Roster Spot Number One
The 2012 Cleveland Browns opening-day 53-man roster isn’t that hard to name as long as the rookies all come through camp with flying colors and nobody gets hurt. Right.
Well, Phil Taylor already got hurt. But no one else. Right.
Nevertheless, with crystal ball firmly in hand, this is the way that it very well might shake out.
Players in italics are decidedly “on the bubble.”
Making time count
The battle many Ohioans anticipate most is Brandon Weeden versus Colt McCoy. Step right up, folks! It’s Opie versus the Choir Boy!
However, have the chips fallen in such a way as to make a training camp duel irrelevant? Anyone oblivious to the role of luck in a successful NFL career needs to take a look at the tale of Weeden and McCoy.
Right after becoming the winningest QB in college history, McCoy sustained a nationally televised shoulder injury in a bowl game, which helped drop him down to the third round—and the Cleveland Browns.
Then both the first- and second-string quarterbacks were injured and the rookie was handed the reins to a far-from-perfect offense. He showed enough of "the right stuff" to be the presumptive starter going into 2011.
Then the lockout robbed him of an offseason to learn a new and complex offensive scheme. Then injury and pique took out his running game. And then James Harrison took him out of the season.
On the other side of the duel, Brandon Weeden gambled on baseball—and lost. Coming into the draft at his age should have made him a second-rounder at best.
However, the Tennessee Titans robbed Cleveland of their targeted WR Kendall Wright at the 20th pick. Bingo! Brandon Weeden is suddenly a first-round draft choice.
None of this will matter if Weeden is a spectacular flop. Pat Shurmur will apologize to McCoy and everyone will pretend that Weeden was supposed to be a backup all along.
That isn’t likely, however. Weeden’s maturity makes his college success less of a fluke and more of a calculated step towards professional athletic success.
And even if McCoy and Weeden come out even, McCoy loses to the dollars. This is completely unfair to him and largely a product of lousy luck. However, McCoy may land somewhere that needs depth at QB (Indy? Chargers since McCoy is probably better than Charlie Whitehurst? Rams since he is better than Kellen Clemens?). McCoy getting another shot at starting wouldn’t be out of the question. Just probably not in Cleveland.
Brandon Weeden will be the starter. McCoy will ask for a trade. The Browns will hang onto Seneca Wallace for one more year. This prediction is again based solely on money: Wallace is going to earn $3 million in 2012. And the Browns are on the hook for that money, unless they can sell Seneca to another team. Yeah, that's gonna happen.
So Mike Holmgren and Shurmur will keep him and hope that either Thaddeus Lewis or Darron Thomas can develop enough in 2012 to be promoted to the clipboard position in 2013.
The winner of Thomas vs. Lewis will be whomever Holmgren had the most input into signing. That is, of course, if Thomas had a successful tryout this past weekend.
Thomas demonstrated the most recent example of bad career decision-making by a collegiate football player when he decided to come out of college early. The verdict is apparently in: NFL front offices believe his 5,642 passing yards and 63 TDs over the past two years were more a product of the Oregon Ducks’ offensive system than of Thomas’ talent.Whether or not he lands a contract by the end of the week will depend upon his performance in some rookie camps—and team needs.
Or, to continue the Kurt Warner scenario: McCoy trades out before September, the Browns somehow convince McNabb to take the backup role, Weeden fizzles—a la Matt Leinart—and McNabb leads the Browns to the Super Bowl.
Hey, it could happen.
Darron Thomas/Thaddeus Lewis
You gotta have heart
Trent Richardson should probably just be written in as the first, second and third option at this position. However, stud though the former Crimson Tider may be, no one can carry the ball every time (though it might be close to that as the Cleveland coaches can’t stop raving about Richardson).
ESPNCleveland.com summed it up: "Richardson’s unique dimensions enable him to take advantage of scatback height and fullback power."
The only mystery this offseason is which of the other Browns running backs will come in second. The battle is anticipated to be between Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty.
