AFC North: Owen Marecic

Running back Montario Hardesty reportedly was going to miss two to three games after having his knee scoped. The prognosis proved to be worse than expected.

The Cleveland Browns placed Hardesty on injured reserve, ending his season. With Dion Lewis going on IR on Monday, the top two backups to Trent Richardson are done for the season. Brandon Jackson and Miguel Maysonet are now listed as the reserve running backs on the team's depth chart.

Injuries have derailed Hardesty's career. He has injured the ACL in both of his knees, torn a calf muscle and dealt with a pulled hamstring. In 2010, the Browns traded two fifth-round picks to move up to select Hardesty in the second round.

To get down to the league limit of 75 players, the Browns waived seven players, including two recent draft picks: fullback Owen Marecic (2011 fourth-round) and offensive lineman Ryan Miller (2012 fifth round). Marecic had been replaced by Chris Ogbonnaya as the starting fullback.

Others waived were: linebacker Kendrick Adams, offensive lineman Dominic Alford, wide receiver Dominique Croom, defensive lineman Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and tight end Travis Tannahill. The Browns also placed offensive lineman Chris Faulk on the reserve-Non-Football Injury list.

Cleveland was awarded two players on waivers: outside linebacker Paul Hazel (Jacksonville) and punter Colton Schmidt (San Francisco).

AFC North depth chart musings

August, 5, 2013
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Three of the four AFC North teams released their "unofficial" depth charts because the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns kick off their preseason Thursday. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who open their preseason Saturday, haven't put out a depth chart.

Here are some thoughts on how the teams have their players stacked up ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS
CINCINNATI BENGALS
  • The biggest surprise on the Bengals' depth chart was George Iloka being listed as the starting strong safety. Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams are behind him, in that order. The Bengals have been rotating Iloka, Mays and Williams throughout training camp. Most expect Williams, a rookie third-round pick, to eventually come out on top at some point this season.
  • At cornerback, just like last season, Leon Hall and Terence Newman are the top cornerbacks. Dre Kirkpatrick, last year's top pick, is behind Newman and Brandon Ghee. Kirkpatrick, who's had a strong camp, should figure into the team's nickel defense.
  • The name that stuck out on offense was Orson Charles. The converted tight end is already ahead of John Conner on the fullback depth chart. Charles, who is more of an H-back, has been among the most pleasant surprises this camp. Chris Pressley, last year's starter, is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a knee injury.
  • On special teams, Adam Jones is ahead of Brandon Tate on punt returns. Jones and Tate split time at this spot last season, but I always thought Jones was the more explosive and dangerous returner.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Brandon Weeden listed as the starting quarterback. He is followed by Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. This is how I foresee the depth chart looking heading into the regular season.
  • Not a good sign for 2011 fourth-round pick Owen Marecic. Chris Ogbonnaya, a third-down back for his career, is currently the starting fullback. He offers more versatility in Norv Turner's offense than Marecic, who was benched last year by the former coaching staff.
  • On the offensive line, the Browns have co-starters listed at left guard (John Greco and Jason Pinkston) and right guard (Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao). Given that the Browns signed Greco to a new contract, he is considered the favorite at left guard. Pinkston and Lauvao will compete for the right guard spot.
  • On defense, Jabaal Sheard is ahead of rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo at outside linebacker and Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are listed as co-starters at right cornerback. Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden is behind Joe Haden at left cornerback. I project Owens and McFadden will continue to split time at right cornerback, and Skrine will get snaps at the slot corner.
Strong wind and heavy rains continue to hit AFC North headquarters as a result of superstorm Sandy. This has been a weather wake-up call. As far as the football wake-up call, here it is ...

