As the Browns made their final NFL cuts to bring their roster down to 53 players on Saturday, disappointed Browns hopefuls who didn't make the grade cleared out their lockers and hoped for a spot on the practice squad or to catch on with another team.
But for a few lucky players who were on the cusp, the roster bubble didn't burst and they were asked to stay with the Browns.
No doubt all those players who barely squeaked by and made the cut were relieved and pleased, but that doesn't mean their time for dodging bullets has ended.
In fact, for these few players who barely survived cuts, the stakes have never been higher. These players showed enough to avoid a pink slip, but the question is, how much can they really contribute to the team?
Following are the most notable Browns who narrowly missed being axed, and what they need to do to prove the Browns brass made the right call in letting them stick around.
With the exception of uber-talented but oft-injured RB Montario Hardesty, WR Carlton Mitchell is probably the biggest mystery of any second-year player on the team.
The 2010 sixth-round pick out of South Florida has seen, to date, virtually no regular-season action and very little preseason action. A freak finger injury kept Mitchell out for most of the preseason this year. As for why Mitchell pretty much didn't play at all last season, opinions differ as to whether that was the result of the fact that Eric Mangini never gave him a chance or because he couldn't catch.
Most of what we know of Mitchell comes from Camp Colt, where his detractors said he was dropping passes left and right and his supporters said he was the most focused, hard-working guy among the receivers who participated. It's quite possible that both of those things are true.
No one has ever disputed Mitchell's speed, focus, effort or work ethic, but his hands are constantly in question.
Mitchell was given a break and made the team despite very little evidence to support his cause, probably because the lack of opportunities thus far was not his fault. But with the Browns receiving corps and the team as a whole improving, Mitchell will soon run out of time to prove he factors into this team's offensive future. He should get some opportunities throughout this season, but it will undoubtedly also be the make-or-break year for his future with the Browns.
CB James Dockery certainly had his ups and downs in the 2011 preseason. There were stellar kick returns and muffed punts, excellent coverage in the secondary and frequent penalties. For most of the time he's been on the field thus far, it seems like Dockery has either gotten it very, very right or very, very wrong.
Considering the number of errors, Dockery was, oddly enough, apparently not that close to being cut by the time such decisions rolled around. In fact, the amount of praise he got from head coach Pat Shurmur was probably the most I've ever heard heaped on an unproven player who was committing costly penalties left and right. Sometimes it makes you wonder if Coach Shurmur is seeing something you're not.
I've been asked pretty often if I think Dockery is coachable, and that may be the key to all this. Instinctively, I'd say that I think he is, and he certainly has the raw talent that makes the extra work worthwhile.
To me, Dockery looks like a tremendously talented player who is still extremely raw. The question will be whether or at least how quickly Dockery can harness that pure talent and spin it into something a little more polished and refined.
At this point, I'm guessing the Browns will use special teams plays as a sort of training ground for Dockery to sharpen up his game. If he proves he's coachable and can learn quickly, we'll see him in the secondary more and more as the season progresses.
Going into the 2011 preseason, LB Titus Brown was considered a roster-bubble player whose chances of making the team were tenuous at best.
After a good camp and a good start to the preseason, Brown's chances appeared to be improving rapidly, or at least they were until he suffered a high ankle sprain. Thanks to a rash of this very injury among Browns quarterbacks last season, we all know what to expect from it; it's not truly a serious or long-term injury, but you won't be doing much of anything until it's fully healed.
Despite the fact that Brown will be down for the count indefinitely until his ankle heals, he still made the team. Given Brown's relatively impressive preseason before he was injured and the team's depth issues at LB, this shouldn't truly come as a surprise.
Brown has the speed, athleticism and body type to be a viable MLB in a 4-3 defense. Coach Shurmur called him a guy with a "run-stuffer" build. He should also bring some much-needed speed to the Browns linebacking corps, helping to prop up the play of the talented but slower LBs like Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita.
Brown has been with the team for a while, mostly playing on special teams under the Mangini regime, but Shurmur definitely has designs on Brown logging some significant time at LB in the team's new 4-3 defense this season. How many opportunities Brown gets will depend on how quickly his ankle heals and whether he proves he has what it takes to be a disruptive and aggressive pass-rusher.
Every NFL preseason, there are a few dozen guys who can't buy a break and one guy who gets really lucky. This year, the guy who caught a good break was RB Armond Smith.
Smith, out of Union College, wasn't expected to be a likely candidate for a roster spot when he was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent.
His play early in the preseason improved opinions of him, but not his chance to realistically make the roster. With Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and the newly acquired Brandon Jackson all on the team, there was no room on the roster for another running back, whether he was playing well or not.
But then a bad break for Jackson created a good break for Smith. A bad case of turf toe landed Jackson on the IR before he ever played a regular-season game for the Browns, opening up a roster spot for another RB and giving Smith the chance of a lifetime.
Once it appeared that Jackson would probably end up on the IR prior to the last preseason game, Smith outplayed the other candidate for the job, Quinn Porter, who was cut on Saturday.
Coach Shurmur seems to like Smith as a possible 3rd-down back, but one serious concern remains: Smith seems to have a mean case of fumbleitis. While he's a great athlete with great instincts, Smith has a horridly insecure manner of carrying the ball and often seems unaware of defenders until they're knocking the ball out of his arms.
Fortunately, these things can be corrected with good coaching and effort and concentration on the part of the player, and at just 25, Smith is still young enough to be broken of bad habits. Whether Smith proves to be a usable, productive RB this season depends on how quickly he can improve on those weak points in his game.