spectacular." The Final Word, which is five nuggets of information for Sunday's games, and the injury report will be up on the blog in the afternoon. But first, here's your wake-up call ...

BENGALS: Carlos Dunlap, the team's best edge rusher, did more team drills in Thursday's practice but he would not speculate on whether he would be able to play this Sunday against Cleveland. “They’ve done a good job of adding conditioning with my rehab so I feel pretty good,” Dunlap told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “but obviously being out there for any game is different than any rehab you can do.” Dunlap missed the final three preseason games and the regular-season opener with a knee injury. The Bengals need to have a steady pass rush against rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who threw three of his four interceptions while under pressure.

BROWNS: Dimitri Patterson is extremely confident that he can hold down the starting spot of Joe Haden, a promising cornerback who is beginning his four-game suspension. "If I was a guy who had over 80 starts, I'd be considered that [a top-five corner], as well," Patterson told The Plain Dealer. "The NFL's a matter of opportunity. At the end of the day, it's not about replacing him. It's about me. That's it." It was presumed that Patterson would beat out Sheldon Brown this summer after he re-signed with the Browns. Now, Patterson has that opportunity to show he deserves to be more than a nickelback.

RAVENS: Jacoby Jones made more of an impact as the team's third receiver than a returner, and that may be the case for most of the season. Jones will continue to split punt returns with Lardarius Webb. "We have two guys that both have punt return skills, and we'll use them both," special-teams coach Jerry Rosburg said, via The Baltimore Sun. "They both have scored and can score touchdowns, so having two punt returners rather than just one is a benefit." Jones and Webb put up similar numbers last season. Jones ranked 14th in the NFL with a 10.6-yard average, and Webb was 16th with a 10.0-yard average. The biggest difference is Jones takes more risks. He only had seven fair catches while Webb signaled for one 20 times.

STEELERS: For the second straight week, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall went through another practice of drills. But no one, including Mendenhall, has hinted when he might return. Mendenhall, the team's leading rusher the past three seasons, is coming back from ACL surgery in January. He could be close considering Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, whose ACL injury occurred one week before Mendenhall's, ran the ball 17 times in the season opener. "I think it's great for him, but, for me, I'm just taking it day by day,'' Mendenhall told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mendenhall will want to come back as quickly as possible because he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Until he comes back, the Steelers need to take a longer look at Jonathan Dwyer.
The Cleveland Browns know they will have running back Trent Richardson, their top draft pick, for the season opener against Philadelphia. Whether they have their top cornerback is another story.

Haden
Joe Haden has appealed a suspension by the NFL and is awaiting a decision from the league, team president Mike Holmgren told a Cleveland radio station today.

If Haden has to miss the opener, the Browns are in a better position today than they were last week. Dimitri Patterson, the team's nickelback who had been out since injuring an ankle in the first preseason game in Detroit on Aug. 10, returned to practice Monday. Patterson was expected to compete for Sheldon Brown's starting job before he was sidelined.

The Browns made sure they had quality depth at cornerback this offseason, when they signed Patterson to a three-year, $16.05 million (included $6 million guaranteed). There would still be a dropoff from Haden to Patterson. But it won't be as severe as replacing Haden with the likes of Buster Skrine.

AFC North's $5 million-plus club

September, 3, 2012
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Ever wonder who gets paid the most in the AFC North? Well, Labor Day is your lucky day. Let's take a look at the players who average more than $5 million per season over the life of their contract. That includes salary, signing bonus, workout bonuses, etc.

The AFC North team with the most members in the $5 million-plus club is the Steelers with nine. The Bengals have the fewest with six. Only one quarterback in the division, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, is at this level. Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who averages $4.76 million, will move up in 2013 whether it's with a new contract or the franchise tag.

