Breaking Down Cleveland Browns' Biggest Training Camp Battles

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Breaking Down Cleveland Browns' Biggest Training Camp Battles
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As has seemingly been the case nearly every year since the Cleveland Browns re-joined the NFL in 1999, the team is starting over this year, as a new regime tries to make the Browns a contender in the AFC North.

That new regime brings with it a great deal of change to Northern Ohio. New schemes are being installed on both sides of the ball, and the implementation of those schemes has created holes in the starting lineup that must be filled.

Personnel losses created other holes, and while some of these holes were filled in free agency and the 2013 NFL draft, the Browns head to training camp in Berea, Ohio with a number of positions up for grabs, especially on defense.

Here's a look at some of these battles, the players involved and how those competitions might shake out once camp gets underway on July 24th.

 

Cornerback

The Browns have one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks in fourth-year pro Joe Haden, but the starting spot opposite Haden is a question mark heading into camp.

Of the candidates to start, Buster Skrine has the most experience with the team. Injuries and the four-game suspension levied against Haden last year thrust Skrine into a prominent role on defense, and Skrine responded by leading the team in solo tackles with 72.

With that said, as you can see, Skrine's tackle numbers were so high because he was repeatedly and regularly abused in coverage by opposing receivers, ranking near the bottom of the NFL in a number of categories.

The Browns apparently weren't satisfied with Skrine's performance either, as the team made a couple of moves to bolster the cornerback position in the offseason.

Cleveland added Chris Owens, a fifth-year veteran who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. Owens does have 12 career starts on his professional resume, but he's only intercepted three passes in four seasons and, at 5'9", is small for an outside corner.

The leading candidate to start opposite Haden is likely Leon McFadden, who the Browns selected in the third round of April's NFL draft.

McFadden was a three-time All-Mountain West Conference performer at San Diego State, a player who NFL.com says possesses "the strength, quickness, attitude, and ball skills required of NFL starters, even if his size is not ideal to handle the physicality of veteran wideouts."

As the scouting report says, McFadden's size isn't ideal, but his coverage skills are better than Skrine's. Assuming that he can show that he won't be pushed around by NFL receivers, the starting job across from Haden will likely fall to the rookie.

 

Wide Receiver

The Cleveland Browns haven't had a pass-catcher top the 1,000-yard mark since both Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow accomplished the feat in 2007. It appeared that second-year pro Josh Gordon was set to end that drought this year after a solid rookie season, but his two-game substance abuse suspension has cast doubts over his future.

In the short-term, the Browns face the problem of who will step up to replace Gordon's production in the offense. When Gordon returns it will become a matter of who the team lines up opposite him.

One thing would appear relatively certain. Sixth-year pro Davone Bess, who was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Miami Dolphins, will work the slot, providing quarterback Brandon Weeden with a sure handed veteran presence and underneath option.

Third-year pro Greg Little and second-year pro Travis Benjamin are slated to start outside while Gordon is sidelined. The question then becomes which player returns to the bench once Gordon is back on the field.

Little would appear to have the edge here, as he was a second-round pick who the Browns hoped would blossom into a productive starter for the team for years to come.

However, things haven't exactly gone as planned. Little has struggled with drops to the tune of 23 over a two-year stretch according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He'll make a highlight reel catch on one play, only to then drop one that hits him right in the numbers.

With that said, Little dropped only two passes over the final 11 games last year according to Cleveland.com, so there's reason for some optimism that perhaps Little has finally put his concentration issues behind him.

If Little continues to drop passes, he may well find himself watching from the sidelines. In addition to Benjamin, a speedster who Weeden said "stuck out" at OTAs according to Nate Ulrich of The Akron Beacon-Journal, the Browns also brought in David Nelson, who caught five touchdown passes for the Buffalo Bills two years ago, in free agency.

If Little continues to improve, and Gordon can stay out of trouble once he gets back, the Browns will have quietly assembled a young receiving corps that can do some real damage in Norv Turner's vertical passing offense.

 

Free Safety

Cornerback isn't the only position in the secondary where the Browns are looking for a new starter. After watching 2012 starter Usama Young depart in free agency, the Browns are also in the market for a free safety.

The early leader in the clubhouse is Tashaun Gipson, a second-year player who made three starts and racked up 33 tackles in 2012.

A former undrafted free agent, Gipson knows that many people don't view him as a legitimate NFL starter, but he told Tom Reed of The Cleveland Plain Dealer that he just uses that as motivation.

I know a lot of people are still looking at me as an undrafted free agent. No matter the circumstances, that's going to be said this year and next year. It's just a little extra motivation.

Gipson's greatest competition could come from rookie Jamoris Slaughter, a player who NFL.com calls a "solid pass defender [and] attacking blitzer [who] also plays with strength against the run."

Slaughter's senior year at Notre Dame was cut short by an Achilles injury. However, the 6'0", 195-pounder was cleared to return to practice in June, and Slaughter recently told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer that he has his sights set on beating out Gipson for the job.

I think I bring intensity. I've got a passion for the game, a love for the game. And I just like winning. I have that winning mentality, so I'm just going to bring everything I've got. They tell me they drafted me for a reason, so I'm going to go out there and prove to them that I'm worth what they think I am.

There's also a dark-horse candidate for the free safety spot in the form of converted cornerback and special teams ace Johnson Bademosi, but odds are this competition will come down to whether or not Slaughter is healthy and picks up the defense quickly enough to unseat Gipson.

Granted, these aren't the only position battles that will go on in Berea this summer. Rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo will be trying to earn more than a rotational role behind converted end Jabaal Sheard. A logjam at running back behind Trent Richardson must be sorted out. The team still has to decide on a starting punter.

Still, the camp battles listed here are the most wide-open ones we'll be watching, and how things unfold as training camp moves into the preseason could have a significant impact on what kind of start the Rob Chudzinski era gets off to by the shores of Lake Erie.

 

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