NFL Nation: Jabaal Sheard

A dozen takeaways from the Cleveland Browns offseason of work, which sounds odd because if there's work it's really not an "offseason."

  1. Coach Mike Pettine's balancing act starts on the first day of training camp. Which means he has to give two quarterbacks plenty of time and opportunity while getting one ready to start the season. Then he has to decide when to name the starter, which he admitted is a difficult task. “If you do it too late,” he said, “then nobody is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, then it wasn't a true competition.” So there will in fact be a “competition,” though the difference between this competition and others is that Pettine admits (candidly) that Brian Hoyer will be the starter on the first day, and it is up to Johnny Manziel to seize the job.
  2. [+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
    Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesBrian Hoyer will begin training camp No. 1 on the QB depth chart.
    It still seems significant that the Browns treated Hoyer like the starter. They gave him reps to get him accustomed to the offense, and he generally did well in them. More important, they protected him when they could, limiting the rush in some 11-on-11 drills and not putting him under center to keep folks from rolling into his knee. Drafting Manziel changed Hoyer's world, and the Browns understand what Manziel brings and what it means to have him on the sidelines. But they are showing Hoyer some respect as well.
  3. A lot of folks have commented on stories and posts that there is too much Manziel coverage. I hear the criticism and it's fair, and I wrestle with the best way to approach it and try to provide enough coverage of the entire team while still covering the quarterback spot, which with the Browns has been nothing but a consistent position of change and interest. Although some lament the coverage, stories with the name "Manziel" in the headline remain among the most read on the site.
  4. I don't know if it will affect the decision, because the best player should play. But the Browns open the season against, A) Dick LeBeau and a Steelers team that will do all it can to avoid a slow start, B) Rob Ryan and a Saints defense that will attack before the teams even take the field and, C) the Ravens. That is a tough three-game draw for anyone. The Browns might need that bye in the fourth week, but if Hoyer starts and wins two of three ... well, then things just got a lot more interesting.
  5. Jabaal Sheard raised some eyebrows when he said he'd be lining up more as an end than as a linebacker. Pettine didn't hide from the reality, saying Sheard would be a "rush linebacker" and Barkevious Mingo would drop more into coverage. Sheard could be a free agent after the season; the way he's being used and the way he looks, he could make himself a lot of money in this defense.
  6. Pettine has a very refreshing way of answering questions; he's direct without being condescending and honest without saying too much. I can't imagine him hiding behind platitudes and games when practices start for real. It almost seemed like he should have been applauded when he said you can't fall into "the trap" of liking a guy too much based on practices in shorts and without pads.
  7. As for the attacking system, this was Pettine's explanation: “The more that you can shorten the amount of time that the quarterback has to process -- you want to make him react quicker or at least think he has to react quicker -- then I think that's going to be in the defense's favor. We've studied it. We've put a stopwatch on when the balls come out versus us versus other teams, and there's a marked difference that it's coming out quicker when teams play us. You don't have to cover as long, and that's the benefit of it.”
  8. He added that he wants his defense to be "more calculated than reckless." Rob Ryan's defense in Cleveland at times seemed reckless. Pettine said he won't “blitz just to blitz.” He also said there may be times a cornerback blitzes, but he's still just the fourth rusher. The idea is to disguise and confuse, and give the quarterback one more thing to think about. No games have been played, but Pettine's combination of football acumen, common sense and years of wisdom from growing up with a coach as a father bring the Browns good things.
  9. [+] EnlargeBen Tate
    Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns are expecting big things from the running game after signing Ben Tate and implementing a new zone-blocking scheme.
    Running back Ben Tate has shown a bit of a 'tude since joining the Browns. He's criticized Manziel-mania, pointing out the rookie hadn't even thrown a pass in the NFL and that Manziel had won "the Heisman or whatever." This week he said there was nobody in the running back room who scared him. OK, then.
  10. Donte Whitner stands out. He's active, involved, aggressive and when he's off the field he's patient, honest, direct and forthright. Much to like there.
  11. The most improved position on the team: Running back. Yes, it's hard not to improve the group that played last season. But Tate and Terrance West seem to form a potent tandem. Combine that with the on-paper theory that the zone-blocking system should be better for the athletic players on the Browns' line and the Browns might actually turn the NFL on its ear by running the ball successfully.
  12. While standing on the sidelines chatting with Ron Jaworski, the ESPN analyst said this: “In this profession, if you're a quarterback you'd better be the first guy in and the last guy out.” Which of course brings to mind former Browns great quarterback Brian Sipe. One of the team's employees when Sipe was quarterback often said you could set your watch by him, because if he was supposed to be in the building at 9 he'd arrive at 8:59. In Sipe's case, the “it” factor took precedence over first in-last out.
BEREA, Ohio -- The praise from Mike Pettine flowed freely after the Browns' first minicamp practice.

