Predicting the Winner of the Cleveland Browns' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Predicting winners of the competitions at inside linebacker, wide receiver, cornerback, running back and, of course, quarterback will be difficult. Most of the coaching staff's decisions on starters are going to come down to rookies pushing veterans—proven results versus potential.
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All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
Craig Robertson (6'1", 234 lbs)
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, Craig Robertson was a surprise contributor and played in all 16 games for then-head coach Pat Shurmur.
Last season's defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, praised No. 53 to reporters, calling him his "ace in the hole."
Horton overloaded Robertson with much more responsibility as a pass-coverage linebacker, and the sophomore just couldn't keep up. In fact, the 26-year-old was ranked last by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) when it came to pass coverage.
Opposing offenses seemed to pick apart Robertson at will, especially on third down. The Stafford, Texas, native still adds value as a hardworking run-stopper with a nonstop motor, but clearly the Browns needed to improve when it came to stopping plays through the air and over the middle.
Christian Kirksey (6'2", 235 lbs)
Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer felt so strongly that the inside linebacker position required an upgrade that he valued Christian Kirksey above any of the remaining wide receivers in the draft.
When the report on Josh Gordon's alleged failed drug test emerged via ESPN on Day 3 of the draft, fans generally assumed that the organization would snap up a notable pass-catcher during the remaining rounds.
Selected 71st overall, Kirksey brings the speed and versatility to play both on the inside and outside.
Like any rookie, getting used to the pace of the game and complex offenses will surely be a challenge for the Iowa alum. How quickly can he ramp up in training camp and become a factor against the passing game?
The potential is certainly there, and he would have veteran star Karlos Dansby next to him on the field to help out.
Winner: Christian Kirksey
The front office would have to view it as a disappointment if Kirksey does not emerge victorious as the second starting inside linebacker.
Not only was he taken relatively high in the draft, but it would be bad if Kirksey failed to give the coaching staff the impression that he could be an improvement on Craig Robertson's awful 2013.
With the impending doom of a likely suspension to Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, the battle for a No. 1 pass-catcher is completely wide open.
Browns GM Ray Farmer did not select a wide receiver in this past draft, instead opting to juice up his receiving core through free agency, undrafted rookies and returning injured players.
The question is not who Cleveland's wideouts will be but who can emerge as the No. 1 go-to option.
Below is a list of receivers not named Gordon currently on the Browns roster, as per ClevelandBrowns.com:
- Anthony Armstrong
- Miles Austin
- Travis Benjamin
- Nate Burleson
- Taylor Gabriel
- Andrew Hawkins
- Charles Johnson
- Chandler Jones
- Jonathan Krause
- Kenny Shaw
- Willie Snead
Out of the 11 players above, five are undrafted rookies. Four others are coming off injury, as Travis Benjamin (ACL), Miles Austin (hamstring), Charles Johnson (ACL) and Nate Burleson (arm) all look to contribute in 2014.
Quite the drop-off in talent if and when Gordon's discipline from the league is dished out.
Winner: Miles Austin
Hawkins and Burleson have had the bulk of their career success from the slot, which means that in a perfect world they would not be in the conversation as an outside possibility.
The only proven threat is former Dallas Cowboy Miles Austin.
Austin was nursing an ongoing hamstring issue throughout Cleveland's offseason programs and was inactive. The 30-year-old has also not had a 1,000-yard campaign since 2010 and caught zero touchdowns through 11 games in 2013.
If Austin can get healthy, then his natural talent should raise him up over all other challengers.
Justin Gilbert (6'0", 202 lbs)
The eighth overall pick in May's draft may have been overshadowed by the selection of Johnny Manziel, but Justin Gilbert's success is vital to Cleveland's defense this season.
Ray Farmer traded down with the Buffalo Bills and then back up one spot to snag the Oklahoma State product. The hope is that Gilbert will finally solve the shutdown cornerback position opposite Joe Haden.
Speaking to the media, Gilbert said of head coach Mike Pettine: "He told me there's going to be a lot of man and that they were looking for a guy that could play press man, run with receivers downfield and make plays on the ball. I think I'm a perfect fit here."
Pettine's defenses traditionally thrive on attacking the quarterback from multiple angles, which in turn leaves the outside corners on an island to handle receivers.
The rookie's pure athleticism, acceleration and ability to hang with speedy wideouts give him a natural edge on paper over his primary opponent for the starting job, Buster Skrine.
Buster Skrine (5'9", 185 lbs)
I have stood next to Skrine, and I assure you that the 5'9" listing is a generous one.
Size aside, no one made greater strides from 2012 to 2013 than Skrine. A penalty-drawing machine under Pat Shurmur, the feisty 25-year-old increased his defended passes to 18, collected an interception, recorded a sack and cut down on the interference calls last season.
However, it is clear that No. 22's small frame makes him a much more natural fit covering the inside slot.
The good news for Skrine is that Gilbert was not automatically going to be crowned the second starting outside cornerback simply because of his high draft position.