RAVENS: There were only five players listed on the injury report for the Baltimore Ravens' last game. There's going to be more names on that report this week. After the Ravens received a $20,000 fine by the league for not disclosing Ed Reed's injury, coach John Harbaugh said the team will list every injury going forward to follow the strictest interpretation of the rule book. "We thought we were in compliance, we tried to follow the rules," Harbaugh said, via The Baltimore Sun. "I'll list pretty much everybody now. Obviously, they corrected it and we'll do what they want us to do. I was surprised by it. It's something we felt like we were doing it the right way. Obviously, they disagreed and we'll adjust. There's not going to be anybody who's not going to be on there."

STEELERS: The players aren't pleased with the Pittsburgh Steelers defense despite a top-10 ranking overall (No. 2), against the run (No. 8 ) and against the pass (No. 2). "We're getting back to where we can play better than we have been. I don't think we're dominant yet," linebacker James Harrison told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We still have a lot of room to go to improve I think it's just time, getting out there and putting together 60 minutes and putting together a better 60 minutes than you did previously." The Steelers haven't been dominant. Pittsburgh has 12 sacks in seven games and has forced seven turnovers, which is tied for second-worst in the AFC.

BENGALS: A running back like Steven Jackson or DeAngelo Williams isn't going to get traded to the Bengals. There are no indications the Bengals are going to make a deal before Thursday, which is the new trade deadline after the league pushed it back because of the storm. "I don’t envision anything,” head coach Marvin Lewis said of the trade prospects, via the team's official website. The Bengals haven't gotten much out of their running game this year. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ranks 23rd in rushing yards per game and 38th with a 3.4-yard average. Statistically speaking, Williams isn't much of an upgrade. He also is averaging 3.4 yards per carry.

BROWNS: The Browns made a switch at fullback Sunday, going with Alex Smith over Owen Marecic, and this move could be permanent. Smith, a tight end, played 23 snaps at fullback and opened up some holes for Trent Richardson on his 26-yard touchdown run. Richardson finished with a career-high 122 yards. "I wanted to get Alex back on the field," coach Pat Shurmur said, via The Plain Dealer. "I wanted to have a defined role for him, because I think he brings some energy to our team." Smith is considered the third-string tight end behind Ben Watson and Jordan Cameron. But the fullback position gives him more opportunities to make an impact.
Cleveland Browns fullback Owen Marecic was a surprise inactive for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers, putting a question mark at that position. There's a chance that the Browns could use tight end Alex Smith at fullback or go with single-back formations.

Starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (calf) will be sidelined for the second time in three weeks.

Here are the Browns inactives: DT Ahtyba Rubin (calf), WR Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring), CB Dimitri Patterson (ankle), RB Brandon Jackson, S Tashaun Gipson, FB Owen Marecic, and OL Jarrod Shaw.
A year after the Browns passed up wide receiver Julio Jones in the draft, there's no consensus among fans whether Cleveland should have done so.

In a SportsNation poll this week, 46 percent of the 5,959 votes say the Browns made the right move to give up the sixth overall pick to the Atlanta Falcons and 45 percent say the Browns didn't.

In exchange for giving up the pick that became Jones, the Browns got defensive tackle Phil Taylor (Atlanta's 2011 first-round pick), wide receiver Greg Little, (2011 second-round pick), fullback Owen Marecic (2011 fourth-round pick) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (2012 first-round pick). Cleveland also used a 2012 fourth-round pick in that deal as part of the package to trade up one spot for running back Trent Richardson.

Here are some comments from blog readers on this issue:

Jake, from Columbus, Ohio: The Browns did not make the wrong decision in trading away the chance to draft Jones. Phil Taylor has already made a major impact in the NFL.Of the 10 defensive linemen selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Taylor had the most tackles at 59. While none of the other players drafted with the acquired picks has had great success, I don't believe Jones would be anywhere near his current stats if he was on the Browns.The Browns simply weren't in any position to reject the bounty of picks offered for one player when so many holes remained on both sides of the ball. The Falcons may have been one good receiver away from a Super Bowl run. The Browns were certainly not.