The object of Pettine’s affection: Jabaal Sheard. The hybrid defensive end/linebacker has definitely caught the coach’s eye.

“We want a guy who plays like his hair’s on fire,” Pettine said Tuesday. “If I were to pick a guy who matches and fits that, the first name I would come up with is Jabaal.”

Sheard
Pettine loves Sheard’s versatility and his athleticism. He is a 270-pounder who can rush the passer and cover in space.

“I think we can move him around,” Pettine said. “He can play with his hand down. He can play up. His drops skills are more than adequate.

“And he plays violent.”

Which means the Browns could face an interesting scenario with Sheard after the season, when he could be an unrestricted free agent. If he has a big season, he will only help his bargaining position.

Sheard said some brief contract talks have taken place, but nothing substantial.

“There was something at the beginning,” he said. “But we’re just focused in on the year.”

Sheard made no secret that he would like to stay in Cleveland.

“I want to be here when the city erupts,” he said. “I know it’s coming. Hopefully this year is the year.”

But other players have said the same thing and left for greener offers. In free agency it only takes one team.

“Hopefully it works out,” Sheard said. “I’m just going to take it one step at a time. I’m only going to worry about this year.”
Opening up the MailBag on the weekend before the minicamp that will conclude the Cleveland Browns' "offseason" of work:
 
AURORA, Ohio -- Monday was coach Mike Pettine's turn to calm the frayed nerves of Cleveland Browns fans.

"We do have a plan," Pettine said about the team's receiver situation.

He would not detail the plan or hint at it, but he confidently stated the team has a plan to address a perceived need at receiver for the Browns.

The talk about the spot has raged in Cleveland since the report broke that Josh Gordon would miss the season due to a failed drug test, a report Pettine could not address specifically. But he did address the receiver position, and the fact that the Browns did not draft a receiver even though they were aware of Gordon's failed test, as reported by "Outside the Lines."

"This situation didn't call for panic," Pettine said.

Which is always a positive.

Gordon's teammates expressed strong hope that Gordon still can play. All admitted losing him would be a serious blow.

"He is a key player to us," linebacker Jabaal Sheard said. "It's important that we have him. Hopefully that's not the situation."

"He's a great player, that's the bottom line," linebacker Paul Kruger said. "One of the best receivers in the league."

Pettine, though, echoed the thoughts of GM Ray Farmer, who said the Browns have to be a team that can withstand the loss of a player.

"Losing players for extended periods of time is part of the game," Pettine said. "Successful franchises are the ones with enough depth built and enough options scheme-wise, coaching-wise to account for it."

The issue is what happens when the Browns lose this particular player, as it certainly seems they will. Players leaned on the "next man up" theory, and said they believe they still can win.

Depending on what happens, tight end Jordan Cameron could be most affected by Gordon's absence.

"You have to pay extra special attention to [Gordon] when he's out there," Cameron said. "Obviously that takes eyes off of me. But I feel like [offensive coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] will figure out a way to make things happen. He'll find ways to get guys the ball and be creative."
The Cleveland Browns did not play contract games in signing linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

No roster bonus games, no “it’s really a one-year deal” funny stuff. The Browns committed to both players, and spent $15 million in signing bonuses to do so -- $6 million for Dansby, $9 million for Whitner.

