NFL Nation: Travis Benjamin

The last time the Detroit Lions traveled to Cleveland, the game didn’t count. It was preseason and most of the guys on the current roster barely played in Ohio that night.

One who did, Detroit running back Joique Bell, made a different sort of impact.

Bell leveled a streaker in the game, something that received a lot of attention at the time. When approached about it this week, Bell initially said he didn’t remember taking out the streaker.

Then, when he was asked if he was lying about not remembering it, he laughed.

“Yeah,” Bell said. “Nah, we’re not focused on that. They have a picture, never mind, nobody’s brought that up.”

Streaking aside, here are four keys for Detroit to beat Cleveland on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Darryl WebbThe Lions need Calvin Johnson on the field if only to create opportunities for their other playmakers on offense.
Calvin Johnson’s health: This won’t truly be determined until a couple of hours before Sunday’s game, but the Lions need some form of Johnson on the field against the Browns. The chances of him being fully healthy are minimal -- he probably won’t get completely there until the bye week at the end of the month -- but at whatever level Johnson can go at, the Lions need him.

He opens up everything else for Detroit, even if he is only able to run a limited selection of routes. His presence, healthy or not, will force Cleveland to at least shade a safety over toward his side. In doing so, it will open up the running game for Reggie Bush and Bell and open up the opposite side of the field for tight ends and receivers to work. It might not be everything for Detroit, but it certainly is a help. Johnson on the field could also help...

Keeping Matthew Stafford upright: The Lions' offensive line had done a good job protecting Stafford until last week, when Green Bay sacked him five times. Stafford held the ball longer and had more time until release than he did in any game this year. Part of that goes to Johnson’s health, but they have to be able to give him enough time to make his progressive reads, especially if Johnson isn’t in the game. The fifth-year pro has done a good job finding the open man and putting the ball in good spots when the line gave him some time to read what was going on, but they need a rebound performance against a tough Browns front.

Hit Brandon Weeden early: Detroit rarely blitzes -- they send five or more pass-rushers on just 16.4 percent of dropbacks -- and are still able to cause issues for quarterbacks. Weeden is not a fast quarterback; has an average time before the pass of 4.34 seconds on a play. In the NFL, that’s an eternity. For Detroit’s defensive line, that’s a reason to be very, very excited about what could happen Sunday. It is unlikely the Lions’ front four will allow Weeden anywhere close to that time. If they can force him into poor decisions, that could mean big plays for the back seven in terms of interceptions and pass break-ups.

Limit Travis Benjamin’s chances: The Browns have the second-best punt return average in the league and a lot of that has to do with Benjamin, who is averaging 15.1 yards a return. That’s second among regular returners only to Tandon Doss' 16.7 yards a return. So as effective as Lions punter Sam Martin and his coverage team was against Chicago and Devin Hester two weeks ago, they need to continue being effective there this Sunday. Benjamin already has a punt return touchdown this season and could be a game-changer. Martin has to be smart on his targets and his ball placement Sunday.

Or, as Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said, Benjamin is “super fast.”
One of the best returners in Cleveland Browns history left the team in the offseason.

As it turns out, the Browns may be using a faster, more elusive punt returner -- and in the end he may turn out to be just as good and maybe better than Josh Cribbs. Travis Benjamin has more quickness and pure speed than Cribbs, and when he gets any room to maneuver he is a threat.

Benjamin only returns punts -- he’s too frail to return kickoffs -- but Thursday night in the win over Buffalo he had a 79-yard return for a touchdown and a 57-yard return. Total, he set a team record with 179 yards in returns (the previous record was held by Eric Metcalf, who returned two punts for TDs in a win over Pittsburgh in October 1993).

“Fabulous,” coach Rob Chudzinski said after the game.

[+] EnlargeTravis Benjamin
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesTravis Benjamin is trying to make Browns fans forget about Josh Cribbs.
“Fastest man on the field,” tight end Jordan Cameron said.

All he needs is room to get going. And Bills punter Shawn Powell gave Benjamin room plenty of times. His kicks were long -- 45.5 yards -- but they were low, and he kept outkicking the coverage (sort of like I did with my wife). To the point that Buffalo released Powell the day after the game.

