With training camp just a few weeks away, questions continue to swirl around the Cleveland Browns.
Who does coach Eric Mangini intend to start at quarterback this year? How will the team's offense fare under first-time coordinator Brian Daboll? Could the Browns possibly get any worse than they were last year?
While these inquisitions are important, there's another question which has me very intrigued:
With a brand new crop of rookies in Cleveland, and an overall lack of standout talent to compete with them, just where exactly will these newcomers stand on Mangini's depth chart this season?
It's no secret as to how Mangini treats rookies. Unlike some coaches, who give their trainees a season on the sideline in order to give them time to learn, Mangini has been known to give some rookies a starting position right off the bat.
In his first season with the Jets, Mangini started quite a few of his draft picks, including linemen Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
So, back to the original question, what are Mangini's intentions with his first batch of Browns newbies?
Nobody will know for sure until the final depth chart is released, however I thought I'd try and make some predictions regarding the Browns' 2009 rookie class and just how much action they can expect to see this year.
Alex Mack (Center, University of California)
As of now, most Browns fans know Alex Mack as the underwhelming first-round pick the team made after spending about two hours trading down.
Mack certainly wasn't as heralded as some of the other players available at the time, however this may have had more to do with the fact that centers aren't exactly as marquee as linebackers or receivers. While his selection had many people scratching their heads at the time, it wasn't long before there was a collective change of heart.
By drafting Mack, Mangini took his first steps in creating the run-first offense he planned for Cleveland. In order to build an offense which focuses on the running attack, Mangini recognized the need to add youth and bulk to an offensive line which took a step backwards in 2008.
Since joining the Browns, Mack has impressed quite a few people both with his display of strength and power on the field and his willingness to learn the offensive schemes as quickly as possible.
Even during his opening press conference with the team, Mack told reporters he intended to begin studying the Browns playbook immediately following his meeting with the local press.
As for predicting his spot on the 2009 depth chart, I firmly believe Mack will be a starter.
While it has been noted how Mack could play both center and right guard, my guess is he will be replacing Hank Fraley as the team's starting center. Fraley helped to solidify this prediction when he told the local media about how he believed it was his job to help Mack become an effective starter, regardless of whether or not it cost him his starting position.
Fraley certainly had his fair share of troubles against opposing defenses last season, and while he was very reliable when it came to helping fans forget the failed LeCharles Bentley project, his time may be running out as a starter.
It's in the team's best interest to see how well Mack fares against the vaunted AFC North defenses as quickly as possible. He'll be sure to see plenty of difficult tests this season, but it certainly looks as though he boasts the size and skills needed to succeed.
Final Prediction: Starting Center
Brian Robiskie (Wide Receiver, Ohio State University)
While not as impressive as wideouts like Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin, Brian Robiskie is certainly a player to keep an eye on.
Apparently, several players within the division feel the same way.
Recently, ESPN.com writer James Walker conducted a survey with 32 anonymous players in the AFC North. Each participant was asked who he believed would be the division's breakout player in 2009 (players were not allowed to vote for themselves or fellow team members). Robiskie finished fourth on the list, the highest of any rookie.
So, while he remains untested, Robiskie already has a few defenders keeping an eye on him.
His performances in minicamp certainly didn't do much to change this.
Multiple members of the Cleveland press were very impressed with Robiskie's practice sessions. He was praised for his effective route-running and great catching ability, as he had a few great end zone receptions during the team's two minute drills. Cleveland Plain Dealer writer Terry Pluto assured fans that,
"Robiskie has come as advertised. He's smart, runs routes quickly, creates space to get open and shows excellent hands, especially in the end zone."
Many analysts thought Robiskie would end up as Cleveland's No. 2 receiver in '09, and this is becoming more and more likely by the day. It comes from a combination of excellent practice sessions and no real threat to compete against. He may not be the fastest receiver on the team, but surely he's a bigger threat than David Patten.
I believe Robiskie will end up as the team's No.2 wideout, as his route-running ability could be used with medium range patterns across the field while Braylon Edwards is running deep routes.