Here are the details:

Dansby was given $6 million to sign and will receive a $4 million guaranteed base salary this season. He’ll be paid $4 million in 2015 with half that guaranteed -- thus he signed for $12 million in guaranteed money. The final two years of the deal call for $5 million each year.

Total contract: Four years, $24 million.

Whitner received a $9 million signing bonus and a $2 million base salary this season that is guaranteed. He’ll be paid a $4.5 million base salary in 2015 that is guaranteed on the 15th day of the league year. Barring catastrophe, Whitner will be on the team both seasons, and thus is guaranteed $15.5 million.

Whitner's contract calls for $6.2 million in 2016 and $6.3 million in 2017.

Total contract: Four years, $28 million.

Clearly, since there are no machinations in the deals, the Browns believe in these guys.

And clearly, it’s understandable why they and their new teammates are smiling in this photo from Joe Haden’s Twitter feed (@JoeHaden23) that shows Jabaal Sheard, Josh Gordon and Haden welcoming them to the Browns:


BEREA, Ohio -- Rob Chudzinski said a goodbye to his players Monday morning, as he thanked them for their efforts the day after he was fired after one season as Cleveland Browns coach.

"He was definitely emotional about it," receiver Josh Gordon said of the morning meeting.

Chudzinski released a statement acknowledging he was shocked and disappointed at being fired. That's a sentiment shared around the league, and among the Browns players, who expressed disappointment, anger and dismay at the decision.

"Shocking," said rookie tight end MarQueis Gray.

"I didn't even know that was possible," Gordon said of being fired after one year as coach.

"It's a business," said receiver Josh Cooper. "They say they want stability, and hopefully we get that in the next few years."

The Browns attributed the decision to fire Chudzinski to the fact the team was worse in the final three games of the season than it was the first three. That indicated the team did not improve, owner Jimmy Haslam said.

Players merely felt bad for their coach, whom they seemed to genuinely like.

"The guys here really bought into him," Gordon said. "The guys loved him. Like anything, it's going to grow on you. You learn to appreciate what he did for us here. The guys needed structure and he brought that here."

But Chudzinski did not bring enough wins. He went 4-12, and as quarterback and running back difficulties mounted, the team struggled. Problems multiplied when the defense failed to hold leads.

The end result was that the Browns won one less game this season than they did a year ago with Pat Shurmur as coach and Brad Childress and Dick Jauron as coordinators.

"Nothing shocks me," said T.J. Ward. "I've had three coaches."

Ward was one of several veterans to be called to a private meeting with Haslam and CEO Joe Banner, where the pair explained their thinking to team leaders, including Joe Thomas, D'Qwell Jackson, Ward, Joe Haden, Alex Mack and Jason Campbell.

Sunday, Thomas and Jackson were strong in lamenting the mere notion that Chudzinski might be fired. Monday, none were in the locker room during the media interview time.

Gordon was, and he said it would be a "huge loss" if offensive coordinator Norv Turner were not retained. Banner said the new coach would have the ability to hire his staff, which does not bode well for Turner or defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

"In Cleveland, people really want to see this team do well," Gordon said. "I know the owner wants to see the team do well. The players want to win. Everybody has the right mindset. It's just so many things snowball right now in the wrong way."

It wasn't up to Gordon to decide if the decision was fair.

"It's the business of the league," Gordon said. "But I thought he would have more time than that."

"One season is one season," rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo said. "He didn't get the opportunities he wanted but he can't make those decisions. They were made by people above him. We can't make those decisions, obviously, and we have to roll with what happens."
T.J. Ward and Joe FlaccoUSA Today SportsThe Browns and T.J. Ward will try to snap an 11-game series slide against the Ravens and Joe Flacco.
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The Baltimore Ravens have won 11 games in a row over the Cleveland Browns. That number is a measure not only of how good the Ravens have been since 2007 — the last time the Browns won in this series — but also how badly the Browns have struggled.