Jackson’s return appears to be highly anticipated by fans, but he may not be all that absence has made Cleveland think he might be. While in 2008, the former Packer averaged 5.5 yards per carry, he has never gained more than 703 yards in a year or scored more than three TDs. Jackson came on strong in relief of Ryan Grant in Green Bay’s SB season but faded in the stretch and fell behind rookie James Starks.
On the other hand, Hardesty cannot stay healthy. It’s impossible to tell whether his tremendous final season at Tennessee under Lane Kiffin proved he is a franchise runner or whether he was a one-year wonder. However, three significant injuries at this young age make one wonder why the coaches still have him in the mix.
Chris Ogbonnaya’s heart and determination endeared him to fans after he joined Texas teammate McCoy on the roster in 2011. His versatility will probably keep him on the team through third-down and special teams contributions. Bear in mind, Ogbonnaya may only have scored one TD in his time with the Browns in 2011, but he gave the team 13 first downs and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Armond Smith is the flex-mode insurance policy who is also a reasonable return specialist option and can be moved to the practice squad as needed. *
Montario Hardesty or Brandon Jackson
Armond Smith - * Update: Smith was just cut and the Browns signed UFA Toledo RB Adonis Thomas (according to Mary Kay Cabot's twitter 5/14/2012) Stay tuned.
Run, Owen, Run!
While the starting running back slot carries no mystery whatsoever, fullback is going to be intriguing in the summer of 2012.
Seventh-round selection Brad Smelley is largely considered too small to serve as a blocker for Richardson at the professional level. And yet ClevelandBrowns.com refers to him as a “fullback” when reporting on the Browns draft-pick signings. Does that mean anything?
Well, The National Football Post acknowledges Smelley’s as an in-motion blocker, able to get downfield on screens. Maybe that’s why Richardson put in a good word for his old teammate.
Smelley’s saving grace is his very soft and reliable hands as a receiver, but Cleveland is deep at TE, so Smelley may have to fill the H-back role—at least on paper.
Smelley may want to send Bill Belichick a thank-you note for resurrecting and expanding Joe Gibbs’ two-tight end offense. Pass-catching TEs are back in vogue. Smelley is no Rob Gronkowski, but he can grab a football.
If the Browns want to call Smelley a fullback rather than a TE, his competition is Owen Marecic. Generally considered a disappointment in the fanbase (probably because his predecessor, Lawrence Vickers, was so popular). The fairness of this assessment is debatable in a lockout-shortened rookie year.
Unless one is Green Bay's John Kuhn, fullback stats aren’t that helpful in determining a player's effectiveness. Much like the offensive line, many of these tugboats toil outside of the limelight. His four rushes and five receptions aren’t exactly eye-popping.
However, let’s not forget that Marecic played both fullback and linebacker at Stanford, winning the first annual Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player.
So it’s not as if the guy doesn’t “have game.” Shurmur and Co. should maintain Marecic through a second professional season and utilize Smelley as a multifunctional chess piece designed to confuse defenses and force them to realign.
And Eddie Williams is a fourth-year backup who could stay on the roster if Smelley ends up more in the TE camp or proves he cannot compete at the NFL level. However, if Smelley suddenly proves he can block, Williams will be out of luck.
Still got it.
In 2011, the problem at this position wasn’t talent—it was health. The team did not draft any new TEs (unless they count Smelley, which they just might).
Going into his eighth pro season, Benjamin Watson came over from the Patriots, where he was a prototypical Belichick draft pick: smart and versatile.
Watson is probably far removed in speed from the guy who famously chased down Champ Bailey in a playoff game from the far sideline over the entire length of the field. However, before lost to injury (multiple concussions), that remarkable level of effort still made him one of McCoy’s most reliable red-zone weapons in 2011.
Evan Moore stepped in, though, and proved surprisingly good with his hands, recording 34 catches and four touchdowns. So he and Watson could find themselves in competition for the starting gig.
And the TE wild card not named Smelley is second-year USC product Jordan Cameron. After switching over from basketball, Cameron’s college career wasn’t anything to excite scouts until his senior year. Moved from WR to TE, Cameron excelled and proceeded to get those same scouts all hot and bothered with a combine showing where he finished in the top three in every drill.