Here's a look at the highest-paid players in the AFC North (average per season over life of contract):

BENGALS

CB Leon Hall: $9.7 million

LT Andrew Whitworth: $6 million

DT Domata Peko: $5.5 million

CB Nate Clements: $5.2

DE Robert Geathers: $5.1

RT Andre Smith: $5.1 million

BROWNS

LT Joe Thomas: $11.5 million

DT Ahtyba Rubin: $8.83 million

CB Joe Haden: $8 million

LB D'Qwell Jackson: $7.7 million

LB Chris Gocong: $5.6 million

CB Dimitri Patterson: $5.35 million

RB Trent Richardson: $5.1 million

RAVENS

DT Haloti Ngata: $12.2 million

LB Terrell Suggs: $10.4 million

WR Anquan Boldin: $8.3 million

CB Lardarius Webb: $8.3 million

RB Ray Rice: $7 million

OT Marshal Yanda: $6.4 million

LB Ray Lewis: $6.3 million

S Ed Reed: $6.3 million

STEELERS

QB Ben Roethlisberger: $14.6 million

LB LaMarr Woodley: $10.2 million

S Troy Polamalu: $9.8 million

LB Lawrence Timmons: $9.5 million

LB James Harrison: $8.7 million

WR Antonio Brown: $8.3 million

CB Ike Taylor: $7 million

TE Heath Miller: $6.7 million

G Willie Colon: $5.8 million
This is the type of news that the rebuilding Cleveland Browns needed leading up to their season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the draft and the expected centerpiece of Cleveland's young offense, was back practicing for the first time since having a small piece of loose cartilage removed from the knee 25 days ago. This isn't a major shock because ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported last month that Richardson was expected to play in the season. But, with the Browns, you almost have to see it to believe it when it comes to good news.

And, according to The Plain Dealer, Richardson looked "completely healthy' at the start of practice. Wearing a protective rubber sleeve, he showed no signs of a limp while running drills.

If there is one player that the Browns need offensively against the Eagles, it would be Richardson, even if his workload will be limited. Cleveland can't trust backup running back Montario Hardesty to hold onto the ball and can't expect third-down back Brandon Jackson to carry the ground game. The Browns need to be able to run the ball against the Eagles, which ranked 16th last year in rushing yards allowed per game (112.6) and 19th in yards per carry (4.4).

Plus, the strong running of Richardson will cut down on the obvious passing situations against a Philadelphia defense that harasses quarterbacks. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden fumbled twice against the Eagles on Aug. 24.

The Browns also welcomed back Dimitri Patterson, the team's nickel back who had been out since injuring an ankle in the first preseason game in Detroit on Aug. 10. Patterson may need to start sometime this month if cornerback Joe Haden is suspended by the league. He is presumably appealing a four-game suspension for a failed drug test.

Observation deck: Browns-Lions

August, 10, 2012
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Brandon Weeden headlined a sloppy performance by the Browns in a 19-17 preseason win at Detroit. In one quarter of work, the rookie quarterback had three completions and two turnovers.

While it wasn't surprising to see Weeden struggle in his first NFL action, it was a little unexpected to hear coach Pat Shurmur compliment him for such an uneven performance.

“I thought Brandon did a good job," Shurmur said at halftime. "It looked like the game was slow for him. He was out there and he executed pretty well. I think he would want that one back on the interception. It was in tight coverage. The ball was a pretty good ball and we’ve got to make that play. I think for the most part, he executed in a way that I thought he would."

As I blogged about earlier tonight, Weeden started off strong before making a series of mistakes. In three series, he fumbled, threw an interception and should have been picked off another time. He left after three forgettable drives, completing 3 of 9 passes for 62 yards.

Here are my thoughts and observations from the game:
  • The Browns' injuries continue to pile up. Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi sustained a concussion after making a catch on the Browns' first offensive snap. It's his third head injury in three seasons. The other injuries were: cornerback Dimitri Patterson (ankle), defensive tackle Scott Paxson (knee) and tight end Jordan Cameron (back).
  • Cleveland's run defense was awful, and that doesn't come as a surprise. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, defensive end Frostee Rucker and defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin (pelvis) and Phil Taylor (pectoral muscle) all didn't play, which left the Browns short-handed up front. Cleveland gave up 115 yards rushing in the first half. The Browns showed no containment on outside runs and got gashed on runs up the middle.
  • The Browns won't win many games this season if they beat themselves. That's exactly what happened in the preseason opener, committing eight penalties for 55 yards in the first half. This lack of discipline is a bad reflection on the coaching staff.
  • Backup quarterback Colt McCoy (6-of-8 for 88 yards) was one of the few bright spots. He took three shots downfield, hitting Cameron for a 42-yard pass down the seam. McCoy wasn't this aggressive as the starter last season. He also gained 20 yards on one run.
  • Sheldon Brown tightened his grip on the starting cornerback job with an interception over the middle of the field. His good play looked more impressive by the disappointing performances of Patterson and Buster Skrine.
  • The Browns have to figure out a way to take use Travis Benjamin's speed. He had two catches for 46 yards and can be a playmaker for an offense that lacked a spark last season.
  • In his first game back since missing last year with an Achilles injury, Reggie Hodges had a 52-yard punt and placed two kicks inside the 20-yard line. Not to be outdone, kicker Phil Dawson connected on a 37-yard field goal and had two touchbacks in the first half.
  • Weeden wasn't the only rookie who stumbled Friday night. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was called for a false start on third-and-10 and then allowed the sack that led to Weeden's fumble on the next play. He's definitely a work in progress.
BEREA, Ohio -- Long before the announcement that Jimmy Haslam was buying the Browns, a new era had already begun in Cleveland.