John, from Springfield, Ohio: I think it is too soon to be able to say for sure whether the decision to make the trade and pass on Julio Jones was good or bad. Phil Taylor could still absolutely turn out to be a Pro Bowl player. Little and Josh Gordon are still young and raw and both have the potential to be number ones. As far as Weeden it's way to soon to make any judgement but a couple 300-yard games in his first four starts is a great sign. I will go out on a limb and say Richardson is going to be a standout. I think if just two of these players or Weeden alone turns out to be a star playmaker, then the trade was a good one. If three or four turn out to be great, then it was a fantastic trade. At worst, I don't see them coming out short on the deal by much no matter what so I think it was good move at the time and still is.

Michael, from Cleveland: I do think the Browns made the right choice in not Drafting Julio Jones.The players gained in that trade are good players. I would put the Browns players on the same level as Julio Jones.

John, from Avon, Ohio: The Browns made a very reasonable trade at the time. No one player was going to turn the team around. Julio Jones has Matt Ryan throwing to him, plus Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez keeping defenses occupied. You probably wouldn't even know his name if the Browns had drafted him. The Browns were so weak everywhere. We needed lots of picks, and that's what we got. All of those picks are now starters, so it wasn't a complete bust of a trade.

Jack, from Newark, Ohio: It is pretty simple to see that the Browns lost on this deal. In my opinion, Cleveland's problem at the quarterback spot is directly tied to their problem at wide receiver. Colt McCoy never had a chance to succeed due to the lack of a receiver. They should have drafted Julio to give McCoy another chance, and worst-case scenario is McCoy still plays terrible and they get a early first-round pick and can get a top talent quarterback.

Keith, from Cleveland: Julio Jones is a wonderful receiver for a team that has their primary positions filled. You don't build around wide receivers. Teams that have won Super Bowls have done so by hitting on mid or late round wide receivers. Name a team in the past 10 years that has won a Super Bowl with a top 5 or top 10 pick at wide receiver? Because of that, the Browns did make the right decision.
I know there are some things that I don't need to tell you like Mike Wallace is really fast and Joe Flacco has a strong arm. The same goes for the fact that Browns wide receiver Greg Little leads the AFC North in dropped passes.

Little is credited with three drops (doesn't it seem like more?) by ESPN Stats & Information. That's tied for the sixth-most in the league. He had a critical one at the goal line in a seven-point loss at Baltimore last Thursday. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten leads the NFL with six drops.

There's only two other AFC North players who have more than one drop this season: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Browns fullback Owen Marecic, both of whom have two.

The Browns top the division with seven dropped passes as a team. The Bengals are second with five and the Steelers are third with three. The Ravens have the best hands in the AFC North, dropping one of 154 pass attempts.
Cleveland Browns wide receivers are dropping passes at an alarming rate for a second straight season, which leads us to revisit the team's draft-day decision in 2011. Instead of drafting wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick, the Browns traded that selection to the Atlanta Falcons for five picks.

This is the final tally for those picks: defensive tackle Phil Taylor (Atlanta's 2011 first-round pick), wide receiver Greg Little (2011 second-round pick), fullback Owen Marecic (2011 fourth-round pick) and quarterback Brandon Weeden (2012 first-round pick). Cleveland also used a 2012 fourth-round pick in that deal as part of the package to trade up one spot for running back Trent Richardson.

SportsNation

With all of their current problems at wide receiver, did the Browns make the right move in the Julio Jones draft day trade with Atlanta?

  •  
    46%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,002)

Taylor showed promise before getting injured before this season. Little is known for dropping passes and posting celebratory pictures on his Twitter following losses. Marecic's role continues to get diminished in the West Coast offense. And Weeden has had an up-and-down rookie season.

The Browns have tried to find a top wide receiver in the second round of the draft instead of the first. But the results haven't panned out. Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie (no longer with the Browns) and Little have been disappointments. Josh Gordon, who was selected in the second round of the supplemental draft, hasn't made a significant impact because he's too raw.

