- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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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
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."
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.”