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Life as a Cleveland Sports Fan

5 Questions in 5 Days: Browns training camp battles

browns training camp westThe Cleveland Browns will spend the next six weeks fine tuning their roster as they prepare for the start of the 2014 NFL season on Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.

The bulk of the roster appears to be pretty much set, but there are still some questions the team will be looking to answer in the upcoming weeks.

Along the offensive line, the Browns will be looking to find a guard tandem from among John Greco, rookie Joel Bitonio, Garrett Gilkey and Jason Pinkston (who has missed practice so far for undisclosed medical reasons). Greco and Bitonio appear to be the front runners and they both bring a nasty streak that will play well in the AFC North. The coaches also need to determine if Mitchell Schwartz really is the answer at right tackle, because if he is not, there are not a lot of good second options.

In the backfield, Ben Tate should win the starting slot at running back, with rookie Terrance West sure to see significant time as well. Who else makes the roster among the running backs comes down to a rather unremarkable grab bag that includes the likes of Dion Lewis and Edwin Baker, among others.

The uncertainty over Josh Gordon’s availability has the starting wide receiver positions in a state of flux, although slot receiver Andrew Hawkins has to be an improvement over what Davone Bess brought to the table last season.

And we’re not even ready to talk about the quarterback position (at least not for a couple of more days).

Defensively, the Browns need to find out who will line up next to Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker, see what first-round draft pick Justin Gilbert brings to the table to they don’t have to rely on Buster Skrine to cover the opposition’s No. 2 receiver every week, and sort out the defensive line rotation. In addition, head coach Mike Pettine is looking for a new bitch kitty;  can Barkevious Mingo fill the role?

So while we have a pretty good idea of who could be on the final 53-man roster, there are still enough story lines to keep your average Browns fan interested in the coming weeks. And that brings us to today’s first question in our 5 Questions in 5 Days segment on training camp.

Our panel of Browns deep thinkers includes Ryan Alton from Draft Browns, Mike Burgermeister from jimkanicki.com, Dave Kolonich, Murray Alexander from East of Ehlo, Jeff Rich from More Than A Fan – Cleveland, Rick Grayshock from Waiting for Next Year, and Mike Krupka from Dawgs by Nature.

Today’s question: Which training camp stories (non-QB edition) are you most interested in?

Ryan: I am most interested to see what becomes of the Josh Gordon situation and how it affects the rest of the receiver corps. As long as it’s not a season-long ban, and there’s increasing speculation that it won’t be, he can practice and play in preseason games. I’m interested to see how the staff handles the rotation and reps if Gordon is still able to practice. And, obviously, I want to see who is going to step up and fill the void in his absence. Between undrafted rookies and guys with a history of injury concerns, there’s no shortage of intrigue at the wide receiver.

browns training camp offensive lineMike B.: I always enjoy a good offensive line storyline. I have no reason not to believe the good reviews on Bitonio and that he looks set at left guard. Right guard is interesting … I think Jason Pinkston, in form, can be a top-tier lineman.  Greco and Gilkey I like, too, but Pinkston winning that job would be a nice story considering his injury problems.

Damn, our o-line looks good. (Damn, Joe Banner was a jack ass for insisting Alex Mack ‘prove it.’)

Dave: The top three stories should be:

  • Pettine’s defense should be an enormous upgrade over Ray Horton’s sterile, sabermetric, fourth quarter meltdowns.
  • As I predicted two April’s ago, the 2013 draft will again set this team back. (And yes, the story should be about me.)
  • LeBron coming back is great, but Joe Haden is already a tremendous NE Ohio ambassador – along with being a terrific player. It’s pretty cool to think we’re watching the best corner in team history play in his prime.

Or this one:

If you’ve paid attention over the last six to seven years, the Browns simply can’t block inside blitzes and pressure. Not coincidentally, the Browns struggle to run and throw the football to anyone who isn’t Josh Gordon. Give credit to general manager Ray Farmer for addressing part of this weakness in picking Joel Bitonio. Ideally, Bitonio solves one guard spot, but John Greco moving to the right is scary. Couple Greco with Mitchell Schwartz and whoever the Browns’ quarterback is will be begging for those Kyle Shanahan designed rollouts. Let’s hope some real camp competition unearths a 2014 version of Billy Yates.

Murray: The position groups at running back and wide receiver are obviously interesting. It looks like it’s going to be a wide open competition for starting running back, and many seem to think that rookie Terrance West could easily take the spot from Ben Tate. You then have the wild card of Isaiah Crowell, possibly the most talented of all three, but who has had some character issues in the past. Then there’s last year’s fan favourite, Edwin Baker, and Dion Lewis, who looked like he was set for a big season then broke his leg in preseason last year. It’s going to be fun watching that shake out.