Meanwhile, Jones has caught 16 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns this season. In comparison, Little leads all Browns wide receivers with 11 receptions for 151 yards and one touchdown. The Browns are the only team in the division who lack a young playmaker at the wide receiver position. The Bengals can go to A.J. Green, the Ravens can go deep to Torrey Smith and the Steelers can turn to either Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown.

So, in hindsight, did the Browns make the right move in not drafting Jones? Record your vote and send me your reason to my mailbag. Your comment could be used in a blog post later in the week.

AFC North's best bargains

September, 5, 2012
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On Monday, the AFC North blog addressed who got paid the most in the division. Now, let's look at the other end of the salary spectrum. This blog entry is all about the starters (and specialists) who average less than $1 million per season over the life of their contract.

Here's a look at the lowest-paid projected starters (and specialists) in the AFC North in terms of average per year:

BENGALS

WR Armon Binns: $415,000

P Kevin Huber: $486,350

DT Geno Atkins: $565,613

WR Brandon Tate: $631,920

DE Carlos Dunlap: $754,500

S Taylor Mays: $824,500

DE Michael Johnson: $875,255

BROWNS

S Eric Hagg: $520,100

G Jason Pinkston: $577,00

FB Owen Marecic: $612,000

G Shawn Lauvao: $672,630

WR Greg Little: $831,875

WR Mohamed Massaquoi: $908,931

S T.J. Ward: $966,250

RAVENS

DE Arthur Jones: $449,527

OLB Albert McClellan: $465,000

K Justin Tucker: $480,000

TE Ed Dickson: $625,833

OLB Paul Kruger: $687,500

NT Terrence Cody: $727,500

WR Torrey Smith: $847,308

STEELERS

P Drew Butler: $481,667

RB Isaac Redman: $540,000

NT Steve McLendon: $540,000

OT Marcus Gilbert: $806,854

OT Max Starks: $825,000
Using a second-round supplemental pick on former Baylor wide receiver Josh Gordon might have been a gamble for the Cleveland Browns, but it was a smart gamble.

When Mike Holmgren took over the Browns, the cupboard was bare at wide receiver. Even though former coach Eric Mangini used 2009 second-round picks on wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi, neither offered the play-making ability to match the previous offenses that had Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Josh Gordon
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIREBaylor receiver Josh Gordon offers more potential at the position than anyone on the Bowns' roster.
Don’t expect much more than 45 catches from Gordon as a rookie, because he’s so far behind for conditioning and learning an NFL offense by entering the year so late. But at least quarterback Brandon Weeden has more potential to work with at receiver. Gordon, Greg Little and fourth-round choice Travis Benjamin form the core group of receivers he will work with over the next couple of years.

Ultimately, general manager Tom Heckert will be judged on the decision last year to give wide receiver Julio Jones to the Atlanta Falcons in a five-pick deal. Jones is considered a future Pro Bowl receiver. The trade gave the Browns the extra ammunition to get Little last year, along with fullback Owen Marecic. It gave them the ability to draft Weeden as the starter in 2012.

Getting Gordon -- even at the cost of a second-round pick -- was worth it. It might take Gordon until 2014 to be a legitimate starter. Little or Gordon might never be as good as Jones, but if Heckert is right on Gordon, the Browns have more potential playmakers at receiver to start climbing out of the bottom of the AFC North in the next few years.

Sitting back and waiting until next year’s draft for a receiver would have been a bad gamble. They can develop Gordon now. Face it, the Browns aren’t going to be a playoff team this season. They are rebuilding. Gordon is a nice piece of the puzzle.
A late road trip from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh has led to an abbreviated AFC North Wake-up call this morning. I'm providing just the links today, but I plan to touch on some of these topics next week after mandatory minicamps end.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Cornerback Adam Jones, who has had his share of off-the-field problems, is scheduled to speak every day at the rookie symposium later this month. "The message is, this is not a joke," he said. "At the end of the day, you have to treat it like a business."