"We weren't going to just hand Justin the job,'' Pettine told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com Monday. "There will be some good competition there.''
Winner: Justin Gilbert
Gilbert's raw, athletic gifts will be too much for the coaching staff to resist, especially once they see him in live action during the exhibition games.
This shouldn't be viewed as a loss for Skrine. Moving inside makes his height less of an issue. Shadowing smaller slot receivers allows the fourth-year pro's speed, footwork and crisp tackling to shine.
Ben Tate (5'10", 220 lbs)
Considered the savior of Cleveland's nonexistent running game when he signed, Ben Tate has embraced the community through social media and local appearances.
Selected 58th overall in 2010 by Houston, No. 44 has a career rushing average of 4.7 yards per carry. However, injuries limited his playing time, allowing Arian Foster to grab the reins as the Houston Texans' featured back.
Tate knows all too well that the best ability is availability and won't give up the starting role without a fight. In fact, he told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com back in June that he didn't view any running back on the Browns roster as competition:
Honestly I'm not worried about that, because I know when I'm on my game -- no disrespect to any other running back here -- but there's no one that can touch me or that's close to what I do. I battled in and out every day with what some people consider the best running back in the league in Arian Foster. I've seen the best. I went against him every day. I battled it, so this around here to me is really not anything.
Terrence West (5'10", 225 lbs)
A relative unknown to casual fans, Terrence West ripped it up at the small college of Towson in 2013.
The 94th overall pick in May's draft rattled off 41 rushing touchdowns last season. That's a tough total to reach in a football video game, never mind in real life. Ray Farmer thought so highly of West that he traded back into the third round to grab him.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said this about West:
Another big back with great feet. In the semifinal of FCS playoffs, in the snow, he had about as good a game as a running back can have. West is kinda like Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Hill. He's a big back with excellent feet. He catches the ball pretty well, too.
Success in poor conditions is definitely an appealing asset, since Cleveland's weather can be harsh and often unpredictable.
Can he step in and instantly dominate defenders at the pro level while also holding off an extremely motivated Ben Tate for the starting job? Now that would be impressive.
Winner: Ben Tate
Ideally for Browns fans, the competition is so close that we see the second coming of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner.
Since Gordon's future is unknown and the receiving corps is thin, Kyle Shanahan's offense will likely need to lean on the running attack to move the ball. Both Tate and West possess the one-cut ability to thrive in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.
If injuries are not an issue, then give the nod to start to Tate based on experience. However, do not be surprised to see a 60/40 split in carries. West, at least to this point, looks like a legitimate star in the making.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your training camp main event! No other positional battle will be more analyzed and scrutinized on a local or national basis than Hoyer vs. Manziel. The family man against the rich party boy.
Brian Hoyer (6'2", 215 lbs)
In relief of an injured Brandon Weeden, Hoyer led the Browns to their first two wins of the season. A comeback on the road in Minnesota was followed by one at home over Cincinnati before an errant slide ended his campaign in a nationally televised Thursday night matchup against Buffalo.
Was it lightning in a bottle or foreshadowing greatness to come? How does Hoyer rebound from ACL surgery, and most importantly, can he stay healthy?
At 28, this is the six-year veteran's first shot at entering training camp as the favorite to start. He'll need to utilize all of the knowledge amassed from backing up Tom Brady in New England to hold off the media sensation that is Johnny Manziel.
Johnny Manziel (5'11", 210 lbs)
"Johnny Football," "Money Manziel" or just plain "Johnny"—call him what you like, but the drafting of Johnny Manziel made the Browns instantly relevant across North America.
His jersey is the league's top seller, and he's the reason Cleveland's season ticket sales spiked and its training camp's viewing space is booked solid. And don't forget about the Johnny billboards and memorabilia scattered across the city.
Is the former Heisman Trophy winner marketing hype, or is he ready to steal the starting quarterback job away from lifelong Browns fan Hoyer?
Weekly party photos and social media interaction lead many to believe that Manziel is not taking the beginning of his NFL career seriously. What we don't know is what No. 2 does during the daytime. Perhaps the Texas A&M star has the playbook memorized from cover to cover.
Media from across the country will invade Berea when training camp opens this week, and the microscope is going to be squarely fixed on Manziel. Is he ready and able to seize the opportunity?
Winner: Brian Hoyer
Brian Hoyer reportedly took only five days off all offseason. Focus, NFL experience and familiarity with the team all point to Hoyer being the opening day starter when the Browns begin their 2014 campaign against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Starting the Ohio native makes sense on multiple levels.
Steelers legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's complicated schemes could wreak havoc on a rookie QB. A more settled veteran like Hoyer would in theory have a better chance of not being as rattled.
Secondly, eating some humble pie might not be the worst thing for Manziel. He overcame obstacles to become a rock star in college, but taking a seat and viewing the big time for a while could help send the message that his highly publicized partying needs to be toned down.
However, if the Browns get off to a slow start, then get ready for relentless "Johnny" chants.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and journalist.
Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyMc81