NFL Nation: Sheldon Brown

The Cleveland Browns only have two picks from the first five rounds of the 2013 NFL draft, and both have heard scrutiny during the team's rookie minicamp this past weekend. Pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo was questioned about being too skinny, and cornerback Leon McFadden has heard the talk about him being too short.

[+] EnlargeLeon McFadden
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCleveland defensive back Leon McFadden practices during rookie minicamp at the Browns' training facility on Friday.
McFadden, a 5-foot-9 third-round pick out of San Diego State, was the 11th cornerback taken in the draft. But he was the first cornerback under 5 feet 10 drafted this year. Most of the top cornerbacks measured around 5-11, and three (Xavier Rhodes, Johnthan Banks and David Amerson) were over 6 feet.

“I don’t think my height is a problem,” McFadden said, via the Morning Journal. “I take that as a chip on my shoulder and turn it into a positive and go out there and compete on every down."

Heading into the draft, everyone knew the Browns would take a cornerback at some point. It was the biggest need on the team. I thought the Browns would be looking for a cornerback with more height and length. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton was a longtime secondary coach for the Steelers, and Pittsburgh is known for the size of its corners with Ike Taylor (6-2), Keenan Lewis (6-0) and Bryant McFadden (6-0).

From the Browns' perspective, McFadden isn't replacing a tall cornerback in Sheldon Brown (5-10) and he isn't competing against one either in Buster Skrine (5-9). For the Browns to improve upon the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense, it might not be about the size of the cornerbacks. It's about the size of the mistakes.

Cleveland allowed 22 touchdowns to opposing wide receivers last season, tied for second most in the NFL. Brown, who wasn't re-signed, and Skrine combined to give up nine touchdowns last season. Brown and Skrine also ranked in the top five in penalties committed by cornerbacks, getting flagged nine times each.

“Obviously we all want 6-1 corners," general manager Mike Lombardi said. "We all want Willie Brown from the old days, but sometimes it’s harder to find."

McFadden is considered the favorite to start opposite Joe Haden, but veteran Chris Owens is expected to rotate with McFadden.
The Browns wanted to lure Brent Grimes to Cleveland so much they sent a private jet to collect him for his free-agent visit March 16. Now, there's a report that the cornerback could land somewhere else.

Grimes, who also visited Miami, could reach a deal there "soon," according to CBS Sports. If Grimes checks out medically -- he tore his Achilles tendon in last season's opener -- he is the best cornerback left in free agency. The Browns could team him with Joe Haden, giving them one of the best corner tandems in the league. If Grimes signs with the Dolphins or elsewhere, the Browns will have a major hole at that spot.

It's surprising that Cleveland hasn't been more aggressive in trying to replace last season's starter, Sheldon Brown, who isn't expected to be re-signed. The other top free-agent corners -- Sean Smith (Kansas City), Aqib Talib (New England) and Chris Houston (Detroit) -- are gone. There is a dropoff from Grimes to the other defenders still on the market.

Here are some of the corners left in free agency (and it's not a promising group):

Antoine Winfield, Minnesota: He could accept an offer from another team before making a visit to the Redskins. Winfield, who will turn 36 in June, has reportedly drawn interest from two other teams (which haven't been identified). While his play is on the decline, Winfield had a strong season in 2012 and has enough athleticism to be an effective starter.

Nnamdi Asomugha, Philadelphia: The one-time best corner in the game is reportedly torn between playing for the 49ers and the Saints. It looks like he'll be off the market soon.

DeAngelo Hall, Washington: There were reports that he had signed with Detroit, but the Lions aren't interested in him. Hall has received very little attention. He sometimes takes too many risks to make a play, but he is a solid tackler and is very experienced.

Quentin Jammer, San Diego: He is a physical, durable corner who has drawn no interest and could be signed for cheap. The drawback with Jammer is his lack of speed. He's at his best in press coverage and likes to deliver big hits.

Mike Jenkins, Dallas: He has been linked to the Raiders and is scheduled to visit the Jaguars on Thursday. Jenkins was relegated to being Dallas' dime back last season, and it would be a surprise to see him become a starter again.