And that must explain his current darling status among Browns fans, not to mention the glowing reviews he gets from the front office. One could also point to his blond, surfer-boy good looks if one were to think such things would sway Cleveland fans. The 2011 fourth-round pick is the heir apparent at TE unless there’s a shakeup this summer.
When a team is wooed by a combine performance that dazzling, someone else might pay the price. Alex Smith was a free agent this spring and might have found himself out of a job except that the Browns went out of their way to re-sign him to a one-year contract.
Smith is the best blocking TE currently on the roster and he also has extensive knowledge of the West Coast offense. Right now he’s an insurance policy in case Cameron hasn’t developed enough to play.
And that puts him somewhat at risk in the future if Smelley can stick on the roster and if the new-and-improved O-line lives up to the “improved” part.
Evan Moore or Cameron Jordan
Alex Smith or Brad Smelley
Told you he was fast. Yep.
Travis Benjamin carries the dreams of Browns fans on his shoulders as the only WR drafted by Cleveland in 2012. He’s fast as Mercury and is expected to compete immediately for a starting spot, although some projected depth charts makers are apparently expecting the much-heralded “breakout season” from Carlton Mitchell. Hopefully no one is holding their breath on that.
It is certainly possible that Mitchell or Owen Spencer could land as reserves in the second wideout spot, but depending on Mitchell to back up the soon-to-be-waived Mohamed Massaquoi seems to be less-than-productive reasoning.
There is some scant competition for this unique speed-receiver job. The first is UFA former Seminole Bert Reed, who has been clocked as low as 4.3 with consistent route-running experience.
He is followed by Missouri State’s Jermaine Saffold who sports a 4.36 40-yard dash and a broad jump over 10 feet. His highlight reel isn’t too shabby, either. He makes some athletic grabs and clearly runs away from, well, everyone.
Dark horse receiver Rod Windsor is back in camp after serving on last season’s practice squad. He wouldn’t be there if the coaches didn’t think he had a shot.
Jordan Norwood is going to have to compete to be on this team and he might end up as the odd man out, depending upon how badly Cleveland wants to keep Mohamed Massaquoi.
The decision will probably come down to money. Massaquoi is at the end of a contract paying him about $615,000 for 2012. Norwood is making $465,000 this season. Actually, unless they need a roster slot, the Browns may keep both. However, the head count on this article leads one to believe one of them will be competing elsewhere.
Joshua Cooper is clearly the unknown factor in this WRing corps. He’s going to try to push Norwood for the slot job. Success will probably correlate precisely with whether Weeden is under center.
Browns fans eager for something approaching a legitimate group of ball-catchers are optimistically comparing Cooper to Wes Welker. Um, that’s pretty optimistic. For the time being, the unassuming Cooper is to Weeden what Smelley is to Richardson: a BFF and security blanket.
But Richardson is The Man on this offense and probably carries just a bit more pull than Weeden—as of now.
Will see the field
Hanging on for a while
Probably about of luck
Note: The Browns' new senior offensive coach is Nolan Cromwell. If you do not know that name, you are undoubtedly male. Women remember Cromwell fondly from his days as a Rams safety and the Super Bowling-winning special teams coach for the Green Bay Packers.
Reviewing for a moment: Who was the Packers head coach back then? Uh-huh.
Somewhat oddly, Cromwell has made a name for himself as an offensive coach who is particularly effective with wide receivers.
Ready. Set. Block.
If only all offensive linemen could be Joe Thomas, all quarterbacks would be clean and all running backs Walter Payton. However, they are not.
Still, Cleveland’s O-line has, at least on paper, catapulted itself into a unit worthy of the AFC North. From Thomas to left guard Jason Pinkston to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack—a quality bunch all.
Drafting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will put up a castle tower on the right side—if he’s the real deal. And right guard Shawn Lauvao may or may not be able to hold off challenges from the rookies Ryan Miller, J.B. Shugarts and Matt Cleveland.