“It’s only a matter of time in this league before you get exposed,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said.

Benjamin has room to grow. He goes through games where he has trouble catching the ball, or does little on returns. He’s also so small that there is a constant risk of being injured.

Too, on the 59-yard return he let Powell shove him out of bounds. The cardinal sin for a returner is being stopped by the punter. Benjamin let it happen on the first, but on the second he ran through the tackle.

The key to any success is consistency, and Benjamin had a strong preseason but averaged just 7.7 yards per return in the first four games.

He provides hope with this game.

Letting Cribbs go was the right decision by the new Browns regime -- even though it was disappointing for the fans, it was time.

Counting on Benjamin was a risk. A year ago he looked small and injury prone and too inconsistent to play on offense. There’s a lot of guys who try to rely on pure speed who don’t succeed in football.

But Benjamin made a statement about his value against the Bills.

He just needs to continue what he started.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
11:42
PM ET

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 37-24 win over the Buffalo Bills at FirstEnergy Stadium:

What it means: Brandon Weeden regained the Browns' quarterback job in the worst possible way -- through an injury to Brian Hoyer. Hoyer was injured just more than three minutes into Thursday's victory over the Bills when both his knees caught awkwardly under him as he was attempting to slide at the end of a run. The initial diagnosis was a right-knee injury, and NFL.com reported during the game Hoyer would need an MRI. That put Weeden back in the game. The carousel that has been the Browns quarterback situation since 1999 keeps right on turning, and right now it appears Weeden will be riding the lead pony.

Stock watch: The Browns moved over .500 for the first time since the third game of the 2011 season. That has to help a team trying to find itself. If anyone benefitted from the night, it was Weeden, who missed two games with a thumb injury and seemed to have lost his job. He finished with a quarterback rating of 95.3 and took steps toward re-establishing himself.

Private Benjamin: Browns punt returner Travis Benjamin had as much to do with the result as any player. Benjamin set up Cleveland's first score, Billy Cundiff's 30-yard field goal, with a 57-yard return, then scored its second touchdown with a 79-yard return. By game’s end, Benjamin had broken Eric Metcalf's team record (166 yards in 1993) for punt return yards in a game, finishing with 179. Benjamin is too small to contribute regularly on offense, but his quickness and speed are extremely dangerous in the return game.

Defense does it: With an assist from Jeff Tuel. One thing that can be said is that the Browns' backup quarterback is better than Buffalo’s. Once Tuel got in the game, the Bills got little done. In the final two minutes, the Browns secured the win when T.J. Ward intercepted a Tuel pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown.

What’s next: The Browns get a 10-day break before finishing the last of three games in a row at home, with the Detroit Lions visiting Cleveland. The stakes get a little higher, as the Browns go from Tuel with no Stevie Johnson to Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.

Locker Room Buzz: Minnesota Vikings

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
6:02
PM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Observed in the locker room following the Minnesota Vikings' 31-27 loss to the Cleveland Browns:

Challenge controversy: The Vikings -- who felt like they were victimized against Green Bay in the NFL's last incident involving an automatically reviewable play -- might have gotten burned by a misinterpretation of the league's new rule on Sunday. Coach Leslie Frazier challenged Travis Benjamin's fumbled punt near the end of the second quarter, mistakenly arguing that the Vikings had returned the loose ball for a touchdown, but was penalized 15 yards for challenging the play, which was set for a booth review since it involved a change of possession. By rule, the Vikings could not advance the fumbled punt, but referee Bill Leavy admitted after the game that he should have charged the Vikings a timeout, not 15 yards. That pushed the Vikings from the Browns' 26-yard line to their 41, and the Vikings wound up with a Blair Walsh field goal.

Allen
'Terrible' two-minute drill: For the second time in two weeks, the Vikings gave up a last-minute touchdown on their way to a loss. On Sunday, that came against third-string Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, who hit tight end Jordan Cameron for a touchdown with just under a minute to play. The Vikings put pressure on Hoyer in the second half with some well-timed blitzes, but they weren't able to get to him on the final drive. "Our two-minute drill is actually terrible right now and it cost us, in my opinion, three games," defensive end Jared Allen said. The Vikings gave up a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the first half in Week 1 against Detroit, too, and allowed the Lions to head into halftime down by a point instead of trailing by eight.