It started with the Browns moving up one spot in the draft to select running back Trent Richardson third overall. It continued with taking quarterback Brandon Weeden later in the first round. Throw in a couple of second-round picks -- right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receiver Josh Gordon (supplemental draft) -- and the Browns have the potential to start four rookies on offense this season. The rest of the teams in the AFC North may only start a total of four rookies combined.

This offseason rebuilding project in Cleveland has turned an unwatchable, 29th-ranked offense to the city's best attraction since the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Drawing the most fans to camp since they started tracking attendance seven years ago, the Browns watched 4,200 fans show up for the second practice. How impressive is that? The Browns' facility only holds 3,000, which meant more than 1,000 fans waited outside for people to leave so they could get a glimpse of the team's future.

"Offense sells tickets," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said with a smile.

The Browns have certainly generated a buzz. The challenge is keeping fans interested. This franchise has recorded double-digit losses in eight of the past nine seasons, and the Browns are the consensus pick to finish last in the division -- again.

These younger players haven't had to endure the constant losing, but they're just as motivated to prove the skeptics wrong.

"I’ve dealt with it the last few years when Oklahoma State was picked in the middle of the Big 12," Weeden said. "When we did win the Big 12 championship, it felt good to say, 'What now?’ We really don’t listen to it too much. If anything, it sparks a little fire and makes us work that much harder."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur
AP Photo/Amy SancettaWith a change in ownership for the Browns, the job security of Mike Holmgren, left, and coach Pat Shurmur is perhaps in question.
1. Change in ownership. For all the hope surrounding the future, there's an equal amount of uncertainty after Haslam bought the team from Randy Lerner. New owners typically overhaul the decision-makers and put their trusted associates in place. Haslam won't make any changes until he's approved by the NFL owners in either September or October, which makes it seem like everyone is on a one-season audition.

Many predict Holmgren will be gone because Joe Banner, Haslam's unofficial consultant and a former executive for the Eagles, is expected to end up running the organization. General manager Tom Heckert could also be out based on mixed reports of his 10-year relationship with Banner in Philadelphia. And Shurmur might be done if the Browns win a handful of games again this year.

"This thing is headed in the right direction," offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. "Sometimes, it’s hard not to think what the new guy is going to think. Is he going to see what we see?"

2. Loss of defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The 2011 first-round pick is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle in May. The hope is Taylor will be able to return in the first half of the season and perhaps as early as Week 7 at Indianapolis.

While Scott Paxson continues to surprisingly fill Taylor's spot in the starting lineup, no one player is going to fill that void. "I would say we’re going to have to roll a few people in there," Shurmur said. "That’s what we’re trying to find, that right mix."

It's really become a defensive line by committee because each player has a particular strength. Paxson and rookie third-round pick John Hughes are more stout against the run, and rookie sixth-round pick Billy Winn is showing quickness as a pass rusher. Despite this collective effort, it will be hard to replace Taylor.

3. Wide receiver Josh Gordon's impact. The development of Gordon will determine the success of the Browns' passing game. Cleveland used a second-round pick in the supplemental draft on someone who is on the fast track to becoming the No. 1 receiver on the team.

Gordon's three failed drug tests makes him a risk, but it was a risk that the Browns had to take considering they have one of the worst wide receiver groups in the league. Gordon has the size (6 feet 3) and breakaway speed to be a top target, which prompted one league executive to say he has "Randy Moss-like" talents. On one route over the middle, Gordon never broke stride as two defenders bounced off of him. His height will show up on fade routes in the end zone, and his size will benefit him on slant routes.