That 11-game win streak also is the longest current streak of regular-season wins by one team against another, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

By ending that streak, the Browns would make a statement about themselves and their status in the AFC North. But the Ravens realize they will need to start righting themselves if they wish to have a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Let’s look ahead to the game with ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon.

Pat McManamon: The Ravens won the first game between these teams this season, in Week 2, and since then the Browns have started three different quarterbacks. What about the Ravens has changed since the first time these teams met?

Jamison Hensley: Pat, the problem for the Ravens is what hasn't changed. A big reason Baltimore is sitting at 3-4 is its inability to run the ball. The Ravens averaged 2.8 yards per rush against the Browns in Week 2, and they have averaged a league-worst 2.8 yards per rush for the season.

Ray Rice injured his hip in the fourth quarter against the Browns, and he really hasn't looked healthy since. But Rice has a great track record when playing in Cleveland. It's like his home turf, based on the results. In five games there, Rice has averaged 127.4 yards rushing. His worst game was 89 yards.

Is there any shot of Rice getting back on track against the Browns?

McManamon: The Browns are pretty good against the run. They give up 103.6 yards per game, good for 12th in the league. Three opponents have rushed for fewer than 100 yards, and last week they held the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, second in the NFL in rushing yards this season, to 74 yards. That being said, if anyone is going to bust loose against the Browns, it would be Rice. He seems to salivate when he plays the Browns, especially in Cleveland -- where he's had games of 154, 89, 92, 204 and 98 yards in the last five seasons.

Let's flip to the passing game, Jamison. In his first start, Jason Campbell was surprisingly effective against the Chiefs' pass rush. He was able to make his reads and get rid of the ball in a hurry. Do you anticipate the Ravens coming up with anything to take advantage of Campbell, who is on his fourth team in eight seasons?

Hensley: The Ravens were impressed by Campbell, but they were more impressed by the Browns' offensive line, which allowed just one sack against the Chiefs. Baltimore will find out if Cleveland's pass protection will hold up for a second week. The Ravens will likely use the same aggressive game plan that resulted in five sacks of Brandon Weeden in the earlier meeting with the Browns.

In addition to Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edges, the Ravens generated pressure by blitzing up the middle. Where the Ravens will really test Campbell is on third down. Baltimore has recorded 10 sacks on third down this season, fifth-most in the NFL. The last time the Ravens faced Campbell as a starter was 2008, but only two Ravens defensive starters from that game (Suggs and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata) remain on the team.

The bigger concern for the Ravens has been their inability to protect Joe Flacco. Has the Browns' pass rush lived up to expectations so far?

McManamon: In general, no, but last Sunday, yes. The Browns got six sacks against a pretty mobile quarterback in Alex Smith. The catch is that whereas defensive coordinator Ray Horton went after Smith, he dialed back the blitzes the previous two weeks when he faced Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. The Browns have guys who can bring pressure in Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, Paul Kruger (even with his low sack total) and rookie Barkevious Mingo. But against Green Bay and Detroit, Horton played coverage. Flacco isn't mobile, but he is smart and he's won a Super Bowl. It will be intriguing to see whether the Browns go after him or sit back.

Kruger is one of the departed Ravens from last season's Super Bowl champs. Which of those guys who left -- including the retired Ray Lewis -- do they miss the most?

Hensley: The Ravens haven't really missed Lewis on the field. Daryl Smith, who replaced the longtime face of the franchise, has been the defense's top playmaker. The top four players that the Ravens miss the most (in no particular order) are wide receiver Anquan Boldin, safety Ed Reed, safety Bernard Pollard and center Matt Birk.

Boldin was a difference-maker on third down and in the red zone, two areas where the offense has struggled this season. Teams would likely take fewer deep shots if Reed were playing center field, and there's less of an intimidation factor on defense without Pollard. The biggest surprise is how much the Ravens have struggled without Birk. In his first season as the starting center, Gino Gradkowski is getting pushed back too often.

Speaking of changes, the Ravens didn't have to face wide receiver Josh Gordon last month because he was serving his two-game suspension. Can his impact change the Browns' fortunes against the Ravens?