The Browns wasted no time keeping John Greco as a valued reserve lineman. The fact that Greco can play all three line positions gives him the most job security for which a lineman could hope. He and Oniel Cousins will start out backing up the entire line, aided by Jarrod Shaw and Dom Alford if there's enough room left.
Early buzz surrounds Guard/RT J.B. Shugarts. He of the nasty reputation needs technical work, but could provide depth within this first season. At 6’7” and 300 lbs, he has nature on his side.
Undrafted free agent Guard Matt Cleveland has a shot at staying in the mix. Despite his Rust Belt moniker, Cleveland is yet another big man upfront that hails from Idaho or Iowa. See, some stereotypes (like O-linemen from the Corn Belt) still do ring true. And Cleveland started every college game for three years and sure looks like the type of guy you’d want to take into a dark alley.
After you, dude.
If Jeremy Shockey were a center, he’d be Garth Gerhart. He’s worked with Brandon Weeden in camp and done fairly well. After spending his entire youth blocking for brother, Toby—whom you might have heard of—Gerhart is an experienced center who has a slim chance to nail down the reserve role, despite not being the world’s most naturally gifted man.
Garth Gerhart (long shot since Greco can fill in at center)
Maybe Matt Cleveland, J.B. Shugarts and Jarrod Shaw
Pretty athletic for a big guy.
Cleveland thought it had solved its defensive line issues. It made two intelligent free-agent pickups in Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker, followed by drafting risky John Hughes and intriguing Billy Winn.
And then Phil Taylor tore his pectoral muscle. That seems to happen a lot on the Browns defense. Perhaps they need to review their weight room procedures.
The result is that Hughes will have his chance to prove his worth sooner rather than later.
Right Defensive End
Left Defensive End
Second-Team Defensive Ends
Emmanuel Stephens or Auston English
Left Defensive Tackle
Right Defensive Tackle
UFA William Green (University of Florida)
Back and better than ever
Rookie Linebacker James-Michael Johnson may have to be fast-tracked now that the depth chart took a hit with the suspension of Scott Fujita. He is the more NFL-ready player of the two drafted linebackers, but Emmanuel Acho will still be in the mix.
Quinton Spears is the current reserve at the left outside linebacker slot and will probably be the titular starter when camp starts. From there, anything goes.
What to do at starting strong side backer is by far the biggest defensive question mark. If they move Gocong over to SLB, then what do they do when Fujita returns? Will one of the rookies have stepped up by then? It's a conundrum for sure. To complicate matters, the Browns just signed Idaho linebacker JoJo Dickson. Okay.
Some are predicting Johnson will play behind D’Qwell Jackson at MLB, followed by Acho. Yeah, only if Dick Jauron is really, really impressed with these rookies.
One surprise is that former University of North Texas letterman Craig Robertson is on at least one early depth chart as third-string left side linebacker. It appears the Browns are stacking the deck on that side, hoping for a surprise ace. The team may keep a few extra bodies on the roster here until it is happy with the composition of this position for the first month of 2012.
D’Qwell Jackson has just become the “grand old man” of this linebacking corps and will have to be a force until Fujita gets back. Finding the right backup there will be key and could be a major positional battle this summer.
And Andrew Sweat’s decision to go to one of the five law schools that accepted him opens the way for a lively linebacker competition.
Left/Sam Outside Linebacker
Quinton Spears (his job to lose, at least for September)
Right/Will Outside Linebacker
Reserves (if there is roster room, which there probably will not be)
UFA L.J. Fort (University of Northern Iowa)
UFA JoJo Dickson
The final roster at safety is currently shrouded in the mists of the future. For the past two seasons rumors have abounded that Sheldon Brown was on the cusp of moving to safety. The Plain Dealer reported in January that Brown isn’t against the idea. It hasn’t happened yet, but if anything untoward befalls starter Usama Young, Brown may be pressed into service.
I once heard an announcer say of Jason Sehorn in the twilight of his career: “As a cornerback these days, Jason is a pretty good safety.” This could be like that. (What the heck, Sehorn ended up married to Angie Harmon.)
If the Browns are paying more than lip service to this change, they need to make it when the veterans report to camp.
