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Eagles vs. Browns: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for Cleveland

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 22, 2014

Eagles vs. Browns: 10 Key Players, Things to Watch for Cleveland

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    The Cleveland Browns will get a look at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 of the preseason just ahead of their meeting in the regular season opener.

    It may have been the Philadelphia Eagles' dress rehearsal game last week due to the funky scheduling, but the Browns have tons of young talent with plenty to prove.

    Once again, Trent Richardson will not suit up for Cleveland, and the Browns' defense has suffered numerous injuries to the front seven.

    What can we expect the Browns to unveil with a much more significant game against Philly looming a few weeks away?

Montario Hardesty

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    Descriptions of praise such as "good burst," "explosive ability" and "finally looks healthy" accompanied Hardesty's performance in last week's game against the Green Bay Packers.

    I must have been watching a different game.

    Hardesty managed 45 yards on 12 carries, which is...okay, I guess? Rushing for 3.8 yards per carry isn't exactly lighting it up.

    Considering Hardesty hasn't proven to be a productive NFL running back as a second-round pick, it's debatable as to whether it's time to give up on the investment.

    Brandon Jackson is a better pass protector and receiver out of the backfield, and Chris Ogbonnaya has played better when healthy than Hardesty has.

    No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson hasn't even suited up for a game yet, although according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, he should be ready for the regular season opener.

    That said, it's far from a lock that Richardson will be his supposed dominant self at the beginning of the season.

    With that in mind, the Browns need to see Hardesty—or someone else—provide a viable running game in support of QB Brandon Weeden and a load of inexperienced skill players.

    On Friday night, Hardesty will have the chance to legitimately establish himself as the guy who can shoulder the load should Richardson miss more time than anticipated.

    With all the injuries and difficulties he's been through, it's impossible not to root for him to do well. Make no mistake, though: he desperately needs a strong all-around performance.

The Defensive Line

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    2011 first-round pick Phil Taylor is likely lost for the season, and rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn have been thrown into the rotation immediately.

    Hughes has not been practicing with an undisclosed injury, which may force newcomer Ronnie Cameron into a larger role against the Eagles.

    According to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, Frostee Rucker may return at defensive end to start opposite Jabaal Sheard:

    Frostee Rucker hopes to play Fri but said it's coach's decision. 'Putting myself in a position that he’s gonna be comfortable putting me in'

    — Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) August 22, 2012


    Whoever is in the starting lineup for Cleveland, the Browns must generate more push up front. Through the first two preseason games, no first-stringer has recorded a sack.

    Granted, the Browns have had to face the quarterbacking likes of Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. This week should bring a welcome change against rookie third-round pick Nick Foles.

    What may be more problematic is the balanced nature of the Eagles' attack. Last year, the Browns were 30th in the league in run defense, and Rucker was brought in to help out in that area specifically.

    Going up against the explosive LeSean McCoy will be as stern of a test as the Browns can ask for.

    They'll see him again in Week 1, so smothering Shady would likely go a long way for the front four's confidence.

Brandon Weeden

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    The first-round pick has his work cut out for him, as this will be the best all-around defense he has faced in his young career.

    Weeden's preseason quarterback rating of 56.7 is a little bit deceiving, and he has shown progress on his ability to hang in the pocket over the past two weeks.

    Fellow rookie Travis Benjamin returns to the lineup at receiver. His speed will provide a deep threat that could provide some double-move shots down the field.

    Neither team is likely to show loads of complex looks, but the Eagles' ferocious pass rushers may allow the defense to pressure Weeden without blitzing.

    The most important thing for Weeden is to make quick decisions and work on chemistry with Benjamin and especially Josh Gordon.

    Even if Weeden lights it up, it's unlikely to be indicative of what the regular season will bring.

    The important thing for the rookie signal-caller is getting quality reps and taking another step toward being the franchise quarterback Cleveland has been searching for since 1999.

Josh Gordon

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    After zero catches in his preseason debut, Gordon made a pair of nice 19-yard receptions last week.

    The supplemental draft pick is still struggling a bit with route running, but he is on a fast track to the starting lineup.

    According to a post by Browns expert Tony Grossi on Sulia.com, quarterback Brandon Weeden has full faith that Gordon will come around and be a huge contributor:

    We’re not going to do stuff to make [Gordon] feel uncomfortable, out of his element. He’s too good a player to sit on the sideline.

    General manager Tom Heckert wouldn't have wasted a second-round pick in next year's draft if he didn't feel Gordon had the talent to be the playmaker the Browns have desperately searched for at wide receiver.

    Against the Eagles, Gordon will have tough tests in man coverage against Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

    If Gordon can manage to get open matched up against that tandem, it would be an extremely encouraging sign.

    As long as he continues on his current path of improvement, Gordon should lock up a starting job with a stellar outing.

Travis Benjamin

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    He may only be a fourth-round pick, but Benjamin is expected to contribute immediately. His quickness in the slot will be key, and Brandon Weeden will likely look for him over the middle to gain tons of yards after the catch.

    It may or may not be sad that Benjamin is arguably Cleveland's most eagerly anticipated skill player set to play this week.

    Benjamin, though, accounted for the 2012 starting offense's most exciting pass play to date when he caught a 34-yard lob on the sideline against the Detroit Lions.

    Whether missing a week has an effect on his timing with Weeden remains to be seen, but Benjamin will have an extended opportunity to shine in front of an ecstatic home crowd in Cleveland Browns Stadium.