McManamon: Of course. Gordon is a talent. A big-time talent. At just 22, he’s second in the league in yards per catch, and every touchdown pass in his career has been for at least 20 yards. It’s no secret that the offense opened up for Brian Hoyer, in part because Hoyer played but also because he had Gordon back. That said, not even Gordon can overcome bad quarterbacking. He struggled when Weeden had his second chance because Weeden struggled. Campbell got him back in the offense. Baltimore must respect him.

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It seemed that linebacker Jabaal Sheard would return for the Browns last week.

He didn’t.

But he might on Sunday against Green Bay.

Sheard was a full participant in practice all week and is listed as probable on the team’s injury report. He missed three games with a sprained knee.

Coach Rob Chudzinski said Sheard will join Quentin Groves and Barkevious Mingo in a rotation at outside linebacker.

“We have different packages for all of them,” Chudzinski said. “I look at it like we have three starters, and we’re going to roll them. Hopefully, we can get them to where the amount of reps they’re getting are close to the same. I think that’ll help our effectiveness.”

Defensive lineman Billy Winn will not play Sunday. Running back Willis McGahee was held out Thursday to rest his aging and ailing knees, but he will play.

The Browns also placed backup defensive back Josh Aubrey on injured reserve. Aubry hurt his knee and ankle in practice Thursday and is done for the season. In addition, the team waived running back Bobby Rainey.

Cornerback Julian Posey and wide receiver Tori Gurley were promoted from the practice squad.
Cleveland Browns linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves went through another day of practice and will test their injured knee and ankle, respectively, prior to Sunday’s game to see if they will face the Lions.

Sheard and Groves are listed as questionable, though both seem to have a good chance to play.

The team is playing it careful, in part for competitive reasons and in part to make sure neither player has a setback of any kind on Saturday.

If fully healthy, Sheard would likely move back into his starting spot at outside linebacker. The Browns were very pleased with Sheard’s play, and though they liked some of the things that first-round pick Barkevious Mingo did, they also recognized his inconsistency.

Coach Rob Chudzinski also said that Brian Hoyer will have surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Friday, Oct. 18. Chudzinski said the team hopes to have Hoyer back on the field during OTAs in May and June.
Chances seem to be improving that the Cleveland Browns will have one of their better defensive players back from injury this week.

Jabaal Sheard moved well in the portion of practice open to the media. Sheard has missed two weeks with a sprained knee, and though he was limited Wednesday he was in full uniform Thursday.

Sheard
Sheard moved from defensive end to outside linebacker this season when the Browns switched to the 3-4 and was playing very well before he sprained his knee.

“He’s a very smart player,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “He allows us to do certain things.”

First-round pick Barkevious Mingo started for Sheard, and Horton has been quick to temper enthusiastic responses to Mingo’s flashy plays and caution that the rookie was learning.

One example: Mingo was responsible for the outside edge on C.J. Spiller’s long touchdown run in the win over the Bills, but he ducked too far inside and allowed Spiller to bounce around the end and score.

“I assume he knows what the lesson is, what his responsibility to the rest of the team is,” Horton said of Mingo. “He’s a young player and I think I said a week ago, two weeks ago for sure, with young players like him, we’re going to learn and grow with him.”

And suffer with him.

Sheard is in his third season, but Horton said he is “one of our better players.” Horton deferred to coach Rob Chudzinski on whether Sheard would start, but said: “We want all of our good players on the field.”

In other injury news, defensive lineman Billy Winn did not practice. Linebacker Quentin Groves was in uniform and on the field.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer made his first appearance on the field since tearing a knee ligament during the morning walk-through. Hoyer moved on crutches, and did not speak to the media. He has been in the building with his teammates all week.
Cleveland Browns rookie Barkevious Mingo raised some hopes as well as some eyebrows when he made a bold prediction about Cleveland's new-look defense earlier this month.

"If everything is going well," Mingo told The Plain Dealer, "I think this defense could be the best in the league."

