Saturday, August 6, 2011
Camp Confidential: Cleveland Browns
By James Walker
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
Colt McCoy has solid intangibles, but it's questionable whether he has the size and arm strength to succeed.
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."
Hillis doesn't look like a one-year wonder. He was the most steady player in Cleveland's camp this week. He's is 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."
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.
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.
D'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.