Today was my first experience going to the Cleveland Browns' training camp. I understand that how you look in practice is going to look different than how you look in a game against other guys who don't mind putting you on the injured reserve. I'm no expert at evaluating talent, but if I was, I would be working for an NFL team. I am a fan first and foremost, but I like to think I do my fair share of homework as well. That being said, if you want an expert's opinion, you won't find it here.
I have been a Browns fan for about 15 years, but until today I never had a good reason to go observe a practice. With the moves the team made through the draft to upgrade their offense, I felt it might be worth checking out what all the buzz has been about.
As far as a fan experience, it's a good time if you're a true fan of the game. You're just watching drills, so it could get boring if you aren't interested in watching for the little details about how a guy performs.
Now to the players...
1. Football players are incredibly tough
I'll get this out of the way right off the bat. Everybody on the field today could beat me up handily, at least the players. Although, some of the water boys look like they've been sneaking into the weight room after work as well.
I already had a good understanding of the physicality of these athletes, but being only 10 feet from the field in a setting that is quiet enough to hear the brunt of the contact when they hit really gives you a whole new understanding of just how crazy these guys are.
2. Brandon Weeden is taller than Colt McCoy
Everyone has been constantly reminded about this by the media, but it is not nearly as noticeable as you might have been led to expect.
The one thing that cannot be debated is that Weeden does throw a more effortless ball. There were times when the team was standing in the way and the fans were unable to see who was at quarterback, but when the ball went up in the air it was usually pretty clear.
McCoy looks to have better touch, particularly when throwing into the end zone, but it shouldn't be read into too much. This is the time for Weeden to test his receivers' ability to get up field and develop timing.
While McCoy rarely throws the ball ahead of receivers to hit them in stride, Weeden throws a tight spiral that leads the receiver more often than not. Weeden does not look as comfortable rolling out of the pocket, but with improved line play and a capable receiving running back in Trent Richardson, he can make his good assets work for him.
3. Jordan Cameron could be a huge help
While Evan Moore has some of the best hands on the team and is a viable red zone target, Jordan Cameron appears noticeably bigger in his upper body.
Moore looks like a big receiver, whereas Cameron looks like a real tight end who has all the physical makeup to develop into a blocking threat who also has incredible athleticism. He's a raw project, but look for him to see the field this year.
4. Get used to hearing Josh Gordon's name
The controversial second-round supplemental draft pick has been a topic of discussion around the league. While there is certainly room for development (he struggles to get open early against press coverage), he has all the potential to become a good receiver in the NFL.
From a fan's standpoint, he appears even bigger than Greg Little with effortless speed and sure hands. There were a number of times during practice that he was targeted in the end zone against one-on-one coverage, and he wasn't spectacular. He did exactly what one should expect from a quality NFL receiver, but Cleveland fans have not seen much of that since 1999.
Browns fans have heard about developmental receivers who could become something special, most recently in the form of Carlton Mitchell, but this is not that kind of situation. Expect him to see the field early and often alongside Mohamed Massaquoi and Little who lined up in the slot most of the time today.
By this time next season, we could very well be saying that Gordon could be a standout receiver in this league. Make no mistake, he has a long way to go (and may never get there) to become a true "No. 1 receiver."
To lump him in with guys like Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson would be ridiculous at this point. But if he and Little continue to develop into high-quality targets, they will take the team to another level on offense, and this could go from being an abysmal group to being arguably the best receiving corps since the return of the team.
5. Joe Haden continues to get better
He has taken his game to another level, anchoring a young group of defensive backs and is noticeably confident in his ability to challenge any receiver out there.
As his understanding of the position continues to grow, he could become a top-3 CB in the league, and will undeniably have a huge payday waiting for him.
6. Watch out for Buster Skrine
Buster Skrine is another CB who is learning the position as he goes. In college, he was relied on more for his ability on special teams, but he has the work ethic to overcome some of his shortcomings at the position.
He is undersized, but has elite speed and is surprisingly physical, reaching around receivers as the ball arrives to look for a deflection, often with the same kind of tenacity as Haden.
While GM Tom Heckert is always looking at adding more talent to this position, Skrine could become a serviceable second option, or a very good nickel back.
7. Mitchell Schwartz likely to start at right tackle
Mitchell Schwartz is a player many in Cleveland are very interested in, and for good reason. As the second-round pick this year, he is under a magnifying glass for fans who believed that taking a true right tackle over available left tackles was a reach.
In practice, it is hard to gauge the offensive line's ability, because defenders are not hitting with the same intensity as a game situation. However, I noticed much of the time he shadows Joe Thomas, talking with him as they move from station to station throughout the practice.
At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Tony Pashos, who lacked the agility to pass-protect. His development and performance this year will have a direct effect on the kind of season Weeden has.
Guys like Jason Pinkston and Oniel Cousins will keep him honest and be ready to spell him at times, but this position is Schwartz's to lose.
8. Trent Richardson is a tank
While Cleveland fans have become accustomed to seeing power running backs, Richardson is a perfect example of the developing trend of short and stocky running backs who are explosive and able to hide behind the offensive line.
At 5'9" he does disappear, but has a quick burst and looks to initiate contact to force his way into the secondary. His physical nature could be cause for concern. The running back corps on this team is lacking in depth with Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty coming off injuries last season.
Richardson's ability to catch the football and provide a safety net for Weeden should help a great deal this season. He also appears to be a very willing blocker.
An upgrade to the running game was sorely needed after a shaky season from Peyton Hillis last year. While no one can say for sure how Richardson will translate to the NFL game, there is reason to believe he could have a very good year, even as a rookie.
9. Questions remain over run defense
Stopping the run was an issue for the Browns last season, and will be a question mark going into this year as well.
While it can be argued that not having a productive offense last year led to playing from behind, which meant opposing teams often turned to the ground to dominate the time of possession, there were real struggles on the defensive line and in the linebacking group.
The team selected Billy Winn and John Hughes in the draft, which will help with depth, but neither stood out particularly in pushing the line of scrimmage back.
James-Michael Johnson was drafted to play multiple linebacker positions. While he certainly looks like he could be a serviceable defender for this team, it was interesting to see Scott Fujita (who is serving a suspension at the beginning of the year) getting most of the first team reps with D'Qwell Jackson and Kaluka Maiava.
Safety T.J. Ward should help in stopping the run if he can remain healthy, but he has to prove he can be more than just an occasional heavy hitter.
10. Reggie Hodges is back
While focusing on the punter might not make sense to many fans, it has been a position of value for the Browns in years past. Hodges gives the team a guy who can help win the field-position battle, and is a good holder for offensive superstar Phil Dawson.
Overall, expect this Browns team to continue to have growing pains, but make strides in the right direction. Ultimately, their record will be what is truly judged. While an improved offense this year might lead to more wins in close ball games than last season, this year's schedule will be more difficult.
Tom Heckert has added talent to this team, but much of it is still young and learning how to play at the professional level. I would guess this will be a more watchable team than years past, when the offense was desperately grasping for straws and struggled to score touchdowns.
In the end, a season of seven wins would be a reason to believe they are on the right track with the chance to challenge for a playoff spot in 2013-14.