|Josh Gordon might not hold up over 16 games as a rookie, but his future in Cleveland is bright. (AP)|
During my one-day visit to the Cleveland Browns they had an ownership change, rumors that the club president was finished, a supplemental draft pick from a month ago lined up with the first-team offense and a 28-year-old rookie quarterback separated himself from the other QBs with what he called "my best day so far." In my 23 years in and around the NFL, I can't remember more things happening in one day to one team.
The outside world has little to no expectations for the 2012 Browns. Don't tell that to the thousands of fans that lined the field for the 2½-hour practice and a coaching staff that sees a much better team on the practice field than the 2011 team which finished 4-12.
There are many things to be resolved during this camp from top to bottom but as I leave Berea, Ohio, here are some of the things that I wondered about as this team is being constructed for the season.
1. Who is the leader of the offense?
The defense has leaders in D'Qwell Jackson and Joe Haden and that helped them become the 10th-ranked unit in the NFL. Joe Thomas definitely has a commanding presence over the offensive linemen but the overall leader is up for grabs. Ironically, it sure looks to me like rookie QB Brandon Weeden has all the traits of a team leader and the respect of his teammates. He sees himself as a veteran because of his age and his pro baseball career. He actually referred to himself as "one of the veteran athletes" on the team when we sat down to talk some Xs and Os. Browns fans are hoping for their own version of Andy Dalton and I believe they have found him in Weeden. It's not just his maturity and personality but more importantly he can play the game and his teammates already can see it. Time will tell when the games are being played but right now I wouldn't bet against Weeden being the face of the team from the beginning of the season.
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2. What should the Browns do about Scott Fujita?
Fujita is an important part of this team as a starting linebacker and maybe even more critical in the nickel defense. He is probably gone for the first three games with a suspension for the Saints' bounty situation and the Browns have to alter their practice plans right now. Pat Shurmur can't wait for an appeal to overturn the suspension. The Browns have to operate like Fujita will not be available and get other linebackers ready to go. I talked with Shurmur and Fujita about the situation and both men recognized there is a plan in place, though it's tough for Fujita to watch from the sidelines on many occasions. Scott has missed 18 games over his three seasons in Cleveland due to injury so the coaches have had to work around his absence before. Is there enough talent on the roster to overcome the suspension? Chris Gocong now stays on the field in the nickel package and Kaluka Maiava gets time in the base defense. Keep an eye on how the Browns do in preseason games at the strong-side linebacker spot and hope rookies James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho emerge as solid contributors. Last year the Browns were 30th against the run and opponents will continue to pound the ground attack if things don't get better, with or without Fujita.
3. Can the offense be effective with five potential rookie starters?
When I was in the league the thought about rookie starters was each one was good for a loss. The lack of experience, stamina and knowledge of the pro game always seemed to add up to a bad outcome. After watching practice, it's entirely possible Cleveland could start five rookies on offense -- Weeden, running back Trent Richardson, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin. There is no surprise about the first three and I actually believe all of them will do well. The two receivers have a big challenge ahead of them this preseason but there's little doubt the coaches see the potential to be starters during their first season. Gordon is working with the first offense at the X receiver. He is big and a fluid athlete. He already flashes great potential on the slant routes and the slant and go (slugo) route. He can break tackles, catch in a crowd and Weeden loves the big target he presents. Keep an eye on his ability to beat press coverage, which he is being challenged with in practice, and more importantly his stamina. Gordon recognized the need to get his legs under him and be able to play at a high level play after play. Benjamin is working at the Z receiver and even though he is small he has a vertical component to his game that the Browns need on the field. He needs work with press coverage issues and Haden is working hard to get him ready by making life tough on him play after play.
4. Will the ownership change affect the team?
It was clear to me that not many of the players even knew outgoing owner Randy Lerner. While all the talk of the day around the building was about new owner Jimmy Haslam III, the players didn't seem fazed at all by the changes at the top. As Jackson said, "I'm tired of losing and my only focus is making this team better. Nothing else really matters." Haden echoed the same thing. Players tend to live in a vacuum and care more about what their position coach is telling them than a new owner. As for Shurmur and his staff, they already came into the season knowing they had to become a better team and an ownership change was a subject for the offseason. I know one thing about this staff, they are not the kind of men that will be looking over their shoulders or anxious about their future during the season. My hope is that Haslam will be patient and take from his experience as a minority owner of the Steelers the concept of stability and not change for the sake of change.
5. Where are the big position battles?
As Shurmur said, "There has to be change when a team goes 4-12 and we have enough depth on the roster right now for some healthy competition."
Keep an eye on these positions:
• Wide receiver Greg Little, in great shape after his 61-catch rookie season, will be in a battle with rookies Gordon and Benjamin.
• DT Phil Taylor is a lock to start when he finally returns from the PUP list but in the meantime rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn are battling for a spot in the front. They probably will wind up in a rotation but when Taylor returns only one of the two will get the real playing time.
• The corner opposite Haden looks like a battle between Sheldon Brown and Dimitri Patterson. Brown started all 16 games last year and is penciled in right now but Patterson wants more than the nickel job.
• Safety has a competition brewing opposite T.J. Ward. Some believe Usama Young is the starter but after watching practice I like Eric Hagg, a second-year man drafted in the seventh round last April. He is vocal, has the range to play the deep middle and good key and diagnose.
Finally, the Browns are headed in the right direction, but with all the youth and a schedule that includes the NFC East and The AFC West along with their own division rivals, a winning record is tough to expect. I would measure success this season in terms of seven wins and an eye on 2013 for a breakthrough year. Will the fans and new ownership have the patience to accept that scenario?