Projecting the Cleveland Browns Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
The lead up to the NFL draft may be the most interesting part of the offseason, but now comes the most exciting part: position battles. The roster is basically set, and now they will fight it out for playing time. The Cleveland Browns in particular have some very intriguing position battles on both sides of the football.
Good NFL rosters always have some guys who are locked in at their position. The Browns have those guys in tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack, tight end Jordan Cameron, most of the defensive line, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Joe Haden.
But good rosters also have healthy, competitive position battles.
There are always some surprises coming out of an NFL training camp. Just look at Tashaun Gipson winning the free safety position last season for Cleveland. For the most part, however, we can pinpoint exactly where the major question marks reside on the Browns roster.
Let’s take a look at the five most interesting position battles for the Browns this offseason.
This might be a little bit of a surprise to most because Travis Benjamin has been so effective when he has been healthy. The issue, however, is that he has not been consistently healthy.
Benjamin’s numbers are fantastic when he has been on the field. In his two years so far with Cleveland, he has averaged better than 16 yards per return and took punts back for touchdowns. For his six career kickoff returns, he is averaging an eye-opening 37 yards per return.
The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick because he is a great press-coverage corner. But he also is a dangerous return man.
In his four years at Oklahoma State University, he returned six kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged 26 yards per return. He also returned punts his freshman season.
Benjamin will end up as the punt returner, and Gilbert will handle the kickoff-return duties. Gilbert will probably be the backup punt returner as well in case Benjamin again finds himself injured.
The Browns primary and secondary wide receiver spots are wide open heading into 2014. Josh Gordon will likely be facing a heavy suspension, despite reports he is appealing the failed drug test results. The Browns also cut Greg Little who held the number two receiver position in 2013.
This offseason, the Browns signed veteran receivers Nate Burleson, Earl Bennett and Miles Austin. Bennett, who is just 27 years old, has been in recent years the healthiest of the three. But though he played in 10 or more games in each of his six seasons with the Chicago Bears (including 15 games last year), he is really just a possession-type receiver. In his best season he had 717 yards and two touchdowns and that was way back in 2009.
Austin had back-to-back thousand yard seasons in 2009 and 2010 but has since been plagued by injuries and inconsistency. He is also no longer a primary wide receiver any more. He has lost a step or two at this point in his career.
The front-runner for the primary receiver position has to be Nate Burleson, an extremely productive player when he is healthy. He has five seasons of 600 or more receiving yards and three seasons of six or more touchdowns. The issue with him is that he has not been healthy since 2011.
Burleson broke his arm for a second time in a year at minicamp this offseason and it looks like that injury could haunt him. The Browns say he will be ready for training camp but that does not guarantee he will be able to stay there.
I expect Miles Austin to snag the first receiver spot with Earl Bennett and Andrew Hawkins splitting time as the number two wideout. It would not surprise me if Nate Burleson does not make the team out of camp if his injuries continue to limit his time on the practice field.
Both of the Browns starting guard spots are up for grabs and they should be. Last season they were the weak links and often made the rest of the line look below average. John Greco and Jason Pinkston are still on the team but Shawn Lauvao is gone.
This offseason the Browns added Paul McQuistan via free agency and Joel Botonio via the draft. Each of those guys should push for starting positions right away.
Botonio was mostly a tackle in college but projects to the guard spot at the next level. He is 6’4”, 302 pounds and moves his feet very well. He is exactly the type of player you want at guard in new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme.
McQuistan, who is 6’5”, 305 pounds, started 40 games for the Seattle Seahawks over the last three seasons. He can play every position on the line but excels at guard.
McQuistan and Botonio will snag the starting spots barring injury. Jason Pinkston has proven he cannot be the bulldog needed to be a solid run blocker, and John Greco was a heavy liability lasts season. Both are very solid backup linemen, however.
One of the two inside linebackers for Mike Pettine’s attacking defense is locked in. Karlos Dansby was signed this offseason to be a starter and leader on the defense. The other side is completely up for grabs.
The problem is that there is not a lot of quality competition for the spot. Craig Robertson is the incumbent but showed last season he is not a three-down linebacker. He is decent in run defense but got shredded when dropping into coverage.
The Browns drafted Christian Kirksey out of Iowa State in the third round. That slotting would usually indicate that he will compete for a starting position. Unfortunately he is just 233 pounds and plays much more like a safety. He is great in coverage but got eaten alive at times in run defense.
Basically he is the exact opposite of Craig Robertson.
The Browns will run rotate players to play the second inside linebacker spot. Robertson will play on obvious running and short-yardage downs, and Kirksey will play in third-down passing situations. This will allow the Browns to keep another big body in the game instead of replacing Robertson with a smaller safety or cornerback in nickel and dime packages.
Here is the one you have all been waiting for. The quarterback position will be under the microscope until the day that Johnny Manziel finally snags the starting spot. The big question is when will that happen?
The Browns have done everything they can to make sure the world knows Brian Hoyer will enter training camp as the starting quarterback. The problem will arise when he and Manziel are on the field and throwing next to each other. Will Hoyer and his four career starts be able to hold off the freight train that is Manziel?
Having watched Hoyer in training camp last season, I can attest that he is not the most prolific practice quarterback. He is much better in game situations. So if Manziel looks head and shoulders better than Hoyer in camp and performs well in preseason he could snatch the starting spot before the season begins.
Johnny Manziel will start for the Cleveland Browns Week 1 when they travel to Pittsburgh. I know some fans and the whole coaching staff would like him to sit and learn, but his talent is just too much to deny.
The Browns might feel like they’re helping Hoyer out by breaking Manziel down mentally. Unfortunately, he is crazy competitive, and it will almost certainly backfire. If he is given a fair shot, there is almost nothing that will stop Manziel from winning the job.