Tracy Porter, Denver: Porter visited the Saints and Raiders this week and should make a decision soon. He is only 26 and has a good feel for the game. But there is some concern after seizures and a concussion ruined his 2012 season.

If the Browns don't address cornerback in free agency, they'll be forced to take one in the early rounds of the draft. Alabama's Dee Milliner could drop to the Browns at the No. 6 overall pick. Boise State's Jamar Taylor, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Oregon State's Jordan Poyer might be available at the top of the second round.

Wrap-up: Broncos 34, Browns 12

December, 23, 2012
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Here's my thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 34-12 loss at the Denver Broncos:

What it means: The Browns are packing it in for coach Pat Shurmur, losing the last two weeks by a combined 39 points. Cleveland fell to 5-10, which is the ninth time in 10 years that they've recorded double-digit losses. The Browns are now 1-6 on the road. Denver (12-3) won its 10th straight game.

Top picks injured: As the season continues to end on a sour note, the Browns watched their top two picks, running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden, leave the game with injuries. Richardson got his left leg rolled up on Cleveland's final (and meaningless) drive. He's getting X-rays for a possible broken ankle. Weeden was knocked out of the game with a right shoulder injury in the third quarter, when Von Miller slammed him to the ground. Weeden told reporters after the game that he's fine.

More records for Richardson: Before leaving with that late injury, Richardson surpassed Jim Brown's franchise rookie rushing record with 53 yards on nine carries. That raised Richardson's season total to 950. Brown's mark of 947 was in a 12-game season in 1957.

Tough day for Brown: The Browns were down 14-3 by the second quarter, and cornerback Sheldon Brown had to shake his head. Despite good coverage, Brown was beaten for touchdowns by Demaryius Thomas (22 yards) and Eric Decker (10 yards) in the first half. Then, before halftime, Brown was knocked out of the game with a concussion after colliding with Brandon Stokley. This depletes an already banged-up secondary.

McCoy gets some work: Backup quarterback Colt McCoy got his most playing time of the year and took advantage of it. McCoy produced the Browns' only touchdown drive of the game, moving them 80 yards on 10 plays. He converted a fourth down-and-five with a swing pass to Richardson and then hit Greg Little for a six-yard touchdown pass. McCoy was 9-of-17 for 79 yards, and Weeden was 12-of-19 for 104 yards.

What's next: The Browns wrap up their season at Pittsburgh.

Wrap-up: Browns 20, Raiders 17

December, 2, 2012
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My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 20-17 win at the Oakland Raiders:

What it means: The Browns (4-8) ended a 12-game road losing streak, winning for the first time away from home since Sept. 18, 2011. Cleveland also won back-to-back games for the first time since September 2011. The Browns are now 4-3 since starting the season 0-5. The Raiders (3-9) lost for the fifth straight time.

Brown steps up: With Cleveland ahead by three points, Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown stopped the go-ahead score by picking off Carson Palmer at the Browns' six-yard line. It was the Browns' only forced turnover of the game. Brown broke up three other passes as well.

Closing it out: The Browns, who have had their problems in the fourth quarter this year, sealed the win with a 14-play, 94-yard drive in the fourth quarter. It was capped by Trent Richardson's three-yard touchdown run with 3:27 remaining, which extended Cleveland's lead to 20-10. Richardson finished with 72 yards on 20 carries.

Up and down day for Weeden: The rookie quarterback threw for a career-high 364 yards and hit Josh Gordon in stride for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But he was also picked off twice deep in Raiders territory (Oakland's three- and eight-yard lines).

No longer perfect: Phil Dawson missed a 28-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter, when 6-foot-6 tackle Desmond Bryant deflected the kick. It ended Dawson’s franchise-record streak of 29 straight field goals.

What's next: The Browns head back home to play the Chiefs.

Wrap-up: Cowboys 23, Browns 20, OT

November, 18, 2012
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Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-20 overtime loss at the Dallas Cowboys:

What it means: It's the same old story for the Browns, who continue to fail to finish off games. Cleveland couldn't hold a 13-0 halftime lead, or a 20-17 lead with 67 seconds remaining in regulation, extending its misery on the road. The Browns have now lost a franchise-record 12 straight games on the road, which is also the longest active streak in the NFL. The loss also drops the Browns to 2-8 and clinches their 12th non-winning season in 14 years since returning to the league.