Frazier backs Ponder, for now: Frazier said Christian Ponder is "still our starting quarterback," but the coach's defenses of Ponder -- who went 10-for-20 for 63 yards and was sacked three times in the second half -- were more lukewarm than usual. "I've got to go back and look at it, see what's creating the inconsistency, why we're not executing as well as we need to in certain situations," Frazier said. "We'll evaluate it, and make the decision that you have to make. But as we speak, I don't see [a quarterback change] happening."

Observation deck: Browns-Lions

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
11:00
PM ET

In the Cleveland Browns' 24-6 preseason win over the Detroit Lions, Brandon Weeden added more separation in a quarterback battle that coach Rob Chudzinski recently described as "close."

Weeden made another strong case to be the Browns' starting quarterback by completing 8 of 12 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns. He found tight end Jordan Cameron twice in the back of the end zone and hit wide receiver Josh Gordon for three completions of 15 yards or more.

In two preseason games, Weeden has led the Browns to scores on five (three touchdowns and two field goals) of six drives. Against the Lions, he impressed by putting the ball where only his receivers could get to it. Weeden lofted a pass over Lions defenders to connect with a leaping Cameron for the first touchdown and then laid in a perfect, 23-yard pass over Gordon's shoulder.

The Browns improved to 2-0 this preseason.

Here are some other thoughts on the Browns:
  • The feel-good preseason for the Browns has been tempered by injuries, which has hurt Cleveland's depth at right guard and running back. Jason Pinkston, who was replacing Shawn Lauvao (ankle surgery), left with an ankle injury. Left guard John Greco rolled up on Pinkston's right leg when he was pushed back by the Lions' Nick Fairley, who gave Cleveland problems all night (he even beat left tackle Joe Thomas). With the Browns already without running back Montario Hardesty (knee), backup Dion Lewis was carted to the locker room after hurting his ankle. First-round pick Barkevious Mingo also injured his ribs.
  • Running back Trent Richardson was impressive in his preseason debut. He showed good patience and burst in addition to breaking one tackle with a spin move. Richardson finished with 33 yards on six carries (5.5-yard average). His longest run was 17 yards.
  • The Browns' first-team defense flustered Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense, which was playing without wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Detroit punted on its first four drives (three three-and-outs) and totaled 41 yards. Defensive tackle Phil Taylor knocked down a Stafford pass and outside linebacker Paul Kruger dropped an interception.
  • It looked as though Travis Benjamin had returned a punt for a touchdown for a second straight week. But Benjamin's 84-yard runback was wiped out by Joe Haden's holding penalty, which didn't affect the long return. Benjamin, who is replacing Josh Cribbs, had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown in the preseason opener.
  • Brandon Bogotay was expected to handle all of the kicking duties but the rookie hurt his groin. He made a 43-yard field goal and had two touchbacks in the first half. Bogotay is competing against veteran Shayne Graham. The Browns also could show interest in Dan Carpenter, who was cut by the Miami Dolphins this week.