If both have solid years, it could turn out to be a 1-2 punch nobody saw coming.
Final Prediction: Starting No. 2 receiver
Mohamed Massaquoi (Wide Receiver, University of Georgia)
This one isn't quite as easy to predict as Mack and Robiskie.
On one hand, Massaquoi has plenty of upside. He has the weapons to eventually become a legit down-field threat, as shown during his final year at Georgia. Many scouts are quick to praise him for his tenacious blocking ability and, while he had his fair share of issues with dropping passes in college, he's become more reliable in recent years.
The Browns seem to be impressed with Massaquoi's ability to get open downfield. They are also enjoying his strength and ability to fight off cornerbacks.
On the other hand, there isn't a whole lot being said about Massaquoi this offseason, other than the above mentioned comments. There are several analysts who believe Massaquoi is going to be a project for now, as the coaching staff works to make him a more reliable target for the future.
Massaquoi's status with the Browns in '09 will depend on how much work the coaching staff can accomplish with him this offseason.
If they can fix enough of his kinks during training camp, he could see a decent amount of playing time as a slot receiver. If not, he may still see the field, just not a significant amount, as the team may already have a reliable possession receiver in Mike Furrey.
The optimist in me thinks Massaquoi can iron out enough of his quirks before the season starts and become a solid slot wide out. It'll be interesting though, as I feel he's a player who's preseason stats will eventually determine his place on the depth chart this year.
Final Prediction: Second slot receiver, behind Mike Furrey
David Veikune (DE/LB, University of Hawaii)
David Veikune is a name I will be following very closely this season.
Many fans weren't sure what to think when the Browns selected Veikune with their final second-round pick. Playing in Hawaii certainly didn't do much to help gain any credibility. In fact, when the Browns made the selection, ESPN didn't even have any footage to show and quickly went on to analyze another team's pick.
However, in doing some research, I've found there's a lot to like about Veikune.
He displays impressive speed and aggression on defense, and while he lacks the size to be a dominant linebacker, he's doing everything he can to make up for this with the skills he does have.
The result has been a display of strength and tenacity which has caught the eyes of the Browns coaching staff. Veikune has seen action at both outside and inside linebacker, where he's been using his speed to get around offensive tackles and also clog the middle of the offensive line.
Again, this information on Veikune has certainly done enough to keep me intrigued.
The Browns have been dying to get another outside threat to relieve the pressure on Kamerion Wimbley. Now they have two prospects in Veikune and second-year linebacker Alex Hall. Odds are stong one of these two could get the job done.
While the obvious prediction would be claiming Veikune will be used as a special teams player early on, the reviews coming from camp seem to suggest the coaching staff have other plans.
Final Prediction: Won't start but will see action on the field while rotating with David Bowens, Eric Barton, and Alex Hall
Kaluka Maiava (linebacker, University of Southern California)
Essentially seen as "the other guy" at USC next to Clay Matthews III, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, Kaluka Maiava was relatively unheralded during this year's draft season.
However, there's reason to believe he could be to the defense what Massaquoi will be to the offense.
To elaborate, I believe Maiava may very well be a project at this time. There hasn't been much coming out of the Browns training facility regarding the former Trojan, which isn't neccessarily a bad thing. However, it also means the coaching staff and media haven't seen enough from him to garner the type of talk Robiskie and Veikune are getting.
However, I also believe he can relate to Massaquoi, with the fact that he certainly displays notable upside.
Even when playing alongside USC's big name linebackers, it was Maiava who was named the Rose Bowl's most valuable defensive player. He may lack the ideal size for an inside linebacker at the NFL level, but he gives nothing less than 100 percent on the field.
That being said, he could turn into a gem of a draft pick. However, barring any injuries to the front line, I doubt he'll get a great chance to make an impact this season.
Look for Maiava to do his time on special teams for now, but be sure to keep tabs on him, as he may very well make his way farther up the depth chart in the years to come.