The Dolphins didn't call the Bengals about their experience with Chad Ochocinco before signing the veteran wide receiver. It should be noted that Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was the Bengals' secondary coach for 11 seasons and has a history with Ochocinco. “Well, I’m sure [Kevin] was able to give some input on Chad and about him and so forth,” coach Marvin Lewis said.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Longtime backup quarterback Seneca Wallace said he doesn't think there's room on the roster for himself, Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy. He also made it known he and McCoy have no desire to be Cleveland's No. 3 quarterback.

Fullback Owen Marecic is better prepared to hold onto his job after dropping his weight from 255 pounds in 2011 to 240 to 245 pounds now. He has cut sweets and fried foods from his diet.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie was held out of practice due to concerns about his conditioning. The Ravens picked up McKinnie’s $500,000 roster bonus in March after he assured the team that he would be in better shape. Obviously, he hasn't followed through on that.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs announced that he is no longer on crutches and is expected to begin his rehab from Achilles surgery. Suggs said he is "beasting," which I'm assuming is a positive sign.

Recently signed Bobbie Williams worked with the first-team offense at left guard. He's been primarily a right guard throughout his career.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Wide receiver Mike Wallace was an expected no-show at the Steelers' mandatory minicamp. “It’s probably some short-term misery,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The Steelers' top two draft choices -- guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams -- rejoined the team after being forced to miss all of the full-team offseason workouts. NFL rules prohibit players from showing up at team facilities until their college classes have graduated.

Ben Roethlisberger said he can't wait to be a father. Roethlisberger and his wife, Ashley, are expecting their first child, a boy, though the quarterback did not divulge the due date. "Family is super important to me," Roethlisberger said.
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.

AFC North injury impact

December, 16, 2011
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Here are the main injuries around the division and what they mean:

BENGALS: Cincinnati could be starting two backups on the right side of the offensive line. Mike McGlynn is taking over at RG for Bobbie Williams, who has been placed on injured reserve. RT Andre Smith (ankle, questionable) didn't practice Thursday and Friday. Anthony Collins would replace Smith, who has been among the most-improved players on the team. DE Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), who has been out for four of the past five games, is probable after being limited in practice all week. RB Cedric Benson (back), CB Nate Clements (hamstring), S Chris Crocker (knee) and LB Manny Lawson (ankle) are all probable.

BROWNS: Cleveland finally made it official and ruled out QB Colt McCoy (concussion), who hasn't practiced since getting hit in the head by Steelers LB James Harrison. Seneca Wallace makes his fifth start for the Browns. TE Ben Watson (concussion, placed on injured reserve), FB Owen Marecic (concussion) and SS T.J. Ward (foot) are also out. WR Josh Cribbs (groin) and RB Montario Hardesty (calf) are questionable. RB Peyton Hillis had full practices all week and wasn't listed on the injury report.

RAVENS: CB Lardarius Webb (toe, questionable) is considered the most serious after not practicing all week. Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams are expected to start for Baltimore at cornerback. LB Ray Lewis (toe, questionable) is expected to return after being sidelined for four weeks. DE Cory Redding (ankle, questionable) returned to practice after missing Wednesday and Thursday. DT Haloti Ngata (back, questionable) has been limited all week but should start. K Billy Cundiff (left calf, questionable) didn't practice this week but that was considered precautionary because he kicked last Sunday with the same injury.

STEELERS: Official designations will come out Saturday because the Steelers play on Monday night. QB Ben Roethlisberger (ankle) practiced for the first time this week, although it was on a limited basis. SS Troy Polamalu (hamstring), C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot) all didn't practice.
BEREA, Ohio -- Few teams have more ground to make up after the NFL lockout than the Cleveland Browns.

With a new offense, a new defense and fresh faces on the roster and coaching staff, the Browns are a team in transition. Rookie head coach Pat Shurmur has a difficult task ahead of him. He is trying to overhaul the Browns after back-to-back 5-11 seasons under former coach Eric Mangini.