The Browns want their players to exude confidence just like Mingo did. But there is something to be said for being able to back up your expectations, especially ones that will be considered over the top or get classified as crazy.

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsBarkevious Mingo isn't the only reason the Browns' defense might jump back into the top half of the NFL this season.
Cleveland's defense ranked No. 23 last season, some of which can be blamed on not having cornerback Joe Haden and defensive tackle Phil Taylor for a combined 13 games. Still, the Browns have one proven starter at cornerback. They failed to upgrade at inside linebacker and free safety this offseason. And while Cleveland significantly upgraded its pass rush, there are concerns whether outside linebackers Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard can hold up against the run.

That being said, Mingo is right to a degree. The Browns' defense will be improved, and that can be backed up with what new defensive coordinator Ray Horton did in Arizona. In 2011, Horton's first season as the Cardinals' defensive coordinator, Arizona finished tied for 18th in defense just one season after ranking No. 29. Last season, the Cardinals were 12th under Horton. Based on this, it is realistic to expect the Browns' defense will jump back into the top half of the NFL.

If Mingo really wanted to hype up the Browns, he didn't have to predict they would have the best defense. He could have said they would have the most aggressive defense in the NFL. Last year, Horton had the Cardinals blitzing 42.3 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only other team to send five or more pass rushers more often in 2012 was the Houston Texans (46.9 percent). Compare that to the Browns, who blitzed 26.5 percent of the time. That ranked 17th in the NFL. There is no argument that the Browns will be more aggressive on defense than a year ago.

"I think he has a very strange personality. But we like it. We love it," Mingo said of Horton. "He’s an aggressive guy -- we like that -- and it shows in his play calling. He loves to blitz. He loves to get after people, and we like that. I definitely love to play for a guy that’s going forward instead of waiting for them to come at you."
Barkevious MingoDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns' pick of Barkevious Mingo suggests a more aggressive defensive scheme is coming.

The Cleveland Browns could've gone with the flashy pick by drafting West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. They could've played it safe by taking Alabama's Dee Milliner, the top-rated cornerback in the draft.

Instead, Cleveland made the right move in going with LSU pass rusher Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick, sending a message to the rest of the league: The Browns are coming after your quarterback this year.

The first free-agent signing by chief executive officer Joe Banner was Paul Kruger, the sacks leader for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The first pick of this new era was Mingo, one of the most explosive and athletic defensive players in this draft.

The Browns didn't address their biggest need at cornerback. They didn't bring in a playmaker to spark a long-struggling offense. What the Browns did accomplish was to put some fear into Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton.

"We've talked about bringing in aggressive players to play in an aggressive scheme. He fits that very well," Banner said. "This was the outcome we were hoping for."

How much did the Browns want Mingo? Banner said he had a trade in place if Mingo didn't fall to them. When he was there, the Browns didn't think about trading down.

The Browns are doing more than switching to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Ray Horton. They want to change the mentality. Last week, during the Browns' first minicamp, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson talked about giving the Ravens and Steelers "a little dose of their own medicine."

That wasn't the case last season, when Browns linebackers combined for 19.5 tackles for loss or sacks, the lowest mark in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Browns now have playmakers in Mingo and Kruger.

"We feel like building this the way we are, with character and aggressiveness and quickness, that this was the right guy at this time as we looked at our board," Banner said.

There will be some teeth-gnashing that the Browns didn't draft someone to improve upon the NFL's 24th-ranked scoring offense. But the Browns didn't need Smith, another strong-armed quarterback like Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.

Some will worry that Buster Skrine is still penciled in as the starter at cornerback. As I wrote previously, Milliner doesn't make enough plays to be taken at No. 6.

Asked about passing over a cornerback, Banner said: "We're not going to force filling a need on a short-term basis. We're not going to fill all the needs on this team this year. It's just not going to happen."

Plus, teams can get by with average corners if they can put pressure on quarterbacks. Look at the Ravens, who won a Super Bowl with Cary Williams (a seventh-round pick in 2008) and Corey Graham (Pro Bowl special teams player) at cornerback.