Observation deck: Browns-Rams

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
11:30
PM ET

Here are my thoughts on the Browns' 27-19 win over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night:
  • The Browns contend there is a quarterback competition, but Brandon Weeden likely ended any notion of one. In two drives, both of which resulted in points, he went 10-of-13 for 112 yards and one touchdown. That's a passer rating of 127.7. It's quite an improvement from last year's preseason opener, when Weeden had a rating of 19.0. His two longest passes went for 21 yards to Josh Gordon and 30 yards to Jordan Cameron.
  • It wasn't a popular move when Cleveland didn't re-sign Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs and instead went with Travis Benjamin to return punts. In his brief time doing so, Benjamin showed that he is capable of delivering big plays. On his first punt return of the preseason, Benjamin scored a 91-yard touchdown. Last year as a rookie, he only had three punt returns but one went for a team-record 93 yards.
  • Dion Lewis showed he'll make an impact as a change-of-pace back, catching three passes for 22 yards, including a touchdown. Lewis made the start because Trent Richardson (shin) and Montario Hardesty (hamstring) were out. He didn't do too much in the running game. Take away a 9-yard gain and Lewis had 3 yards on four carries.
  • Buster Skrine made the most of his opportunity as a surprise starter at cornerback. Chris Owens was an unexpected scratch with a foot injury, and rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden didn't play because of a groin pull. Skrine came up with a fumble recovery on the first drive after defensive tackle Phil Taylor forced the turnover.
  • In the kicking battle, Shayne Graham made an important 41-yard field goal. His weakness has been making kicks beyond 40 yards. Brandon Bogotay was 1-of-2 on field goals, making a 25-yarder and pushing a 54-yarder wide left.
  • As far as the defense goes, the Rams' first touchdown was set up by Trevin Wade getting beat on a 59-yard pass. The Browns also allowed six points off two long field goals, from 54 and 55 yards.
Josh Cribbs went to three Pro Bowls during his eight-year career with the Cleveland Browns, including last season. He holds seven Browns records, most of which are for returns and all-purpose yards.

Now, two weeks away from when most teams begin their minicamps, Cribbs is without a team. He is the last of the AFC North's top 20 free agents who remain unsigned.

Cribbs was expected to sign with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason, but he hasn't fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. The Cardinals then used a third-round pick on Tyrann Mathieu, who has big-play ability as a returner.

Asked if Cribbs was off the Cardinals' radar, general manager Steve Keim told the team's official website: “That’s something we have already explored. At this point, I really can’t get any further into it, so I will leave it at that.”

That doesn't sound like Cribbs is on the Cardinals' priority list. Early in free agency, it was reported that Cribbs was deciding between the Cardinals and the New England Patriots. But the Patriots are no longer an option after they signed return man Leon Washington.

Two potential destinations for Cribbs are the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Lions didn't re-sign returner Stefan Logan, and the Buccaneers looked at Washington in free agency.

Just don't expect a reunion between the Browns and Cribbs. The new regime decided to part ways with Cribbs and kicker Phil Dawson, the two longtime faces of the expansion era Browns. Cleveland is set to go with Travis Benjamin, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, as its primary returner.

Wrap-up: Browns 30, Chiefs 7

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
6:02
PM ET

My thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 30-7 win to the Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

What it means: The Browns won their fifth game of the season, which is one more than their total last season. This rout was Cleveland's third win in a row, the Browns' longest winning streak since the end of the 2009 season. It was the largest margin of victory for the Browns in 29 games under coach Pat Shurmur and the largest for the Browns since 2003. The Chiefs fall to 2-11 with former Browns coach Romeo Crennel and former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

Making history: Trailing 7-3, Travis Benjamin returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. It was the longest punt return in the Browns' history. Benjamin is the first rookie with a punt return for a touchdown since Ben Davis in 1967.

Tying Jim Brown: Running back Trent Richardson wasn't the leading rusher for the Browns with 42 yards on 18 carries. But he did make this a memorable game. His two touchdowns pushed his season total to nine, which ties Jim Brown for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie in Browns history. And Richardson has three games remaining. His second touchdown early in the fourth quarter gave the Browns a 27-7 lead and put away the Chiefs.

Tough start: Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles ran for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Charles went between the tackles on the left side and was never touched. But the Browns didn't give up another point for the remaining 59 minutes, 48 seconds. It helped that Ryan Succop hit the upright on a 27-yard field goal in the first quarter.

What's next: The Browns host the Redskins.

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 23, Browns 16

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
11:55
PM ET

BALTIMORE -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 23-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday:

What it means: The Ravens (3-1) took a half-game lead in the AFC North over the Bengals (2-1) by winning their franchise-record 13th straight game at home, which is also the longest current streak in the NFL. Just like the controversial Monday night game, it came down to a shot to the end zone. But the regular officials didn't have to make a tough call like their replacement counterparts. Brandon Weeden's first pass to the end zone was knocked down and his second one sailed to the back of the end zone. It wasn't pretty, but the Ravens were playing their fourth game in 17 days and were taking on a division opponent in a steady downpour. One of two winless teams in the NFL, the Browns dropped to 0-4 for the fourth time in their history (1975, 1999 and 2009 were the other times). Cleveland has lost 10 in a row, their longest losing streak since losing 10 straight from 2008 to '09.