Final Prediction: Special teams
Don Carey (Cornerback, Norfolk State), Coye Francies (Cornerback, San Jose State)
The reason I chose to cover both rookie cornerbacks in one section is simply because I believe both have the same destiny for now.
Both Carey and Francies have had pretty decent practice sessions so far. Each cornerback intercepted Brady Quinn during one day of mini-camp, and several scouts had a good amount of compliments for both rookies, especially Francies.
The problem they face has less to do with talent, however, and more to do with the Browns having quite a few veteran cornerbacks above them on the depth chart.
As of today, Eric Wright, Brandon McDonald, Roderick Hood, Corey Ivy, and Hank Poteat are all looking to see playing time this year. Wright, McDonald, and Hood will no doubt compete for the two starting positions, with the loser joining Ivy and Poteat as nickel and dime backs.
Due to this, Carey and Francies have quite an uphill battle to go through when it comes to finding a respectable spot on the depth chart. Their situations may be the same of Maiava's, where special teams may be the destination for now, along with any sort of prevent coverage.
However, if Mangini and crew are having trouble determining the final roster, don't be surprised if either Carey or Francies end up on the practice squad.
In the end, I believe they'll both make the final roster, but won't see too much time.
Final Prediction: Prevent/Special teams situations
James Davis (Half back, Clemson)
This was the draft pick which caught the attention of more than a few Browns fans.
Through three years at Clemson, James Davis had quite an impressive resume. By the end of his junior year, he had rushed for over 3,000 yards. Many scouts believed Davis would be a first round pick in 2008, but he elected to stay in Clemson for his senior year.
The resulting season was a step down for Davis, as he was hampered by a combination of a sub-par offensive line and sharing carries with CJ Spiller.
While scouts were keen to keep this in mind when evaluating Davis, it was no doubt the main source for his draft-day slide.
The belief, though, is Davis could still be a very effective back in the NFL, and his situation in Cleveland will certainly help him in this mission.
As of now, he'll be the third-string half back behind Jamal Lewis and Jerome Harrison. Essentially, Lewis and Davis are the same kind of back—big, but still fast enough to warrant defensive attention.
With his youth, Davis may no doubt be faster than Lewis, thus giving the Browns three different looks at running back. Lewis will provide the ground-and-pound attack, with Harrison adding a burst of speed and Davis being a mix of the two.
The local press has liked what they've seen in Davis, believing he could prove to be a steal very quickly.
As of now, though, he seems to be pretty set in his position as third-string back. However, look for him to get a respectable amount of carries more often than not as the team is essentially grooming an incumbent for Lewis.
Final Prediction: Third-string half back but could see decent amount of playing time
Parker Douglass (Kicker, South Dakota State)
This is where things get really interesting.
The Browns signed Douglass as an undrafted rookie, which at first seemed to be a move to find a backup for current kicker Phil Dawson.
However, things have certainly taken a hard left in regards to the kicker situation.
Dawson is currently in a contract standoff with the team, leading many to wonder if he'll eventually holdout at the upcoming training camp. Some sources are even saying it wouldn't be too shocking if Dawson was lining up field goals for another team this season.
His leverage seems to be slipping, as word out of Berea is Douglass has been making some noise in practice.
The South Dakota native is apparently quite a beast when it comes to kicking from long range, and while he's shown some struggles at times, his kicking ability will certainly affect the Dawson situation.
As a rookie, Douglass will garner much less money than Dawson, who feels he's earned top dollar for another stellar season in Cleveland.
Plus, if Douglass continues to impress at camp, the Browns won't exactly feel hard-pressed to please Dawson.
This situation is hard to predict at the time.
However, looking at how the new regime has handled other contract situations (pushing them aside), the end result will be based on Dawson's actions from here on out.
I predict Douglass will find a roster spot, as whispers in the wind are claiming the Dawson holdout won't end well.
As unfortunate as this would be, the truth is that if Douglass is as good as advertised, he'd be able to help fans move on from Dawson while also saving the team money.
Final Prediction: Eventual starting kicker, as team looks for best financial solution to Dawson situation.