Several key position battles highlight last weekend’s beginning of organized team activity for the Cleveland Browns. New head coach Eric Mangini and his coaching staff have cleared the depth charts, eliminated bias, and promoted open competition at virtually every position. Drafted or undrafted, rookie or veteran, each player will have a chance to make an impact on the coaching staff and earn a spot on the roster.
Let the best man win.
While no roster spot is completely secure, some positions are more hotly contested than others.
Here’s a look at the top five position battles heading into training camp.
5. Defensive end
In order to improve upon last year’s 28th rated rush defense, the Browns will need stout play along the defensive line from all three down linemen. Former Jets C.J. Mosley and Kenyon Coleman join Robaire Smith, Corey Williams, and Shaun Smith in a competition for the two end spots in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense.
Coleman and Mosley appear to be the odds on favorites, due to their experience and success with Eric Mangini in New York. At 6’4", 320 pounds, Corey Williams possesses the ideal bulk and strength for the position.
He and Robaire Smith will need to prove themselves fully recovered from season-ending surgeries to make a strong run at a starting position. Due to his confrontational demeanor, Shaun Smith has all but fallen out of this regime’s good graces. He will vie for a backup role with the team.
Projection: Kenyon Coleman and C.J. Mosley were part of a Jets rush defense which finished seventh overall in rush defense. Look for that experience to earn both players starting spots with the Browns this fall.
4. Wide receiver
Trading Kellen Winslow to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers left the Browns shallow at an already thin position. Winslow’s size, hands, and toughness allowed the Browns to use the tight end as a receiver and create mismatches in the passing game.
In light of Winslow's absence, Browns GM George Kokinis wasted little time in assembling a talented cast to help fill that void.
Braylon Edwards will continue to serve as the team’s primary receiver as he looks to regain his Pro Bowl form. Kokinis has turned to a pair of second round receivers to step in alongside Edwards.
Ohio State’s Brian Robiskie and Georgia’s Mohammed Massaquoi will compete for a starting position through training camp and the preseason. Both rookies have great size (6’3") and awareness to play split end in Brian Daboll’s system.
Newly acquired veterans Mike Furrey and David Patten will compete with Syndric Steptoe and Donte Stallworth for time in the slot. The ever-dangerous Josh Cribbs may see time as a receiver, depending on where he best fits into the system.
Projection: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Brian Robiskie doesn’t see immediate action on the field. His father, a receiver coach in the NFL, has worked with him and developed the OSU standout into one of the most polished receivers coming out of college.
His size, route running, and intelligence should give him the nod over Massaquoi, who will provide the Browns with depth in his first year out of Georgia. Mike Furrey has made a name for himself as a slot receiver, so look for him to get the start in the slot.
When Eric Mangini took over the Jets, the first move he made was to find a premiere left tackle to go along with a dominant center. That blueprint allowed Mangini to turn the then 4-12 Jets into a 10-6 playoff contender within one season.
For the Browns to achieve similar success, Mangini will need a center to match up alongside Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas.
Incumbent Hank Fraley will try to fend off first round draft choice Alex Mack and hold on to his role as a starter. Fraley isn’t the dominant center he once was with the Eagles years ago, but he still possesses the intelligence to make all the calls up front. His three years in Cleveland have enabled the 10-year veteran to establish chemistry with the other offensive linemen—something that cannot be taken for granted.
Projection: Eric Mangini and his coaching staff seem to value size and strength in offensive linemen. That bodes well for rookie Alex Mack, as he possesses the edge in both those departments.
However, Mangini favors intelligence over strength, and Fraley’s experience in the AFC North should give him the edge heading into the regular season. He will start for the Browns.
2. Outside linebacker
Outside linebacker is said to be the most important position in the 3-4 defense. Defensive pressure created through a tenacious pass rush forces opposing offenses into mistakes and subsequently causes turnovers. The Cleveland Browns have struggled with this for years. In order for Rex Ryan’s defense to be successful, two outside linebackers will need to emerge as legitimate pass rushing specialists.
Eric Mangini brought David Bowens along with him from New York to compete for a starting spot. Bowens is a smart player with limited upside, but his presence ensures Cleveland will have solid play from at least one of the linebacker positions.
Kamerion Wimbley has seen a drop-off in production, partially due to Mel Tucker’s defensive scheme and a suspect secondary play.
Cornerbacks Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald have gained an additional year of starting experience. This should allow Rex Ryan the confidence to commit several linebackers to the quarterback and generate the pass rush this team sorely needs.
Projection: Kamieron Wimbley will likely start as the team’s weak side outside linebacker. Rookie David Veikune will compete with Bowens for the job, however it is unlikely either player will prevail.
Second year player Alex Hall looks to be the favorite to start on the strong side. The physically imposing seventh round pick from St. Augustine’s has really impressed the coaching staff thus far. He has worked with the first team defense for the majority of OTAs, so don’t be surprised if he lines up for Cleveland on Opening Day.
The quarterback competition will undoubtedly determine how the Browns fare in 2009. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson have much to prove to the new coaching staff. From here on out, every throw, decision, and read will be heavily scrutinized by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, quarterback coach Carl Smith, and head coach Eric Mangini.
At some point before the preseason, all three men will come together and decide which player is the best fit for the Cleveland Browns.
Projection: When Eric Mangini evaluates a player during a press conference, he refers to what he saw when he coached against him as a member of the New York Jets.
In 2007, Derek Anderson threw for two scores and led the Browns to victory over Mangini’s Jets. During the 2008 preseason, Anderson completed four of five passes and a touchdown against the Jets last season. Derek Anderson has more starting experienced than Brady Quinn, and in the end, that will be the difference in the competition.