At wide receiver there’s obviously going to be a big hole with Gordon missing. They’ve brought in a couple of solid veterans, but the real action is further down the depth chart. It looks like one of the undrafted free agents will catch on, and there’s been a lot of talk about Willie Snead, Chandler Jones and international man of mystery Charles Johnson. Aside from that, I’m looking forward to hearing how many times Andrew Hawkins burns every cornerback on the roster.

Jeff: I know this might sound relatively generic, but I’m interested in seeing how the defense comes to together as a unit, and I really have to do that at the macro-level.

browns training camp mingoSeems to me, Pettine wants to challenge his secondary to make life easier for his front seven, so let’s see who is ready to play some press-man in that secondary and either put the quarterback on his ass or exploit some bad decisions from a hurried signal-caller. Let’s see if a little new direction, and this is no slight on Ray Horton, might help Paul Kruger earn the money the last regime agreed to give him and whether or not Barkevious Mingo is actually worthy of his defensive coordinator’s wife’s cupcakes.

Rick: I am a sucker for the battle in the trenches. I want to see how the Browns shake out up front on offense. What is that right side going to look like? Will Bitonio force his way into the starting five? How will the group adjust to a zone-blocking scheme? The running game will have to carry a good portion of the load this year, and the line will have to step up. A fresh backfield will help, but the pressure will fall on the shoulders of the offensive line a lot.

Defensively, I’m very intrigued by the cornerback spot, which seems to have more depth than I can ever remember in Cleveland, assuming that Pierre Desir and Tashaun Gibson are what they were advertised.

The bigger question mark for me is still the linebacker group. Who plays inside? Can they cover the tight end? What will Pettine do with Mingo? He wanted to draft him last year in Buffalo, so now he has him. Is Kruger going back to a situational pass rush role? Ah, training camp.

Mike K.: With the appeal hearing for Josh Gordon’s year-long suspension set for this Friday, I think everyone at training camp will have their eyes focused on both Josh and the wide receiver group. I recently wrote about my six key position battles going into camp over at Dawgs By Nature, and WR definitely made the list.

My second-most important group is the offensive line. This group is going to be a critical story to watch in camp because so much will depend on their ability to switch to the zone-blocking scheme.

Still, personally I am most excited to watch how the new linebacker corps will mesh in Mike Pettine’s defense and how well they execute what’s being asked of them. Losing D’Qwell Jackson and gaining Karlos Dansby should actually net us an improvement vs. the run and the pass. Given how close the vets were, I’m anxious to see how Dansby’s leadership transitions to the Browns defense. I’m also excited to see what the team has in store for Mingo, Kruger and Jabaal Sheard and, more importantly, how has Mingo improved his game and strength over the last year. Then you have the two young kids: Christian Kirksey and Darius Eubanks. I’m excited to see how the team fits Kirksey into the defense because if both players can step up and contribute immediately like I think they can, the middle of Pettine’s defense should be much improved.

Nice work, as always, everyone.

Coming tomorrow: Will the running game be better than last year?

(Photos courtesy of clevelandbrowns.com)

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8 thoughts on “5 Questions in 5 Days: Browns training camp battles

  1. Pingback: 5 Questions in 5 Days: the Browns running game | Red Right 88

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  3. mgbode on said:

    Great answers by all.

    I hesitate to say it before we see Gilbert play in actual NFL contests, but the potential is there for us to have the best starting CB duo in team history. Obviously, they have a long way to go to pass Minnifield/Dixon, but the talent is there for them to do it. Poyer is a guy that I can see pushing Gipson for the FS job.

    I went back through Rick’s training camp notes. Bitonio is playing RG. RG is the more important and generally more difficult position (especially on the Browns with LG sitting between JoeT & Mack). I will be greatly disappointed if Bitonio is not our starting RG. Let’s put the weaker OG at LG (Gilkey, Greco, Pinkston). Again, this is without seeing Bitonio in an actual NFL contest.

    Chandler Jones was one of the UDFAs that I really wanted. But, regardless, all of our WRs have major questions marks. Either a looming suspension, long injury history, or lack of NFL receiving history. We’ll see, but hopefully we have a good ground game to take the pressure off of them.

  4. tmoore94 on said:

    It’s funny (and ultimately may be helpful) that with all the focus on Manziel that everyone seems to forget the Browns have another No. 1 pick in Gilbert.

    If he is as good as advertised, that gets Skrine back in the slot where he will be better and can give the Browns real potential to make life miserable for opposing offenses.

    • mgbode on said:

      I agree that could help Gilbert. Especially since even the best CBs tend to struggle initially in the NFL (Haden & Peterson both did).

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