Special teams lapse: The Cowboys' winning field goal was set up by a mistake by the Browns' punt team. Johnson Bademosi's missed tackle allowed Dwayne Harris to break a 20-yard return to the Cleveland 48-yard line. Six plays later, Dan Bailey hit a 38-yard field goal in overtime.

Secondary blowup: A Browns secondary that was playing without cornerback Joe Haden was exposed in the second half. Sheldon Brown was beaten by Dez Bryant on a 28-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cowboys their first lead (17-13) with 6:46 left in the game. A pass interference penalty on Buster Skrine, who replaced Haden, set up that score. Skrine was responsible for three of the seven penalties on the Cleveland defensive backfield. Brown's 35-yard pass interference penalty led to Dallas' game-tying field goal late in regulation. Skrine left the game late with a head injury.

Weeden delivers late in regulation: After throwing a poor pass that resulted in an incompletion on fourth-and-goal, Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden bounced right back and hit tight end Ben Watson on a 17-yard touchdown pass on his very next throw. It put the Browns back ahead 20-17 with 1:07 left in the game, a lead that the Cleveland defense was unable to hold. Weeden struggled with his accuracy and finished 20-of-35 for 210 yards. He also had a fumble in the fourth quarter.

Mr. Perfect: Phil Dawson continues to have a Pro Bowl-type season. He converted from 51 and 47 yards to remain perfect on the season. Dawson has connected on his past 25 field goals.

End of red zone drought: The Browns jumped out to a 7-0 lead by ending a streak of five straight trips in the red zone without a first down. Watson pulled down a high pass from Weeden in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. It was set up by Chris Ogbonnaya's run that allowed the Browns to convert on third-and-1, a trouble spot all year.

Mixed results for defense: The Browns shut out the Cowboys for the game's first 40 minutes. Cleveland limited Dallas to 68 yards of total offense in the first half. It was the fewest first-half yards for the Cowboys since December 2007. After halftime, Tony Romo took advantage of the Browns' soft coverage, going 25-of-33 for 239 yards.

What's next: The Browns play host to the Steelers (6-3) on Sunday.

Wrap-up: Colts 17, Browns 13

October, 21, 2012
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Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss at the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: It was a disappointing start to the Jimmy Haslam era. The Browns lost their 11th straight road game, which ties the franchise record (1974-76). This road losing streak is the longest active one in the NFL. Cleveland (1-6) becomes the first team to lose six games this season.

Failing to convert in the fourth quarter: The Browns couldn't extend drives in the final quarter. They failed on four third downs and two fourth downs. The biggest blunder on third down was a dropped 41-yard pass by rookie receiver Josh Gordon that would have gone for a touchdown.

Giving up on the run: The expected game plan was attacking the Colts and the 29th-ranked run defense. But the Browns gave up on the run too fast, handing it off 16 times while throwing 40 passes. Rookie running back Trent Richardson (ribs) didn't play in the second half after getting drilled on a third-and-one with four minutes left in the second quarter. Unlike last week, the Browns didn't give the ball to backup Montario Hardesty. Richardson finished with eight yards on eight carries, and quarterback Brandon Weeden finished as the leading rusher (13 yards) after three quarters.

Wasted turnover: Blitzing cornerback Sheldon Brown came on the blind side to hit Andrew Luck, forcing a fumble and recovering it in the fourth quarter. Down 17-13, Cleveland didn't convert as Gordon dropped a deep third-down pass at the goal line. The Browns chose to punt on fourth-and-1 at the Colts' 41 with 6:31 remaining.

Greg Little shows off hands: Little has been rightfully criticized for dropping the ball in his first two seasons in the NFL. But he made the best grab of his career on the Browns' opening possession. Leaping over a Colts defender in the back of the end zone, Little tapped the ball in the air and caught it while getting both feet inbounds.

Not so special teams: The Browns matched the Colts' game-opening touchdown drive with a 16-play, 90-yard series. But Cleveland failed to tie the game because holder Reggie Hodges mishandled the snap on the point-after attempt. Last season, the Browns struggled with the long snaps.

