Cleveland Browns Rookie Training Camp Progress Reports
The Cleveland Browns' first preseason game is this Saturday, which makes it the perfect time for rookie training camp progress reports.
General manager Ray Farmer brought six fresh-faced draft picks into Cleveland this past May, with each one being expected, at varying degrees, to become difference-makers.
Browns 2014 Draft Class
- First round (eighth overall): Justin Gilbert, CB
- First round (22nd overall): Johnny Manziel, QB
- Second round (35th overall): Joel Bitonio, OL
- Third round (71st overall): Christian Kirksey, LB
- Third round (94th overall): Terrance West, RB
- Fourth round (127th overall): Pierre Desir, DB
Quarterback Johnny Manziel may get all the media attention, but other Browns rookies deserve some love as well for the way they have advanced and impressed since camp opened in July.
At the end of each slide I will also include a "start or not" opening-day prediction.
Pierre Desir: Defensive Back
Fourth-round pick (127th overall) from Lindenwood
Pierre Desir's size, speed and general athleticism drew the Browns to this raw talent. The cornerback is a lean 6'1" and ran the 40-yard dash at 4.52 seconds at the NFL combine.
The predraft strengths of Desir have translated to training camp. Rob Rang of CBS Sports commented:
Fluid athlete with light feet, flexibility and balance. Has a low backpedal, controlled transition and is a smooth accelerator with good top-end speed. Trusts his athleticism, showing the patience to allow receivers to get close before opening his hips to turn and run downfield.
Aggressively closes on underneath routes. Locates the ball well, showing good hand-eye coordination and body control to adjust to make the tough grab.
The defensive back's perceived weaknesses focus largely around facing small-school competition and technical issues that should be able to be coached up.
ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi gave a positive report on Desir's progress this past Monday:
Rookie cornerback Pierre Desir was all over the field on Monday. After getting beat on a Hoyer deep ball to Miles Austin, Desir never quit and poked the ball from the unsuspecting Austin before he reached the end zone; broke up another Hoyer deep ball intended for Jonathan Krause; disrupted a short throw for Anthony Armstrong; and then broke up a Hoyer lob in the end zone for Taylor Gabriel.
Start or Not
The senior out of Lindenwood will likely begin on special teams, because the outside cornerback and safety positions are locked down.
However, Desir's height gives him the flexibility to be plugged into any area of the secondary, and that makes him a valuable commodity to defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil.
It appears that Cleveland is attempting to build its secondary after the Seattle model with large-bodied, fast defenders who have no quit and punish receivers. Desir looks to be a perfect match for that philosophy even if he needs some fine-tuning on the nuances of the game.
Terrance West: Running Back
Third-round pick (94th overall) out of Towson
An unknown to casual fans, Terrance West put up video game numbers at the small college of Towson in 2013 with 41 rushing touchdowns.
General manager Ray Farmer thought so highly of the young running back that he traded back into the third round to select him in the draft.
As reported by ClevelandBrowns.com staff writer Kevin Jones, West burst onto the scene at the start of training camp:
In a one-on-one passing drill going against linebackers, West put on a clinic, so much so, that coach Mike Pettine wondered for a second whether if that was actually his running back.
“I was a little shocked with Terrance today,” Pettine said, pleasantly surprised. “I had to double check my roster card to make sure I was looking at the right number. He did some nice things in the one-on-one period. That’s always a bonus when you have a running back that’s not just one-dimensional.”
West’s first razzle-dazzle play was against linebacker Craig Robertson. The Towson product put on a shimmy shake with his feet, essentially crossing up Robertson like a point guard would in basketball. The juke move freed up West, who hauled in the catch from Johnny Manziel.
Minutes later West beat another linebacker in deep coverage, only this time the reception was of the one-handed variety—and it went for a tippy-toe touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, native's one-cut ability makes him tailor-made for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Can he overtake Ben Tate on the first team?
Start or Not
West is currently ranked second on the depth chart behind Tate, but that doesn't mean he won't get his fair share of carries.
ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi predicts rookie Terrance West will handle 10 carries per game this season.
Grossi considers Ben Tate the favorite for Cleveland's lead back job, and we do, too. West is likely to be involved in a high-volume run game from the outset, however, and would take over as the Browns' primary runner in the event of a Tate injury, which based on Tate's history wouldn't be far-fetched.
Could the power ground attack of Tate and West be the reincarnation of Cleveland's past dynamic rushing duo of Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner?
Christian Kirksey: Linebacker
Third-round pick (71st overall) out of Iowa
If the 2013 season showed us one thing, it was that the Browns' inability to defend the pass on third down was an area that required significant improvement.
Ray Farmer attempted to do just that at the inside linebacker position. He released fan favorite D'Qwell Jackson, signed perennial stud Karlos Dansby and drafted the versatile Christian Kirksey.
This past Wednesday following practice, Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com commented on Kirskey's most recent progress:
The quarterback (Johnny Manziel) launched a pass towards tight end Jim Dray that looked like it should’ve been a touchdown. But out of nowhere, rookie linebacker Chris Kirksey broke up the pass. Pettine and the Browns knew Kirksey was excellent in coverage when they drafted him, but each practice the Iowa alum continues to receive rave reviews.
