New Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton will have some competitions for starting spots to decide during training camp. (Tony Dejak/AP Photo)
Enjoy watching half-speed football practices in the heat? Well, luckily for you, Browns training camp is fast approaching. There’s now less than 1,000 hours until you can get your exhibition football fix.
The Browns announced their training camp schedule last week. Camp, which runs from July 25 to August 13, will feature 14 practices open to the public at the team’s Berea facility, as well as the annual Family Night at FirstEnergy Stadium on the evening of August 3. As always, admission to all sessions is free.
In a savvy move, the open practices this year will be in the afternoon, from 4 to 6:30 PM. Last year, morning practices were open to fans, while the afternoon walkthroughs were closed. Attendance at Browns camp was certainly not an issue last season, but one has to think that practices will be even more crowded with the new schedule. As someone who interned with the team during last year’s camp, I just wish they had made the switch earlier. Starting work at 6:45 AM was never ideal for a college kid home for the summer.
What will all of those fans actually be watching though? While it is surely important, not many would label training camp entertaining.
It won’t be completely boring though. The Browns, like just about every other NFL team, have important issues to resolve before the regular season begins. Fans will get the opportunity to watch a number of these questions be answered at camp.
Today, we’ll examine some of the battles on the defensive side of the ball. Later this week, we’ll turn our focus to questions about the offense and broader issues of the organization as a whole.
Joe Haden has established himself as a Pro Bowl level performer at one corner, in spite of the fact that his Adderall suspension rendered him ineligible for postseason honors last season. A year ago, the aged Sheldon Brown held down the other starting spot with young speedster Buster Skrine seeing work in nickel packages.
With Brown gone from the roster, someone will need to step up and claim the title of starter. The contenders include Skrine, this year’s third round draft pick Leon McFadden, and Chris Owens, signed as a free agent this offseason after four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Trevin Wade is also still on the roster, but hasn’t been talked about much as a part of the competition.
Is Chris Owens, signed as a free agent this offseason,the answer at cornerback opposite Joe Haden? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
My money at this point would be on Owens. While Skrine, McFadden and Owens all lack size (they are each listed at 5’9”), Owens experience in Atlanta give him the early edge. While fans will obviously hope that McFadden will be ready to contribute in his rookie season, it’s probably more likely that he’ll see most of his work with the special teams unit. In this scenario, Skrine would reprise his role as the nickelback, covering opponents’ slot receivers on passing downs.
Who will the Browns pair with T.J Ward? Ward flies somewhat under the radar among casual fans, but his talent and value have been noticed by outlets like Pro Football Focus, which ranked him number 97 in their Top 101 of 2012 list.
The platoon of ineptitude the Browns lined up next to him last season was unacceptable. Usama Young and Eric Hagg should not be NFL starters, as evidenced by the fact that Hagg has not been picked up by any team this offseason and Young is now employed by the abyss that is the Oakland Raiders.
This season, the competitors are largely unproven. Tashaun Gipson is in his second season after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming in 2012. He played sparingly last season, but all reports out of Berea indicate that he has the inside track on the starting job. Johnson Bademosi, another 2012 undrafted free agent from Stanford, lined up at cornerback last season, even getting a start and performing well against the Cowboys. He was also considered by many to be the Browns best special teamer last year (Well, outside of Phil Dawson. I miss you Uncle Phil). This coaching staff has transitioned him from corner to safety, where he should battle with Gipson for time. Sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter from Notre Dame may also be in the competition when he returns from the torn Achilles tendon that kept him out for much of the 2012 season in South Bend.
The new coaching staff has converted Johnson Bademosi from corner to safety. (G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News)
Gipson is probably the front-runner right now, but expect Bademosi to have a strong showing in camp and make this a legitimate competition. The coaching staff has not been coy about their love of Bademosi’s talent and potential, so even if Gipson begins the season as the starter, don’t be surprised if Bademosi earns the role midseason. Slaughter figures to make most of his appearances on special teams.
D’Qwell Jackson is a given. The other inside backer spot in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense is a bit more undecided.
Craig Robertson was a pleasant surprise last season and looks like he’ll enter his second season on the active roster as the starter after spending time on the practice squad in 2011. Two other second-year players will push Robertson for time. L.J. Fort and Tank Carder were both picked up as undrafted free agents in 2012 and each saw some time last season. James-Michael Johnson was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 draft from Nevada, but reports have surfaced that he is not in the competition and may be cut.
There is no reason to think Robertson won’t be the starter. Expect Fort to slot in as the third man in the rotation.
First-round pick Barkevious Mingo has told the media that he wants to be the starter by the first regular season game on September 8. He’ll have to beat out converted defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who has been taking reps with the first team at right outside linebacker ahead of Mingo during organized team activities. Mingo will undoubtedly get playing time this season on passing downs, but Sheard is a proven commodity for the Browns and will likely begin the season as the starter.
Free agent signee Paul Kruger has been taking first team reps on the left and will surely be the starter. Quentin Groves, he of the solicitation arrest, will add depth to the group.
In Ray Horton’s 3-4 alignment, it is harder to separate tackles from ends due to the fact that most 3-4 linemen would be considered tackles in a 4-3. The Browns will start Phil Taylor at the nose with Ahtyba Rubin and newly-signed free agent Desmond Bryant on the ends, that’s a certainty barring an injury to one of the three during camp or the preseason. While the starters are set in stone, their positions aren’t. Don’t be surprised to see Taylor, Rubin, and Bryant lined up in different spots throughout the season.
The intrigue is in who will back them up. Billy Winn, John Hughes, and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen all saw some time in the defensive line rotation last year, but it will be interesting to see if any of them find themselves left out of the plans of the new regime that has inherited them. Seventh-round draft pick Armonty Bryant should also make the roster, in spite of his history of legal trouble.
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