Expectations have to be tempered by the fact that Gordon is raw. He didn't play last season (although he did practice) after transferring from Baylor to Utah, and he comes from a limited route tree from his days in the Baylor offense. The learning curve might not be as steep because Gordon has proven to be a great notetaker in meetings. He's already working with the first-team offense in three-receiver sets after a handful of practices.

"He’s one of those guys that you can tell to correct something, and he corrects it on the next snap," offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "You can say what you want about him off the field. I found him to be a very good student of the game and able to put into play what you ask him to do immediately."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The way Richardson loves contact in training camp bodes well for the Browns. Richardson brings a physical identity to an offense that struck no fear in defenses last season. The only way the Browns will be able to compete with the Steelers and Ravens is to have an offensive centerpiece who can match the toughness and intensity of those defenses.

Richardson has the look of being the best back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson, only he's stronger. He benches 475 pounds, using that muscle to hold onto the ball (no lost fumbles last season) and break tackles. His success will allow the Browns to shorten games.

Richardson's biggest impact will come around the end zone. The Browns ranked 30th in points scored last season because they lacked punch in the running game. Cleveland scored four rushing touchdowns last season, which was tied for the the second-fewest in the past 15 NFL seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This is why the Browns gave up three picks to move up one spot to get Richardson, one of three players in SEC history to score 20 or more rushing touchdowns in a season.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The only thing that has piled up more than losses since the Browns returned to the league is rushing yards. Over the past 13 seasons, the highest the Browns' run defense has ranked is 23rd. Cleveland allowed 147.4 yards rushing per game last season, which ranked 30th in the 32-team NFL. No other team in the division gave up more than 104.7 yards a game on the ground, and no other AFC North team ranked lower than 10th in run defense.

The Browns' defense is giving up some long runs in camp, a sign that this could be another long season for the Cleveland front seven. The Browns upgraded at defensive end by signing free agent Frostee Rucker, only to lose Taylor for at least the first six games. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard, a menace on the pass rush, has struggled against the run. Another bad sign is three of the Browns' starting front four (Taylor, Rucker and Ahtyba Rubin) have missed time because of injuries and there's only been one full week of camp.

"To be successful in this league and in the AFC North, you have to stop the run," Jackson said. "Around November and December and the weather is bad, it’s going to be a run day. From looking at last year, that’s one thing we’re focusing on from Day One, it’s stopping the run. It’s a quiet confidence you have to build and it starts right here in training camp."

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
    David Richard/US PresswireRookie QB Brandon Weeden has shined at times early in training camp.
  • Weeden's persistence will serve him well. After missing tight end Alex Smith in the back of the end zone, he completed a touchdown pass on the next throw to tight end Jordan Cameron on the same route route.
  • There's been talk that Colt McCoy has improved since last season, but it didn't show during my visit. His throws lacked any zip, especially when following Weeden's passes, and were continually behind receivers. McCoy, who is taking most of the second-team snaps, could be helped by a Holmgren departure. If Holmgren goes, Seneca Wallace would likely follow, which would leave the No. 2 spot for McCoy.
  • Josh Cribbs, the second-leading receiver on the team last season, has disappeared from the offense in camp. "He’s a special teams player that plays receiver," Shurmur said. This is a clear indication that the Browns want Cribbs to focus on being a returner and a core player on coverage teams.
  • The surprise of camp is Sheldon Brown holding onto the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden despite being the weak link of the secondary last season. It was assumed Dimitri Patterson would take that starting job after he re-signed with the Browns this offseason, and there's still a chance that Patterson could end up in the starting lineup by the end of the preseason. "Sheldon is starting right now," Shurmur said. The key part of that comment is "right now."
  • Second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz is still on track to start at right tackle even though he has struggled against speed rushers like Sheard. Schwartz split reps with Oniel Cousins early in camp before taking over the job. The Browns would be in trouble if Schwartz couldn't beat out Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.
  • The frontrunner to be the starting free safety is Eric Hagg, although he stood out more in minicamp. It's noticeable that Hagg is talking to strong safety T.J. Ward before and after plays. Strong communication is the key to any successful secondary.
  • Don't be shocked if rookie fourth-round pick James-Michael Johnson gets the nod to replace Scott Fujita when the outside linebacker has to serve his three-game suspension. Johnson's ability to always be around the ball has overshadowed the play of Kaluka Maiava, who started the last five games in 2011.
  • Montario Hardesty has separated himself from Brandon Jackson to be the primary backup to Richardson. Hardesty has more of a burst than last season, especially when hitting the edge and making contact with tacklers. A back who has frequently been injured, Hardesty isn't running hesitant.
  • Cameron is taking full advantage of tight end Evan Moore being sidelined. Leaping to catch balls, Cameron looks like the most improved player on offense. But he isn't close to taking Ben Watson's starting job.
  • There's been speculation that Buster Skrine could overtake Brown as the starting cornerback. He is among the faster players on the team, but he doesn't seem to trust his speed. Skrine too often grabs receivers when he really doesn't need to do it.
  • The perception of wide receiver Travis Benjamin is changing. During minicamps, the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Benjamin was relegated to deep downfield routes on the outside. Now, he's going over the middle. During a red-zone drill, he fought off a defender to grab McCoy's touchdown pass. "I anticipated with his natural size that he might get banged around and be less efficient, but he has done a great job," Shurmur said. "I think he handles the traffic pretty well.”
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Cleveland Browns finished with the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL last season. The Browns will be even stronger in the secondary this year, even though there could be as many as three different starters from last season.

