Catching up with the Browns (Part 1)
In no particular order as OTAs and minicamps wrap up in Berea . . .
Coach Hue Jackson can huff and puff all he wants, but if Robert Griffin III isn’t the starting quarterback when the Browns open the 2016 season in Philadelphia the second Sunday in September, consider me shocked, stunned and otherwise totally baffled.
Unless The Third is unable to withstand the physical rigors of training camp and exhibition games, he will be the man under center and/or in shotgun formation as the Browns launch the new campaign against the Eagles.
He is unquestionably the best quarterback on the team, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement for what lies ahead. He is – and it’s not even close – the worst starting quarterback in the AFC North.
But still, he is Jackson’s best bet to prove to the Las Vegas betting cartel that the Browns this season won’t be as awful as they believe. As bad as they have been since the resurrection in 1999, Vegas thinks the Browns will be worse this season, casting them embarrassingly as underdogs in every game.
Jackson and his offensive staff are in the midst of molding The Third into a West Coast style quarterback, a style he is slow in grasping. Perhaps that is why Jackson has proclaimed an open competition for the starting job. He is not about to reward an unknown quantity.
The Third, however, is clearly the best athlete among the five quarterbacks and smart enough to successfully glom onto the new offense and fend off the likes of Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Connor Shaw and rookie Cody Kessler.
The only question is who backs him up. McCown, the best of the rest, is the likely clipboard holder with Kessler a dark horse to usurp him. Davis and Shaw most likely will be looking to join another National Football League team.
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Jackson has been a pleasant revelation to the Cleveland media with his upbeat attitude and positive approach. He is the kind of head coach this franchise has needed for a long, long time.
It is now incumbent on the front office to take a hands-off approach with Jackson no matter how the club does his season. It probably won’t be pretty after 16 games, but victories and losses won’t be the most important aspect.
What Jimmy Haslam III and his henchmen should watch for is how the club improves as the season unfolds. Watch to see if the same mistakes are not being made. Dote on the progress being made. Take note of how the Browns play in the second half of the season as opposed to the first half.
Patience is a virtue the Haslam regime has not practiced. The owner finally has a good coach. He should keep his hands to himself and instruct Sashi Brown to do the same. It might take another year or two, but this club is finally headed in the right direction.
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There is no question Justin Gilbert has been a supreme bust since being the Browns’ top draft pick a couple of years ago. Whatever talent coach Mike Pettine saw to push General Manager Ray Farmer to select the cornerback that high has obviously not manifested itself.
But now there is talk that Gilbert is a new man and the new coaching staff, particularly defensive coordinator Ray Horton, is handling him as though he has a clean slate.
Never mind the two awful seasons he spent under Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. Forget everything he was taught in those campaigns. Wipe that slate clean. This is going to be completely different.
If anyone can uncap the talent well Pettine saw in Gilbert, it is Horton, a former defensive back himself, and secondary coach Louie Cioffi, in his second stint with the Browns.
Playing defense is all about aggression and self-motivation, traits Gilbert has spectacularly failed to display. That will be the greatest challenge for Horton and Cioffi in an effort to provide veteran corner Joe Haden with a quality partner. It bears close scrutiny.
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Last season, rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton disappointed because he didn’t do what he was drafted to do: stop the run. He was like a human boulder at 6-2, 335 pounds; someone difficult to run through. But the Browns, yet again, finished near the bottom of the NFL in stopping the opposition on the ground.
Shelton gained weight as the season progressed. He plugged very few holes and failed to protect the inside linebackers, who were forced to make tackles often times well beyond the line of scrimmage.
He was slow and ineffective. He became a two-down lineman after showing he had trouble rushing the quarterback He was not the player the Browns thought they drafted.
This season, again with a new coaching staff and different approach, Shelton is in redemption mode. He pared about 30 pounds (from a high of 365) and is ostensibly a new man. Horton, a 3-4 scheme guy, has the ideal nose tackle in Shelton from a size standpoint and is eager to use him.
The big question remains whether Shelton can elevate his game and perform the way the Browns expected him to last season. If he comes anywhere near the way he played at the University of Washington, where he terrorized (OK, manhandled) quarterbacks and running backs, stopping the run will not be a problem this season.
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And finally: The training camp roster breaks sown this way: A staggering 19 defensive backs, 10 defensive linemen (when Carl Nassib signs), 13 linebackers (when Joe Schobert signs), 15 offensive linemen, 11 wide receivers, seven running backs, six tight ends, five quarterbacks, two placekickers, one punter and one long snapper. Twenty-two are rookies. Another 11 have only one year’s experience. The oldest players are Joe Thomas (31) Tramon Williams (33), Andy Lee (33) and McCown (36). That list does not include wide receiver Josh Gordon, whose year-long suspension from the NFL because of PED use lingers awaiting a ruling by Commissioner Roger Goodell.
(To be continued)