Ray Ventrone seems to be penciled in as the backup free safety behind Young, who is entering his prime. However, in six NFL seasons, Ventrone has never started a game.
Second-year David Sims lived in several NFL cities during his rookie season. While that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of star power, Sims can also be a long-snapper, which is not a bad second talent.
Young is one of the true “breakout season” contenders for 2012. He proved his NFL worth last season, playing in 16 games with 70 tackles and one INT. No wonder Mike Adams took the first lucrative offer he could—Young may very well have taken his starting job.
Strong safety is completely locked up with T.J. Ward and Eric Hagg. No question unless someone gets hurt.
The first four cornerback slots are sewn up so tightly that only catastrophe—or position change—can dislodge the starters. The only question mark will be whether veteran Sheldon Brown does switch to safety or whether Usama Young and Ray Ventrone can cover the position and allow 33-year-old Brown to remain at corner for one more season.
There are two young men who might crack the roster as reserves.
UFA Emanuel Davis will be competing for the backup nickel or dime role. The East Carolina CB wouldn’t make Mike Mayock’s top list due to the dread “hip stiffness,” but he has some natural ability if he grows into his frame and improves his technique.
Antwuan Reed out of Pitt is the dark horse. He flows quickly to run with receiver but at the same time falters sometimes in coverage. He may not be big enough to cover the Anquan Boldins of the NFL. He’s a willing and instinctive run defender but commits so quickly that he may get burned. Still, he is an athlete and could end up on the team for depth.
If Brown moves to safety, Patterson will start on the right, backed up by James Dockery and Trevin Wade, or one of the surprise UFAs that always seem to emerge around the league.
Sheldon Brown and/or Dimitri Patterson
James Dockery (could be on the bubble if he loses out to Trevin Wade and if Travis Benjamin can be a return man)
UFA Emanuel Davis
Always a star.
There is no point whatsoever in discussing the PK position unless Phil Dawson is injured. Jeff Wolfert might stick around in camp, but no one is unseating the man that the Browns chose to franchise tag. Yep, they franchised a kicker. Isn’t that a sad statement?
Long snapper: Christian Yount.
Punt returns and kick returns: Joshua Cribbs has the starting role signed, sealed and delivered—unless newcomer Travis Benjamin emerges as the speed threat he is expected to be. At “The U,” Travis tore it up both as a receiver and on special teams. He averaged 11 yards per punt return and 23.7 yards per kick return.
Recommendation to Pat Shurmur: Since both Cribbs and Benjamin want snaps at WR, rotate their return duties so as not to run Cribbs into an early grave. The strain showed last season as Cribbs only scored one touchdown on a punt return. Still, his average of over 14 yards per punt return and more than 27 yards on kickoffs keep him ahead of “the kid.”
How these two return-man slots shake out will depend upon
1. Who wins the QB battle and how effective that person can be in taking advantage of Benjamin’s speed
2. If Benjamin’s camp performance shows him more immediately productive at WR or at return specialist
In terms of backup return slots, CB James Dockery’s biggest claim on a roster spot is that he’s one of those young men who took to the pro life effortlessly, from taking training camp by storm last year as a UDA, to his versatility. He can backup all DB positions and pitch in on special teams where needed.
Jordan Norwood will try to hang onto his role here, especially since Benjamin may well strongly compete for a major WR position. Norwood is a punt guy and averaged 8.8 yards per last year. That's not exactly going to give Cribbs nightmares.
Buster Skrine is a credible return man in a pinch but will probably be needed in the secondary and should not be risked unnecessarily in a division featuring Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. Skrine has also returned 40 kickoffs for 891 yards (22.3 AVG.)
James Dockery or Buster Skrine (whichever one ends up as the No. 4 cornerback)
Armond Smith - Update - cut 5/14/2012
Armond Smith - cut
When anticipating this roster, remember that every member of Cleveland’s 2012 draft class has a place in the “drag us out of the cellar” plan.
The NFL will also have its usual number of feel-good UFA stories in 2012. Here are 19 potential candidates who can make a difference on their teams immediately.
And finally, how Junior Seau’s death changes the NFL fan.