The one starter who will remain is Joe Haden, the most talented cornerback in the division, who broke up 37 passes in his first two seasons. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. The cornerback who will start opposite Haden is up in the air right now. Sheldon Brown, last season's starter, ran with the first team this spring, but Dimitri Patterson is ready to take over the starting job. He excelled in the nickelback role, breaking up 12 passes and making 26 tackles.

Strong safety T.J. Ward is primed to have a breakout season. He was among the top 10 safeties in the NFL before a foot injury sidelined him for the final eight games of the season. Ward's physical presence should make an impact on Cleveland's porous run defense. The free safety spot is open after Mike Adams signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Eric Hagg is the leading contender after his strong showing this spring. A seventh-round pick from a year ago, Hagg looks like he's the most improved player on the Browns this season.
BEREA, Ohio -- Here are some impressions from my two-day visit to Browns' mandatory minicamp:
  • The Browns' wide receiver position remains a glaring weakness. Too many dropped passes. More on this Thursday on the blog.
  • When rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden is working with the second and third teams, his passes often go to undrafted rookie receiver Josh Cooper. Weeden and Cooper played at Oklahoma State. The undrafted receiver that stood out to me was Florida State's Bert Reed, who showed quickness.
  • Cornerback Buster Skrine doesn't have to be perfect because he's so fast. Skrine got beat by Travis Benjamin, but his recovery speed allowed him to break up a well-thrown pass from Brandon Weeden.
  • Free safety Eric Hagg, a seventh-round pick from a year ago, looks like the most improved player on the team. He's running with the first team, and he isn't close to losing that job by the way he's playing. Hagg is constantly around the ball. What helped him the most is the Browns didn't place him on injured reserve after he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in August. That allowed him to contribute late in the season, which paved the way to an impressive offseason.
  • If the season started today, I believe the Browns would go with rookie seventh-round pick Brad Smelley at fullback over Owen Marecic, a fourth-round pick from a year ago whose rookie season was marred by multiple concussions. That would give the Browns an all-Alabama backfield with Smelley and Trent Richardson.
  • Colt McCoy showed again why the Browns looked for a strong-armed quarterback in the draft. He missed a wide-open receiver deep downfield because his pass floated too much and allowed a defensive back to bat it down.
  • Still surprised to see cornerback Sheldon Brown working with the first-team defense. Head coach Pat Shurmur warned not to read into the current lineups, and I believe this falls into that category. I'm sticking by the cornerback tandem of Joe Haden and Dimitri Patterson starting in the season opener.
  • Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin is a big guy. But I would put money on him weighing more than his listed weight of 330 pounds. When he wasn't lining up for a drill or a play, he was one of the first to take a knee.
  • File this under the "nice guys" category: When I was leaving the Browns facility Tuesday, there were a couple of boys waiting across the street from the parking lot who were looking to get their helmet and football signed. I was surprised by the number of Browns players who pulled their car over to give an autograph.

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