Luck or RG3?: The Browns had to be confused whether they were playing Luck, the draft's top pick, or Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 overall selection. Luck showed off his athleticism by scoring the Colts' first two touchdowns on runs. He reached the end zone on runs of 3 and 5 yards.

Weeden watch: In the first matchup of rookie quarterbacks this season, Weeden more than held his own against Luck. Weeden looked decisive on his throws, completing 25 of 41 passes for 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

What's next: The Browns return home to play the San Diego Chargers, who are coming off a bye.

Wrap up: Browns 34, Bengals 24

October, 14, 2012
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Thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 34-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

What it means: A huge weight has been lifted off the young Browns team. The winless Browns (1-5) avoided franchise infamy by ending an 11-game losing streak, which was tied for the longest in team history. Cleveland also won an AFC North game for the first time in 13 tries. The Bengals (3-3) lost for the second straight week to a team with a losing record and fell two games back of the division-leading Ravens. These losses put a dent in the Bengals’ hopes of getting to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1981-82. Cincinnati is also 0-2 in the AFC North.

No Richardson, no problem: The Browns have had to deal with so many injuries. Maybe that’s why Cleveland didn’t blink when first-round pick Trent Richardson left the game with what was described as a “flank injury.” Backup running back Montario Hardesty, who had trouble holding onto the ball in the preseason, did more than step up. He finished off a drive with four straight runs, including a spinning one-yard touchdown run that gave the Browns a fourth-quarter lead and their first lead of the game. Hardesty finished with 56 yards rushing.

Another costly mistake for Dalton: In trying to rally the Bengals from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had an interception returned by Sheldon Brown for a touchdown. This was the third time that Dalton has had an interception brought back for a score. He finished 31-of-46 for 381 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Gordon goes deep again: For the second straight week, Browns rookie receiver Josh Gordon burned a secondary deep down the field. This time, he ran past safety Reggie Nelson and caught a 71-yard pass for a touchdown in the second quarter. It was the first time since 2002 (Quincy Morgan) that a Browns player had back-to-back games with a catch of 60 yards or more. Three of Gordon's first nine NFL catches have been for touchdowns.

Return of Haden: Joe Haden made an impact in his first game since coming back from his four-game suspension. He had seven tackles (second on the team) and broke up three passes (tied for most on the Browns). Haden also had an interception, his second in two games played, which was converted into a field goal.

Green continues to cause problems: Bengals receiver A.J. Green has been a menace to the Browns defense. He had seven catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. In four games against Cleveland, Green has had four touchdowns.

What’s next: The Browns play at Indianapolis (2-3), which was routed by 26 points at the New York Jets. The Bengals return home to play the Steelers (2-3), who are coming off an upset loss at Tennessee.

Observation deck: Browns-Eagles

August, 25, 2012
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Brandon Weeden's growing pains are getting painful to watch. In the Cleveland Browns' woeful 27-10 preseason loss to the Eagles on Thursday night, Weeden looked ragged against Philadelphia's pressure and struggled to hold onto the ball again.

Weeden, who was 9 of 20 for 117 yards, will face this same Eagles defense in 16 days in the regular-season opener. The bad news is that defense won't be coming off four days' rest like Friday night.

Like he did in the preseason opener, Weeden started off strong, completing his first four passes for 66 yards. When the Eagles started blowing past Cleveland's shaky offensive line, Weeden's lack of mobility and improvisation showed. He connected on 5 of his last 16 passes. He got sacked three times. He fumbled twice (losing one). Weeden's first fumble occurred in the red zone, when he was sacked after the Browns failed to execute a simple screen pass.

Not all of the blame for the Browns' unsightly performance can be put on Weeden. The offensive line couldn't handle the speed of the Eagles' defense and committed four penalties in the first half (left guard Jason Pinkston had false start and holding penalties on the opening drive). Tight end Jordan Cameron had a drop, and wide receiver Greg Little surprisingly pulled up on a catch over the middle.

In addition to the mistakes of the young Browns' offense, the defense struggled against the Eagles backup quarterback and Cleveland got a punt blocked deep in its own territory.

“I’m not worried, disappointed or concerned. We’re going to get it fixed," Shurmur said. "Again, I don’t mean to be short. Let’s look at it for what it is, we need to play better. I’m encouraged because I got a bunch of guys in there that when I talk to them after the game, I could see their jaws lock and understand what we need to get done. I’m looking forward to them having their day off and getting back to work. I think we have got a crew here that understands the message.”