James-Michael Johnson

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    The Nevada product had a great senior season in college, recording 100 tackles and flashing solid coverage skills.

    Johnson is another fourth-round pick from this year's draft who is expected to start right away, filling in for at least the duration of Scott Fujita's suspension at strongside linebacker.

    With passing games placing a greater emphasis on the tight end, Johnson would offer a better chance in man-to-man coverage than Fujita would.

    Against the Eagles, Johnson will have to chase down LeSean McCoy, who frequently comes out of the backfield to catch passes.

    He could use a productive outing after being relatively quiet for the first two preseason games.

    According to a feature by Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Johnson was a willing participant on special teams, and didn't expect a more significant role with the Browns so quickly.

    That attitude of doing anything to help the team win will bode well for Johnson moving forward, and he will have the chance to cement a starting spot on defense on Friday night.

Offensive Playcalling

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    It's early, but offensive coordinator Brad Childress seems to be having some sort of influence on the playcalling of head coach Pat Shurmur.

    While installing his West Coast scheme last season, Shurmur sported one of the league's most predictable offenses. The playcalling seems a little more diverse and dynamic since Childress has joined the fold.

    Through the first two weeks of the preseason, the Browns have run the ball 69 times and passed it on 41 occasions.

    Some broken plays account for that lopsided of a number. That trend, though, indicates that the running backs and run-blocking ability of the offensive line are an emphasis of the evaluation process.

    Thus far, the results in the ground game haven't been overwhelmingly successful, and the first-team passing offense hasn't produced any touchdowns.

    Against a Top 10 defense and a strong Philadelphia Eagles secondary, the Browns will have a lot to prove.

Jordan Cameron

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    Benjamin Watson will return to the No. 1 tight end spot, but all eyes will be on Cameron.

    His explosiveness and potential as a vertical receiving threat could open up the entire offense for the Browns.

    If he is meant to be more prominently utilized this season, Cleveland may not tip their hand too much and open things up for Cameron.

    Still, Friday is a great opportunity for Cameron to prove his worth as a blocking tight end against top competition.

    Cameron had just 16 catches as a senior at the University of Southern California, having played basketball at BYU previously. Without much football experience, the 2011 lockout-shortened offseason was even tougher on him in his first year as a Brown.

    The extra time entering his second season has made a big difference for Cameron (via Matt Florjancic of ClevelandBrowns.com):

    With this offseason, I got to look at each play or each scenario and watch what the footwork is. The little things really add up.

    By season's end, the little things may add up to a starting job for Cameron.

Buster Skrine

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    While Skrine has had a solid preseason so far, rookie seventh-round pick Trevin Wade has stepped up, grabbing the first-team reps as the nickel cornerback.

    The fact that Wade has taken reps from Skrine in the slot is no cause for alarm over Skrine's play.

    A report by Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal indicates that defensive coordinator Dick Jauron has made developing Skrine a high priority. After Joe Haden was kicked out of practice this past week, Skrine filled in on the outside with the starters.

    In the event that Haden is suspended, Skrine will likely be the guy the team turns to.

    Skrine has incredible athleticism and rivals the speedy Travis Benjamin as the fastest player on the Browns' roster.

    Fellow corner Dimitri Patterson remains out with an ankle injury, allowing more preseason reps for Skrine.

    The Browns list Skrine second on the depth chart for returning kicks, so making a splash there wouldn't hurt, either.

Players on the Bubble

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    The starters will play the majority of the game, but these players must continue their impressive starts to ensure they survive initial cuts. From there, the backups can strut their stuff in the preseason finale.

    Here are two offensive and defensive players to watch on Friday:

    TE Evan Moore: The emergence of Jordan Cameron in camp has shoved Moore all the way down to fourth on the depth chart.

    While he possesses dynamic receiving ability, Moore hasn't proven himself as a reliable blocker. His upside is less than Cameron's, and Alex Smith is far superior at blocking, hence his slip.

    Dan Gronkowski has also looked good at tight end, which leaves Moore surprisingly fighting for a spot.

    Flashing that potential as a receiver is key for his chances of making the final cut.

     

    WR Josh Cooper: As a college teammate of QB Brandon Weeden, Cooper had a bit of a leg up on the fringe Browns receivers entering camp. 

    Cooper has been relatively solid, but has gotten limited opportunities in games, managing three catches for 24 yards thus far. He will be hard-pressed to beat out Jordan Norwood for the final receiver spot despite the built-in chemistry with Weeden.

    The one-handed catch against the Detroit Lions still stands out as Cooper's best play. The more reliable his mitts, the better chance he has of making the team, especially considering that the Browns led the NFL in drops in 2011.

     

    SS David Sims: A pick-six against the Packers didn't hurt, and ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi points out that Sims leads the league in interceptions in the preseason.

    That ballhawking ability translated to the practice field last week as well, according to Grossi:

    Might have to visit with this David Sims. 2 more INTs at todays #Browns practice.

    — Tony Grossi (@TonyGrossi) August 20, 2012

    Sims may very well beat out fellow strong safety Usama Young for a roster spot, since Young has been hurt and hasn't practiced for three weeks.

     

    MLB L.J. Fort: The undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa leads the Browns with eight combined tackles in the preseason.

    Fort slid into the starting lineup last week in place of D'Qwell Jackson, and played quite well. Assuming he continues his level of play, Fort should lock up a spot on the final 53-man roster.

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