This is the second year for Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. But in many ways, 2011 feels like the year they officially hit the reset button.

Most of Cleveland's first week of training camp focused on instruction and installation.

"We're working with the players, we're getting used to their mannerisms and how we have to communicate with them," Shurmur said. "They're getting used to us, especially if we're getting a little anxious, a little uptight. It's been good. I think the key part to coaching is that there is a solid interaction. I feel like that's going on, and I'm seeing guys improving."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
AP Photo/Tony DejakColt McCoy has solid intangibles, but it's questionable whether he has the size and arm strength to succeed.
1. Is QB Colt McCoy the long-term solution?

It's unfair to judge a player on one week of practice. But I paid a lot of attention to McCoy this week, and I have some concerns.

The second-year quarterback was inconsistent. On Tuesday, McCoy had a poor practice. On Friday, he was better. There is a good chance that this is what you'll see from McCoy during the regular season.

McCoy has only eight starts under his belt. He is essentially halfway into his rookie year. He's also learning his second offense in two years.

Although McCoy isn't making excuses, expect some growing pains.

"You come out here and you have to be ready to play," McCoy said. "I feel like I'm in good shape. I felt like the guys around me -- offensive line, receivers, running backs -- I feel like overall everybody was in good shape and ready to work. For me, that's good. I need all the work I can get."

McCoy has intangibles and natural leadership ability. But no NFL quarterback wins on intangibles alone. McCoy's size and arm strength are two question marks he must overcome.

The Browns are "all-in" with McCoy this year. If he has a solid season, the Browns could exceed expectations. But if McCoy falls apart, it could be another long season in Cleveland.

2. Can rookies make an immediate impact?

The Browns have the potential to start as many as four rookies in Week 1.

Rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic are all vying for starting jobs. Barring injury, Taylor, Sheard and Marecic are virtual locks for the starting lineup. They already are working with the first team. Little is working with the first- and second-team offense behind starters Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

This could be a blessing and a curse for the Browns. Holmgren and Heckert believe they drafted solid, NFL-ready players for the second consecutive year. But the fact that this many rookies can start right away also is an indictment of Cleveland's thin roster.

Taylor has been the most impressive of the group. He arrived in camp four days late because of a contract dispute. But Taylor made his presence felt later in the week with his size, strength and ability to get up field. He could be a force next to fellow defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin.

"I am still learning and taking it all in," Taylor said. "I am learning every bit I can from the guys like Rubin. The guys that were behind me were helping me out as well."

3. Is running back Peyton Hillis a one-year wonder?

Hillis doesn't look like a one-year wonder. He was the steadiest player in Cleveland's camp this week. He's still running hard and catching the ball well out of the backfield. He's also not making mental mistakes in Cleveland's new offense.

Last year, Hillis exploded on the scene with 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He instantly became Cleveland's most popular player. A heavy push by Browns fans put Hillis on the cover of "Madden NFL 12."

Production has never been an issue for Hillis. Injuries are the only concern.

"He's a pro, and pros -- especially at running back -- it's very important for them to hear it, see it and feel it," Shurmur said. "He's done a good job of getting in there and getting his reps. Make sure he's getting his work, try to eliminate any kind of little injury in there and then give him the ball. I think that's the important thing."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Because veteran free agents were unable to practice until Thursday, rookie fifth-round pick Buster Skrine received a lot of reps as the nickel corner this week. Skrine displayed good speed and playmaking ability. He jumped a route in team drills Tuesday and got a pick-six off McCoy, his best play of the week.

Skrine is competitive and looks like a mini-Joe Haden. He probably will make the team as a late-round pick.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Massaquoi missed the entire first week of camp because of an ankle injury. The injury happened before the lockout was lifted. Therefore, the team and Massaquoi have been quiet about it.