Here are some other thoughts on the Browns' third preseason game:
  • One of the few bright spots was the improved play of wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had three catches for 50 yards after a good week of practice. He beat three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who had tight coverage, for a 28-yard reception on the first play of the game. The Browns are looking for him to earn the starting job opposite Little.
  • Colt McCoy either improved his chances of winning the backup quarterback job or increased his trade value. Continuing a strong preseason, McCoy finished 7 of 9 for 74 yards and one touchdown. After McCoy's three-yard touchdown pass to Evan Moore, Seneca Wallace came in and threw an interception on the Browns' next offensive play.
  • One difference when the Browns play the Eagles in the regular-season opener is they'll face Michael Vick instead of backup Nick Foles, and that could be a good thing based on Friday night. After getting intercepted by Joe Haden on his second throw, he completed 12 of 17 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Cleveland.
  • Filling in for top pick Trent Richardson (knee) again, running back Montario Hardesty fumbled for the second straight game. He nearly lost the ball on the first drive, too. Hardesty didn't find much running room and managed 12 yards on eight carries.
  • Poor play wasn't limited to the Browns' offense and defense. Their special teams made it a full-team meltdown when Reggie Hodges got a punt blocked in the first quarter. The Eagles took over at the Browns' three-yard line and scored their second touchdown two plays later.
  • Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson looked like a rookie. He decided to blitz Foles late which freed up tight end Brent Celek for the first touchdown. Johnson's roughing the passer penalty nullified an interception return for a touchdown by David Sims early in the third quarter. He did break up a couple of passes.
  • Veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown couldn't handle the speed of an undrafted rookie. Brown got beat twice by 5-foot-8 receiver Damaris Johnson for 58 yards. He didn't get any deep help from Eric Hagg on one deep throw. The Browns likely won't have any choice but to start Brown. Haden is reportedly facing a suspension from the league, and Dimitri Patterson is dealing with an ankle injury.
  • There were 13 Cleveland players scratched from the game, including outside linebacker Scott Fujita (knee) and tight end Ben Watson (undisclosed).

Observation deck: Browns-Packers

August, 17, 2012
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There were some encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the Browns' 35-10 preseason victory at Green Bay.

A week after three completions and two turnovers in the preseason opener, Weeden got rid of the ball quicker and was more decisive on reads. He finished 12-of-18 for 118 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. Two of his six incompletions were drops by Josh Gordon and Greg Little.

Weeden led the Browns to scores on four of his six series (three long field goals by Phil Dawson and a one-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty), although three of the possessions began in Packers territory. And while he didn't turn the ball over, Weeden got lucky when Green Bay defenders dropped two of his throws.

Here are some of my other thoughts on the Browns' second preseason game:
  • Hardesty, who started his second game in place of the injured Trent Richardson (knee), got off to a bad start when he fumbled on the Browns' first play. He redeemed himself by gaining tough yards up the middle, rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8-yard average).
  • Like Weeden, the Browns' defense bounced back from the preseason opener. Without six starters, Cleveland gave up one completion over 11 yards to quarterback Aaron Rodgers (it was the touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson). The safety blitz by T.J. Ward was a well-timed wrinkle. The run defense clogged up the middle much better than last week. The Browns gave up 49 yards on the ground in the first half (compared to 115 last week), and 24 of those yards came on two Rodgers scrambles.
  • Colt McCoy put together his second strong performance in what may have been an audition for the Packers. McCoy was 4-of-6 for 58 yards, leading Cleveland on a 14-play scoring drive in his one series of work. If the Packers weren't interested in McCoy before this game, Thursday night should have changed their minds. Green Bay backup Graham Harrell struggled mightily with two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) and a safety.
  • Sheldon Brown, who was expected to get unseated as a starting cornerback this year, forced his second turnover of the preseason. He ripped the ball way from Green Bay's Randall Cobb after a catch.
  • The Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, had an interesting night. He was beaten early by Nelson, but Rodgers overthrew him in the end zone. When Haden blanketed Nelson moments later, Nelson leapt over him for a touchdown.
  • Dawson looked like he was in midseason form with field goals from 53, 46 and 52 yards. His night was made tougher by lineman Oniel Cousins, who committed two penalties to push back Dawson's kicks. A facemask penalty on an extra point? Really?
  • You didn't really notice rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, which is a compliment after a shaky game last week. The Browns' starting offensive line was solid. Left guard Jason Pinkston gave up a quarterback pressure on one third down, which forced Weeden to hurry a throw.
BEREA, Ohio -- Long before the announcement that Jimmy Haslam was buying the Browns, a new era had already begun in Cleveland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