Celebrating in style: Ravens cornerback Cary Williams intercepted the first pass of his career and he made it memorable. He jumped a Weeden pass on the sideline and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown, which put the Ravens ahead, 23-10, late in the third quarter. Williams has been frequently picked on by quarterbacks this season.

Flacco on the move: Joe Flacco threw for 356 yards, but he also impacted the game with his legs. On third-and-goal in the third quarter, Flacco ran to the outside, where he put a move on Browns linebacker Scott Fujita before scoring on a 1-yard run. Flacco's fifth rushing touchdown of his career put the Ravens ahead, 16-7. Flacco's streak of 125 passes in the red zone without an interception ended earlier in the game.

Ravens' receivers stepping up: The Ravens wide receivers took advantage of the Browns not having their top cornerback Joe Haden, who sat out the third game of a four-game suspension. Anquan Boldin caught nine passes for 131 yards, and Torrey Smith had 97 yards receiving, including his third touchdown in five days.

Another critical drop by Little: It looked like wide receiver Greg Little was getting out of Pat Shurmur's doghouse until he dropped a potential touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Instead of getting the Browns to within 23-20, they had to settle for another long field goal. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin had a pass bounce off his chest while in the end zone in the final minute with the Browns down 23-16.

Richardson keeps up his streak: Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson didn't fare well against the Ravens' run defense, which didn't give him any holes. He finished with 47 yards rushing on 14 carries. Richardson, though, did score a touchdown in his third straight game. He beat Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain to the end zone after taking a pitch from Weeden.

Dawson from long distance: It seemed like last season with the Browns' Phil Dawson hitting long field goals. He converted from 51, 50 and 52 yards. This was his fourth from 50 or longer this year and his 11th since the start of the 2011 season.

Scary moment: Already playing without leading receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (hamstring), the Browns lost another receiver when Josh Cribbs was knocked out of the game with a head injury. Cribbs' helmet was dislodged on a punt return when linebacker Dannell Ellerbe hit his head with his right shoulder, which also forced a fumble. Cribbs got up on his own power and walked off the field before going to the locker room.

What's next: The Ravens travel for just the second time this season, playing at Kansas City. The Browns are at the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