"It all starts with the pass rush," coach Rob Chudzinski said.

The reason why I like the decision to pick Mingo goes beyond his name, which sounds more like a character in the "Harry Potter" books. (His name, by the way, was made up by his mother, who wanted something different. His brother is named Hughtavious. Yes, really.)

In his first interview with Cleveland reporters, Mingo didn't sound overwhelmed by the upcoming challenges of the NFL, which comes from his SEC pedigree. His sacks dipped to 4.5 in his final season in college, but his confidence did not.

On his vision for his pro career, Mingo said: "I think I can be as good as I want to be -- and I want to be great. I want to be one of those guys that gets their names in Canton, Ohio, and be a dominant player."

Even though Mingo didn't produce strong sack numbers, he still made quarterbacks move out the pocket and hurry throws. He recorded 28 total pressures (hurries and knockdowns), tied for the second-most in the SEC. Only Jarvis Jones (31), who was later drafted by the Steelers, had more.

Mingo is freakishly athletic. He has a tremendous upside. Sure, Mingo needs to bulk up if he wants to defend the run. But he brings something you can't teach: an explosive first step.

"I think I'm the best pass rusher," Mingo said. "Week 1 and the preseason, I'll get to show it."

Cleveland didn't need to draft a pass rusher. The Browns already had Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves (and Browns officials said they had no immediate plans to trade Sheard).

The Browns, though, made the right pick because they went with the best player available. Reaching for a player like Smith or Milliner won't change double-digit losses year after year. This about building a team, and that begins with embracing an attacking style of play. And, adding some 'Bark' to the Dawg Pound seems appropriate.

"It really started with our coaching search and Chud's philosophy, which is part of the reason why he got the job frankly, about playing aggressive and attacking defense and making life uncomfortable for quarterbacks," Banner said. "It's about being on the attack even when the other team has the ball. I think you could see it in the moves that we made, whether it's in the free-agent moves or what you've seen so far in the draft. It fit the plan."

 
The Cleveland Browns addressed the pass rush, taking LSU's Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick.

Mingo
The Browns selected Mingo over Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, even though cornerback was a bigger need for Cleveland. It also dismisses the pre-draft speculation that the Browns would take West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in the first round.

Mingo is expected to team with Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard to boost the Browns' ability to get to the quarterback.

Here's a short capsule:

BARKEVIOUS MINGO

School: LSU

Height/weight: 6-foot-4/241 pounds

The good: Explosive and durable. Mingo has an explosive first step and has a great motor. He has tremendous upside.

The bad: Considered unpolished as a football player. He lacks bulk to defend the run.

The bottom line: The Browns want to be more aggressive on defense with new coordinator Ray Horton. The additions of Mingo and Kruger will allow Cleveland to do that.

I will post more thoughts on this pick a little later.
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.”
Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs has led the AFC North in sacks the past two seasons. Now, with Suggs missing a significant portion of the season (if not all of it) with an Achilles injury, which pass-rusher will top the division in sacks this season?

SportsNation

Who will lead the AFC North in sacks this year?

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    17%
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    8%
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    22%
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    42%
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    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,679)

Here are my top candidates to supplant Suggs as the AFC North sack leader:

Carlos Dunlap, Bengals defensive end: Dunlap only had 4.5 sacks last season, but he could be on the verge of a breakout season. In 2011, he recorded 13 quarterback hits and 20 quarterback pressures.

James Harrison, Steelers linebacker: He had three straight seasons of double-digit sacks until last season, when he had nine in 11 games. The one concern is his age (34).

Jabaal Sheard, Browns defensive end: The second-round pick from a year ago could be a major pass-rush force if he continues to improve. Sheard made an immediate impact as a rookie with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.

LaMarr Woodley, Steelers linebacker: Like Harrison, he put together a string of three straight seasons with at least 10 sacks until last season, when he had nine in 10 games. Woodley led the division with 13.5 sacks in 2009.

Go ahead and register your vote. Let me know which pass-rusher you chose and why by dropping me some mail. Your comments could get published on the blog later in the week.

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