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

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

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

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

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

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

Strong safety T.J. Ward is primed to have a breakout season. He was among the top 10 safeties in the NFL before a foot injury sidelined him for the final eight games of the season. Ward's physical presence should make an impact on Cleveland's porous run defense. The free safety spot is open after Mike Adams signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. Eric Hagg is the leading contender after his strong showing this spring. A seventh-round pick from a year ago, Hagg looks like he's the most improved player on the Browns this season.
It won't be considered a scintillating move, but it was a smart one for the Cleveland Browns to re-sign cornerback Dimitri Patterson.

I expect a potential ripple effect from the Browns keeping Patterson. Judging by the size of his contract -- three years for $16 million with $6 million guaranteed, according to the Akron Beacon Journal -- the expectation is for Patterson to go from nickel back to starter.

Patterson, 28, would push Sheldon Brown, who got picked on by quarterbacks last season, to nickel back or to a different position entirely. The Browns could move Brown to safety depending on their faith in speedy Buster Skrine becoming the No. 3 cornerback. Shifting Brown to safety would eliminate the need for Cleveland to re-sign free agent Mike Adams, who is visiting the Denver Broncos.

Excelling last season as the nickel back, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Patterson broke up 12 passes and made 26 tackles. While keeping Patterson is a solid move for the Browns -- I had him as the ninth-best free agent available in the AFC North -- it doesn't preclude them from using the fourth overall pick on LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.

The Browns continue to be the most active AFC North team in signing free agents, adding defensive end Frostee Rucker and retaining Patterson, tight end Alex Smith and offensive lineman John Greco.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. STEELERS: Pittsburgh had the top-ranked pass defense, and it wasn't all about the pass rush this time. Actually, the pass rush was extremely inconsistent this season, so that No. 1 ranking is more of a reflection of the Steelers' secondary. Cornerback Ike Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark had career years. Taylor's season, though, was marred by a late-season decline that ended with him getting stiffed-armed by the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas on the touchdown that ended the Steelers' season. Clark had the best season of any safety in the division, which is saying a lot when Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed are in the AFC North. He finished second in the division with 100 tackles. Polamalu was solid, but didn't play up to his usual spectacular level. William Gay was a pleasant surprise, taking back the starting cornerback job that he lost in 2010. What could change: Gay is an unrestricted free agent, but it shouldn't take much to retain him. Look for rookie cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown to make more of an impact in their second seasons.

2. RAVENS: This group exceeded expectations, and did so in a surprising manner. Instead of starting Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr at cornerback, the Ravens finished fourth in pass defense with Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams. Webb was the division's top cornerback, recording five interceptions and breaking up 20 passes (and that doesn't include three interceptions in the playoffs). Williams was a physical presence at corner. The biggest disappointment was Reed, who intercepted three passes -- his fewest in a season where he played more than 12 games. The Ravens' other safety, hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, provided more of an impact than Reed. First-round pick Jimmy Smith endured an up-and-down rookie season. What could change: Smith should take over for Williams as a starting cornerback this season. Foxworth is expected to get cut, and the same could happen to Carr. Both backup safeties, Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura, are free agents, but I suspect Nakamura will get re-signed.