  • John Harbaugh deserves credit for keeping the best-kept secret of the preseason: a new, younger offensive line. For months, everyone anticipated the Ravens would go with Bryant McKinnie, 32, at left tackle and Bobbie Williams, 35, at left guard. When McKinnie accepted his $1 million paycut, you figured it was a lock for the Bengals to go against him and Williams. Against the Bengals, the Ravens lined up Michael Oher, 26, at left tackle, rookie Kelechi Osemele, 23, at right tackle and Ramon Harewood, 25, at left guard. Sure, the Ravens had trouble blocking the interior rushes of Bengals defensive tackle Gene Atkins, but the Ravens showed power and good movement at the line of scrimmage. It helped on Ray Rice runs and kept Joe Flacco pretty clean in the pocket.
  • [+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
    AP Photo/Gail BurtonThe Ravens' Joe Flacco had the look of an elite QB during his effort on Monday night.
  • On Sunday, I watched Matt Ryan play one of his best games of his career against the Kansas City Chiefs. On Monday night, Joe Flacco justified my last-minute decision to keep him ranked among the elite quarterbacks. Both in their fifth seasons, Flacco and Ryan were perhaps the best quarterbacks in Week 1. Like Ryan, Flacco is being given more control of the game at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens’ speed at wide receiver is impressive. I can’t tell you how many Bengals-Ravens games I’ve covered over the past couple of seasons in which Flacco would be forced to stand in the pocket and wait for slow, older receivers to get separation from cornerbacks. As I figured, receiver Torrey Smith is set to have a big season. Ditto for Flacco.
  • The Steelers need James Harrison back on the field as fast as possible. A knee injury sidelined Harrison for the opening loss to the Broncos and leaves him a question mark this week. With Harrison out of the lineup, the Broncos were able to double LaMarr Woodley and stifle any kind of pass rush. Although the Steelers got to Peyton Manning a couple times early in the game, they only touched him three times all game. If Harrison is going to miss substantial time, the Steelers might have to consider moving Lawrence Timmons to the outside to use his speed as a pass-rush threat. Depth at linebacker was a big concern of the Steelers going into training camp. It’s already a concern after Week 1.
  • The Bengals are two-thirds of the way set at wide receiver. With a five-catch, 70-yard game in the opener, A.J. Green already looks like a Pro Bowler. With his ability to snatch the ball out of the air, he reminds me of a young Chad Johnson. Tiny Andrew Hawkins looks nice as the slot receiver. He had eight catches for 86 yards in the opener against the Ravens. But more must come from the receiver on the other side of Green. Armon Binns and Brandon Tate were non-factors in the opener. They combined for five catches for 31 yards, with all receptions less than 10 yards. When your outside receiver has a lower per-catch average than your slot receiver, you have problems. Figure plenty of zone coverage with the safety going to Green’s side until a No. 2 receiving threat emerges.
  • It’s clear it’s going to take time for Brandon Weeden (5.1 passer rating in opener) and the Browns’ offense to grow. Receiver Josh Gordon is raw. Weeden didn’t seem to be able to judge rookie Travis Benjamin’s speed, which is why some deep throws fell short. Greg Little continues to drop balls, which doesn’t help. Despite the pending ownership change, coach Pat Shurmur isn’t going to panic and go to Colt McCoy. You knew there were going to be growing pains with this offense. Late in the second quarter, Weeden failed to spot a wide-open Ben Watson only to throw the ball to fullback Owen Marecic who promptly dropped it on a third-and-2 from the Browns 26. A first down would have at least run out the clock. Instead, the Eagles got the ball back with 49 seconds and went 74 yards on five plays to take a 10-3 lead to the locker room."That was poor execution all around," Shurmur said. "The ball was thrown to the fullback -- not a perfect throw, but catchable. So all in all that was just bad football."
    Weeden twice under threw Benjamin on sideline routes leading to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie interceptions. The quarterback was obviously at fault, but Benjamin did not try to break up the passes -- something Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson did to Joe Haden as the Browns cornerback attempted to pick off an errant Michael Vick ball.

 

Browns, Ravens trim down rosters

August, 26, 2012
8/26/12
4:39
PM ET
The Browns and Ravens have already made some cuts as teams need to get down to the 75-player limit by Monday at 4 p.m.

As everyone knows by now, the Ravens cut kicker Billy Cundiff in a gutsy move by the team. That means undrafted rookie Justin Tucker takes over as kicker.

“Billy had a great camp, the best he has had with us," coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. "He showed, like he always has, a toughness and an ability to come back and be a top-flight NFL kicker. These decisions are never easy, and this one was difficult for all of us -- Ozzie [Newsome, general manager], Jerry [Rosburg, special-teams coordinator] and me."

Harbaugh added, "Of course, that says something about Justin, the way he has kicked and our belief in him. But, that does not say something less about Billy. Billy was ready in every way to be our kicker. He’ll kick in the NFL. He’s a very good kicker and an even better person.”

The Ravens had signed Cundiff to a five-year, $14.7 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus just 19 months ago.

The one notable player waived by the Ravens was center Cecil Newton, the brother of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Cecil Newton was on the team's practice squad last season. Here are the other players waived: tight end Davon Drew (a 2009 fifth-round pick), receiver Devin Goda, OL Addison Lawrence, cornerback Jordan Mabin, long-snapper Patrick Scales, quarterback Chester Stewart and receiver Patrick Williams.

These cuts bring the Ravens' roster down to 81 players, meaning six more need to go by Monday's deadline. One move could be placing wide receiver Tommy Streeter, who didn't practice Saturday, on injured reserve to store him away for a year.

For the Browns, the biggest name to go was wide receiver Carlton Mitchell.The Browns had hopes they could develop Mitchell when they drafted the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder in the sixth round in 2010. But he managed three catches for 31 yards in two seasons. Cleveland decided to move on after drafting Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft and taking Travis Benjamin in the fourth round in April.