'If you were an observer at practice and didn’t have a roster, you wouldn’t think he was a rookie,' said Pettine of Kirksey. 'He’s great on the practice field, he asks the right questions. He’s been very engaging in the meeting rooms. He really leans on Karlos [Dansby] as a good resource. He’s been a guy that’s been as advertised.'
Start or Not
Craig Robertson is listed ahead of Kirksey on the depth chart and has looked better in training camp than he did at the end of last year.
However, Kirksey is turning heads, and there is still plenty of time for him to wrestle the top spot away. To ease the former Hawkeye into the NFL, it might be beneficial to utilize Kirksey on obvious third-down passing situations at first.
Then his superior pass defense can shine, which would take some of the pressure off Robertson.
Joel Bitonio: Offensive Lineman
Second-round pick (35th overall) out of Nevada
Fully recovered from an ankle injury during minicamp, Joel Bitonio is continuing to look like the nasty and physical presence that the Browns were hoping for.
The rookie out of Nevada was drafted largely due to his athleticism, and that should fit very well with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's plans.
ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi reported:
The coaches believe that Bitonio and Mack, for two examples, will excel in the wide zone blocking scheme. (Joe) Thomas said the scheme will bring out the best in the entire unit.
'I think it actually fits the personality and the abilities of our line really well, probably better than any other scheme,' Thomas said. '...You look across the board, myself and Alex and Joel and Gilkey and Greco, and all the guys we have are really fast, athletic type linemen...we’re going to be in a system that really uses our attributes physically as well as possible.'
Start or Not
Heading into Saturday's first preseason game against Detroit, ClevelandBrowns.com staff writer Kevin Jones wrote: "Bitonio is listed as the first-string guard on the depth chart, but as his offensive line coach Andy Muller says, 'He’s very, very young.' Look for Bitonio to get some second-team reps on Saturday, in addition to building cohesion with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack early on."
It's a smart move to give the youthful lineman reps against varying degrees of competition as he gets his first taste of NFL defenders in live game action.
Bitonio may be learning on the fly, but make no mistake: The Browns absolutely need him to be a stabilizing factor on the shaky O-line come opening day.
Johnny Manziel: Quarterback
First-round pick (22nd overall) out of Texas A&M
The national media has descended on Browns training camp for one man and one man only—Johnny Manziel.
Manziel's "Johnny Football" party persona was in full swing in the weeks leading up to camp. The big question was whether he had prepared during the down time to challenge Brian Hoyer for the starting job.
The rookie quarterback started slow but has improved steadily over the past several days, as Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal outlined this week:
Manziel was back with the first stringers Wednesday, completing 5-of-8 passes in 11-on-11 drills with a 7-yard touchdown to tight end Jim Dray, according to the Beacon Journal’s unofficial tally. Manziel has strung together a couple of solid practices.
'It feels a lot more comfortable for me,' said Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. 'There’s still a long ways to go for me, obviously. I felt like if I kept working on this stuff, got more and more familiar with a certain play call, a certain formation, a certain concept, then in due time, I would get better.'
Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer wrote, "Johnny Manziel has made tremendous strides since the first week of camp and is sharing first-team reps, but Brian Hoyer will start Saturday's preseason opener in Detroit, coach Mike Pettine announced Wednesday."
Start or Not
Barring injury, it is going to be an uphill battle for Manziel to unseat Hoyer from the starter's role.
Head coach Mike Pettine commented to Mary Kay Cabot that Hoyer will start in the preseason opener Saturday because "he hasn't done anything to have that taken away from him.''
Whether that was reality, a remark to motivate Manziel or both, it is clear that if the Heisman Trophy winner does move to the top of the depth chart, it will be because he earned it.
Justin Gilbert: Cornerback
First-round pick (eighth overall) out of Oklahoma State
Justin Gilbert certainly passes the eye test, according to Cleveland's secondary coach Jeff Hafley. "If you make up a corner in a video game, that's what you want him to look like," he told David Andersen of The Plain Dealer.
Hafley continued, "I think he is playing very confident right now. He's starting to understand the scheme. Starting to understand were his help is. He's getting better every day, which is really exciting."
Head coach Mike Pettine's defensive schemes traditionally thrive on attacking the quarterback from multiple angles, which in turn leaves the outside corners on an island to handle receivers.
The Oklahoma State product'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 opposite Joe Haden, Buster Skrine.
Haden told David Andersen of The Plain Dealer, "(Gilbert) has all the tools that you need to be a legitimate, lockdown outside corner. Tall, fast, strong, can play the ball really well and at the same time Buster is not slacking off."
Start or Not
The best ability is availability, and if the rookie wants a starting gig, he needs to remain impressive on the field.
Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer reported on Thursday that Gilbert suffered what appears to be a minor setback:
Cornerback Justin Gilbert, who's been breaking up passes all week and earning some reps with the first team, sat out practice Thursday with groin injury and his status for the game is in doubt.
'Gilbert is a little bit nicked,' said Pettine. 'I don't know (if he'll play).'
The injury comes at a time when Gilbert is gaining ground on Buster Skrine for the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden.
'I love it,' Gilbert said of his first-team reps. 'I feel comfortable when I'm in that position, and it always raises my level of play when I'm in there with them, knowing that I've got those guys, the first unit, there. Playing with those guys, it just feels like the right place for me.'
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.
Andy McNamara is an international sports broadcaster and reporter.
Follow Andy on twitter @AndyMc81