Early Predictions for the Cleveland Browns' 2014 Training Camp Battles
No matter what the walk of life, competition makes everyone better. It brings out the best in those who can rise to the occasion and exposes the weakness in others. The Cleveland Browns are fortunate enough to have some quality competition for starting jobs this offseason.
That has not always been the case in Cleveland. Every year since the team’s return in 1999, you could pencil in just about every starter. The Browns have now built depth all around the roster, and it looks like they might also have a quality competition at the most important position on the field.
Nothing is more fun than watching two guys who play the same position battle. The good ones want to see each other do well, because that is better for the team, while at the same time knowing they need to perform at a higher level than their counterpart.
Those battles begin in OTAs, and it is never too early to start examining some of the most important position battles on the field for the Browns.
Hoyer vs. Manziel
This will be the highlighted position battle for the Browns all offseason. Can the hometown boy with the unbelievable story hold off the first-round draft pick with all the hype?
Johnny Manziel was elevated to the second-string quarterback sooner than some expected. On Wednesday, he took snaps with the second team and also worked with the ones during 11-on-11 drills.
Brian Hoyer, who has still not been cleared to work from under center during 11-on-11s, practiced but watched from the sidelines during that portion of the day. The more reps that Manziel gets while Hoyer is on the sideline, the better chance he has of snatching the job before the season begins.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said that the snaps were divided as part of a rotation between all the quarterbacks, but everyone knows who the second quarterback on the depth chart is at this point.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Today Johnny had reps with the ones, he had reps with the twos and he also had reps with the threes. Hoyer's not always in there; he's coming off of a knee injury so he's not cleared to do everything so sometimes when he's in there he's gone with the ones and gotten reps with the twos also. So we're mixing everyone around.'
I still think Manziel will end up winning the starting job. Not only will he look better in practice, but if Hoyer has any setback with his knee whatsoever, then Manziel will put a stranglehold on the position.
Tate vs. West
Ben Tate certainly has his work cut out for him if he wants to hold off rookie Terrance West for the starting running back position. Both backs are big and physical, but West looks very good so far in OTAs.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine told the media on Wednesday that the backs are very similar but also have a different set of strengths.
“I think Terrance might be a little bit more north-south, where I think Tate can be a little bit more elusive in the open field, but it’s close. They are fairly similar.”
Now this was not necessarily a knock on Tate, but in a zone-blocking scheme, backs are expected to get upfield sooner rather than later.
“They have a good feel for the zone scheme and able to put their foot in the ground and get north and south,” said Pettine. “It’s encouraging when you get the feel you’re going to have runners that are going to get yardage after contact and are very rarely going to get knocked back.”
This battle really cannot be won until they put on the pads and start hitting. Since both backs are likely to get reps this season, a big part of deciding who will get the starting gig will be seeing who can pick up blitzes the best.
Backs must not only know their assignments but be able to read a defense and help when a blitz is coming. This will obviously favor Tate because of his time spent in the NFL already. Tate should be able to win this job, but West will make him earn it.
Pinkston vs. Bitonio
This should be a very interesting battle for the second starting guard position on the line. I am going to pencil in Paul McQuistan as a starting guard because he can play any of the positions on the line and is probably the best overall guard right now.
Jason Pinkston has developed into a solid guard since being drafted in the fifth-round back in 2011. Solid is not dominant, however, and the Browns are looking to dominate in the trenches. Joel Bitonio has the talent to be the best guard on the roster but will have to prove he can seamlessly make the transition from tackle in college to guard in the NFL.
Pinkston has battled injuries throughout his career, and if he has one setback during camp, the job should easily go to Bitonio. If Pinkston stays healthy, however, he could knock McQuistan out of a starting job and play on the opposite side of Bitonio. We have really never seen a 100 percent healthy Pinkston in the past two seasons.
Even with Pinkston’s potential, I expect Bitonio and McQuistan to be the starting guards when the season kicks off in Pittsburgh.
Bennett vs. Austin vs. Burleson
Perhaps the most mystifying position battle on the field is the primary receiver position. There are three players who could legitimately be replacing Josh Gordon if he is indeed suspended under the NFL’s substance abuse policy again.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot told ProFootballTalk.com that Gordon is in Stage 3 of the league’s substance abuse policy, and the penalty will likely be harsh. So who will take his spot?
Currently, Miles Austin and Nate Burleson are watching practice form the sidelines. Austin is cautiously bringing along his hamstrings after they gave him fits all of last season. Burleson is recovering from a broken arm suffered in the Brown’s first mini-camp.
Injured #Browns working on side today: DE Ahtyba Rubin & WR Travis Benjamin. WRs Miles Austin & Nate Burleson are in ball caps watching.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) May 28, 2014
For now, Gordon is taking all the reps with the first team offense, but it is only a matter of time before the league hands down some type of punishment. At that point, the Browns will need to find out who can take that spot.
Mike Pettine has said that Burleson will be back for the start of training camp and, if that is the case, look for him to snag the starting role. If he cannot return healthy and continues to battle arm issues, it could be Austin’s job to lose.
Skrine vs. Gilbert
Just because the Browns selected cornerback Justin Gilbert with the eighth overall pick in the draft does not mean he will be penciled in as the second starting cornerback. It certainly would be a huge disappointment if he did not grab the spot, but he will have to earn it.
If you think Buster Skrine is going down without a fight, then you are dead wrong. He is one of the scrappiest and most fierce competitors on the roster.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil told Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, on Wednesday:
No, I think it'll be a competitive situation. I think we've done a great job building some depth at that position. That'll be on (Gilbert to win the spot). He's going to get every opportunity to win it, but I don't think that the guys that are playing the position are just going to give it to him. I think Buster Skrine's doing a great job out here also, so it's a good situation and we need to have a lot of corners to be successful in this defense.
Gilbert will have to stay healthy if he wants to win the job, however. He left the practice field on Wednesday and had to sit on the sidelines with ice wrapped on his knee. Pettine says the injury is not serious.
"No, I don't think it's anything serious,'' said Pettine.”That was just a bag of ice."
Gilbert backup that up after practice. He took to Twitter and told everyone that he will be back sooner rather than later.
Im fine. WILL be back in action on friday for our next practice. #DawgPound
— Justin Gilbert (@JGil_4) May 28, 2014
Gilbert should easily win this job if he is on the field. Skrine is better suited for the nickel position and will slide over without an issue once Gilbert has a full grasp of the defense.