Here are the other players waived by the Browns: offensive linemen Jake Anderson and Matt Cleveland, defensive back Emanuel Davis, linebacker JoJo Dickson, punter Spencer Lanning and wide receivers Bert Reed, Jermaine Saffold and Owen Spencer.

The Browns now have 80 players on their roster and need to make five more moves by Monday's deadline.
Usually when a player leaves the practice field early, it's because he got injured. On Wednesday, Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden was pulled from the practice field because he could injure another player.

Haden
In what is considered a rare occurrence, Cleveland coach Pat Shurmur told Haden to go to the locker room about a half-hour into practice for being too rough with wide receiver Travis Benjamin, according to ESPN Radio in Cleveland.

Shurmur removed Haden after the 2010 first-round pick dragged down the 175-pound Benjamin in the end zone during a red-zone drill. According to the web site, Shurmur and Haden exchanged heated words before Haden walked alone into the team facility.

In his opening remarks to reporters after practice, Shurmur said, “This was practice No. 21. We’ve had 21 walk-throughs. As you might expect, none of us have had enough sleep in the last month and we get very emotional.”

Shurmur was testy with reporters when asked about the incident with Haden.

“I’m not gonna talk about it,” he said. “That’s between me and the player. I have a great deal of respect for Joe. If you want details, you’re going to have to find it on Twitter. My only apology is that I used bad language and the fans were here to see it.”

When asked a follow-up question, Shurmur said, “Don’t ask. That’s between me and the player. Joe’s a great competitor and I appreciate what he does and who he is. I’m not talking about it anymore. You’ll have to go somewhere else to find out.”

In my 12 years of covering the NFL, I've only seen one player pulled from the field for rough play and it wasn't a star player like Haden. This isn't the first time Haden has made news this month. ESPN Radio in Cleveland reported two weeks ago that Haden faces a possible four-game suspension from the league for a failed drug test. A team source told the radio station there has been no indication from the league if and when Haden might face discipline for the reported positive test.
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.”
I'll be attending Cleveland Browns training camp Wednesday, but ESPN's John Clayton came away with some positive observations from his stop in Berea, Ohio.

In his camp report, Clayton noticed that coach Pat Shurmur is working in more five-step drops for quarterback Brandon Weeden. Clayton believes that indicates "a sign of confidence in the blocking and the talent at wide receiver." Wait, did he say talent at wide receiver? Most observers, including myself, see wide receiver as the biggest weakness on the Browns' offense.

Here's what Clayton had to say about the Browns wide receivers:
Supplemental draft choice [Josth] Gordon is raw, but he has the look of a future No. 1 receiver. [Greg] Little, a second-round pick last year, is a good target, although he's trying to adjust to some work out of the slot. [Travis] Benjamin is fast. It's a promising group.

If Cleveland can get consistent production out of its receivers, this offense could surprise some defenses. The challenge is for Gordon to shake off the rust after not playing last season. Little has to cut down on his drops. And Benjamin has to bulk up before taking a hit over the middle.

From what I saw in minicamp last month, Weeden can throw the ball. He just needs these young receivers to develop quickly.
Brandon WeedenJason Miller/Getty ImagesThe Browns made 28-year-old Brandon Weeden the oldest first-round draft selection in NFL history.


BEREA, Ohio -- No one can say whether Brandon Weeden is going to lead the Cleveland Browns from the ranks of the worst teams in the NFL. No one, and this includes Mike Holmgren as well as Pat Shurmur, can declare that Weeden is going to stop the Browns' quarterback carousel that has spanned 16 starters since the city's return to the NFL in 1999.

But, after 40 days and 10 practices with the Browns, there is one assessment of Weeden that everyone can agree upon: The rookie first-round pick has the look of being a franchise quarterback.

It only takes one practice to see how Weeden has the size and the arm to live up to that billing. The building excitement with Weeden comes from the fact that his potential extends beyond physical gifts.

He has the comfort level to tell quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple about a couple of red-zone plays he "wasn't a big fan of." He has the courage to throw a deep touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin after nearly getting picked off. He has the confidence to tell reporters about his goal of winning a Super Bowl even before taking a snap in a regular-season game.