3. BROWNS: Joe Haden showed signs of being a shutdown corner, even though he failed to make an interception. He held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His worst games came against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green. While Haden is among the division's best cornerbacks, Sheldon Brown was the worst starting corner in the AFC North. Brown's biggest asset is the experience he provides to a young secondary. The defensive backfield was hurt by the loss of strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the final 10 games with a foot injury. Teams took advantage of Ward's replacement, Usama Young. Free safety Mike Adams beat out Young for a starting job in training camp. Dimitri Patterson was a reliable nickelback, breaking up a dozen passes. What could change: The Browns might replace Adams, who is a free agent, and they could give rookie seventh-round pick Eric Hagg a shot at doing so. Cleveland is very interested in bringing Patterson back. It wouldn't be a surprise if Patterson starts in place of Brown.
4. BENGALS: Leon Hall is perhaps the most valuable cornerback in the division. In the first nine games with Hall, the Bengals gave up eight touchdown passes. In the last seven regular-season games without him (he had a season-ending Achilles injury), they allowed 12 touchdown passes. The Bengals replaced Hall with Adam Jones, who was extremely erratic in coverage. The Bengals value the veteran leadership of Nate Clements, but the cornerback is looking past his prime. Only nickelback Kelly Jennings struggled on a more consistent basis. Safety Reggie Nelson allowed some big plays early, but he was stingy in pass defense late in the season. The other safety, Chris Crocker, had trouble covering the more athletic tight ends in the league. What could change: The Bengals need to draft a cornerback in the first round to press Clements for a starting role and become his eventual replacement. Nelson is a free agent, but he is considered a priority to get re-signed. The Bengals are expected to part ways with Jones, who is a free agent.

Feb. 20: Special teams

Feb. 21: Defensive line

Feb. 23: Linebackers

For Monday: Offensive line

AFC North union reps

March, 3, 2011
3/03/11
5:59
PM ET
Here are the player reps for each AFC North team, according to the NFLPA:

Baltimore Ravens: WR Derrick Mason

Alternates: CB Chris Carr, C Matt Birk

Skinny: Mason is one of the most experienced and outspoken players on the Ravens. Therefore he fits great in this role. Carr and Birk are also two great alternatives from Baltimore.

Cincinnati Bengals: LT Andrew Whitworth

Alternates: G Bobbie Williams, TE Reggie Kelly

Skinny: This trio comprises Cincinnati's locker room leaders. Whitworth has taken an increased role and is usually the one who briefs the rest of the Bengals on player issues. Williams and Kelly are both elder statesmen and combine for 25 years of NFL experience.

Cleveland Browns: TE Robert Royal

Alternates: OT Tony Pashos, CB Sheldon Brown, TE Ben Watson

Skinny: Lately the Browns have been a strange team when it comes to union reps. With three regime changes the past few years, it's been a rotating door. Royal was recently released by the Browns, meaning Cleveland will have another player rep next season. All the alternatives spent their first year with the Browns in 2010.

Pittsburgh Steelers: S Ryan Clark

Alternates: WR Antwaan Randle El, LT Max Starks

Skinny: Like Mason, Clark is never afraid to speak his mind. He recently had a lot to say on the pending NFL lockout during Super Bowl week. Randle El and Starks are both intelligent alternatives, as well.

Reaction to Browns coach Pat Shurmur

January, 13, 2011
1/13/11
6:30
PM ET
The Cleveland Browns received reaction from around the NFL this evening on the hire of new head coach Pat Shurmur.

Brown
Brown
Browns CB Sheldon Brown

"As a rookie coming into the National Football League (in 2002), he was our quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia. I knew he demanded a lot of respect, for one, Donovan McNabb was the guy that was already established there and Donovan had the utmost respect for Coach Shurmur. He is a sharp guy. He always took notes in meetings and he was one of those guys that (Eagles head coach) Andy (Reid) could depend on to get the guys ready to play, motivate and do well on game days. That's what you are looking for when you are looking for a coach.”

Reid
Reid
Eagles head coach Andy Reid

"I'm extremely proud of and happy for Pat Shurmur and his family. He is a proven commodity in the NFL and has paid his dues as a successful assistant coach. Pat is smart, very well organized and has a great command and great feel for the ins and outs of the business of pro football. I believe, to a man, all of the players and coaches that have worked with and for Pat Shurmur have the utmost respect for him as a person and as a coach. And I'm right at the top of that list. He'll do a great job for the city of Cleveland as their head football coach."

McNabb
McNabb
Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb

"I think it is a great choice for the Cleveland Browns. Pat Shurmur is a hard-working, dedicated and determined individual who demands perfection from all his players. The team will love playing for him."

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