Massaquoi is missing valuable practice time in Cleveland's West Coast offense. He has a lot of pressure as McCoy's No. 1 receiver. Timing between Massaquoi and McCoy will be vital this season.

Massaquoi caught 36 passes for 483 yards and two touchdowns last season. He needs much better production for Cleveland to be successful.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeD'Qwell Jackson
    AP Photo/Mark DuncanD'Qwell Jackson, who has battled injuries the past few seasons, has been making plays in camp.
    The Browns are a slow football team. Cleveland has decent size but definitely not enough blazers and game-changing athletes. I thought the Browns would be more aggressive in free agency to close the talent gap with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. But that wasn't the case. Keep an eye on team speed during the regular season. I think it will be an issue.
  • Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas is dominating Sheard in practice. Cleveland's coaching staff is putting Sheard, a rookie second-round pick, against Thomas to get him ready for the regular season. But Thomas is stonewalling Sheard at nearly every turn and had a pancake block in Friday's practice. Cleveland hopes Sheard will gradually improve by facing arguably the NFL's best left tackle.
  • Second-year running back Montario Hardesty isn't all the way back from knee surgery. The former second-round pick tore his ACL last year and missed the entire season. The Browns are counting on Hardesty to spell Hillis this year. But the team has been very cautious with Hardesty in practice. Hardesty has a lengthy track record of injuries in college and the pros.
  • A player who does look to be back from injury is linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. He's missed the past two seasons with back-to-back pectoral injuries but is active and making plays again in camp. When healthy, Jackson was one of Cleveland's top defensive players. He also has experience in a 4-3 defense and is seeing the field well. Jackson intercepted passes from McCoy by reading the quarterback's eyes in back-to-back practices.
  • Little's drops are a concern. He has good physical tools. But by my count, Little dropped at least five passes in practice this week. He had a reputation in college for drops. It's too early to say if it's lack of concentration or bad hands. Perhaps rust also is a factor. Little was suspended at the University of North Carolina all of last season.
  • Haden looks really good. He breaks up a lot of passes in team drills. Haden moves well and stays in good position. Last year, Haden had a slow start at training camp as a rookie. That wasn't the case this year.
  • If Tony Pashos is anything, he's huge. The projected starting right tackle is expected to protect McCoy's front side this season. Pashos missed most of 2010 with an ankle injury. But the Browns are still high on him and hope he can patch up the right side of the offensive line, which is Cleveland's weakest area up front.
Barring an unexpected change of circumstances, the Cleveland Browns are expected to part ways with free-agent fullback Lawrence Vickers. He was not tendered by the Browns and the team drafted Stanford fullback Owen Marecic in April, because Cleveland believes he's a better fit for the West Coast offense.

But will Vickers return to the AFC North in a different uniform?

Vickers

Vickers


In this physical division, there will always be a need for a punishing fullback. Vickers is one of the best run-blocking fullbacks in the NFL, and the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals both have voids at that position.

Ravens fullback and pending free agent Le'Ron McClain wants more carries and probably has to leave Baltimore to get them. Vickers, who doesn't need to carry the football, would be a great option to replace McClain and open holes for tailback Ray Rice. Adding Vickers also could bring more consistency to Baltimore's running game, which was lacking last season.

New Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden also wants to emphasize the run in Cincinnati and could use an upgrade at fullback. A backfield of Cedric Benson and Vickers certainly screams "power running game" and would be ideal for competing against tough defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In Cincinnati, Vickers also would have the chance to prove to doubters that he can fit in a West Coast offense.

It's unlikely the Pittsburgh Steelers would make a push for Vickers. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians runs a lot of three-receiver and multiple tight end sets, which decreases the need for a true fullback. Backup tight end David Johnson also has done a decent job filling that role when needed.

But if Vickers returns to the AFC North, he would certainly have a chip on his shoulder. Not only would he play for a division rival, but Vickers would get a chance to punish the Browns twice a year for not re-signing him.

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