While it's way too early to predict Weeden winning championships, he has brought hope to a franchise that has recorded 10 double-digit loss seasons and no playoff victories over the past 13 years. Everyone else in the AFC North went to the postseason last season, and everyone in the division has a franchise quarterback. The only way the Browns can get out of last place is to find one of their own. That's why Weeden is the crucial piece of the Holmgren era in Cleveland.

Browns officials haven't named Weeden the starter because they want him to earn the job. Technically, he's battling Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. Unofficially, the Browns' mandatory minicamp this week has served more as a coronation than a competition.

Weeden took the first snaps with the starting offense throughout Tuesday's practice. He was the quarterback standing at the podium addressing reporters after the workout. He looks like "the guy" in Cleveland, even though Weeden himself refuses to acknowledge it.

"Not yet, just because nothing is formal," Weeden said. "We're still two months out until we play our first preseason game. I'm still working my tail off just to get better and keep learning. I'm getting more comfortable with what we are doing, but I still have a long ways to go."

The most overused term with Weeden is that he's mature. This has become a polite way to say Weeden is old. He'll turn 29 during season, which makes him the Betty White of rookie quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
David Richard/US PresswireFrom his big arm to his confidence, Brandon Weeden is the picture of the franchise QB the Browns are aching for.
The better description for Weeden is he's grounded. He hasn't been coddled like many first-round quarterbacks. He has tasted failure as a minor-league pitcher (he went 19-26 after being drafted in the same round as Joey Votto) and only became a winning quarterback at Oklahoma State after making the climb from a third-stringer.

Weeden understands what it takes to rebound from struggles, which will serve him well this year. All rookie quarterbacks make mistakes. The successful ones don't crumble from them.

Weeden's resiliency came through Tuesday when a miscommunication with Josh Cribbs led to an interception. He came right back with a deep cross to Mohamed Massaquoi.

"I won't make that same mistake again and if I do, shame on me," he said "I think you guys will find I'm pretty even-keeled, but I think my track record shows -- I put that one behind me. They always say, 'Wash your hands and move on.' That's kind of the approach I take, and that comes from baseball. I gave up a lot of home runs in baseball and they're very similar. So you've just got to toe the rubber, you've got take snaps and move on and make the next play."

Shurmur was reluctant to give any glowing remarks about Weeden on Tuesday. It was kind of a game to watch him turn questions specifically about Weeden into answers that addressed the entire quarterback group.

He was even hesitant to put a timetable on naming the starting quarterback. "I think it's important to do it as quickly as possible," Shurmur said. "But yet, it needs to happen at a pace where the guys here have a chance to compete."

If Weeden's progression since his first practice on May 11 is any indication, he'll be ready to start against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9.

"I'm leap years farther along right now than I was obviously Day 1, Day 2," Weeden said. "I think even from rookie minicamp, where I'm at right now is that I look like two totally different quarterbacks -- in my footwork, and you can tell I'm processing stuff a little bit faster and I'm not thinking quite as much."

Weeden added, "When you stop thinking so much and you just react and go through your reads one, two, three to your back, that's when you start moving the ball down the field and start getting completions and first downs."

Moving the ball down the field in short chunks isn't Weeden's forte. What stood out about him in Tuesday's practice was the amount of deep shots he took.

"Sometimes in this West Coast offense it can get labeled as an underneath route, catch-and-run route [scheme]," Weeden said, "but any time you can really step into one and let it rip, that's fun."

Weeden is entering the NFL at a time when expectations for rookie quarterbacks are at an all-time high.

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco led their teams to the playoffs in their first seasons in 2008. Mark Sanchez helped the Jets to the AFC championship as a rookie in 2009. And Cam Newton threw for over 4,000 yards and Andy Dalton went to the Pro Bowl last year.

This doesn't faze a quarterback like Weeden, who has already said he wants to win a Super Bowl before he's done playing.

"We put the pressure on ourselves to win games," Weeden said. "We want to get to the playoffs. We want to take our team as far as we can. That's the way good quarterbacks should think."

That's exactly the way franchise quarterbacks should talk.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider