What to Look for in Training Camp

2016 will be the 18th training camp in the rebooted team’s history. 15 of
the previous 17 have ended with a losing season. But it’s hard to think of
many that I’ve gone into with a worse frame of mind– where I knew,
going in, that the season would not end well and didn’t expect to see any
progress. Excluding the first two camps (where it was obvious that an
expansion team wouldn’t be any good), I can see three camps that rival
this one.

Butch Davis’s 2004 camp. This was the camp after they dropped from 9-7 and a playoff game to 5-11. During the year, it had become clear that neither Tim Couch (the Browns’ successful attempt to develop their own Josh McCown) nor Kelly Holcomb could play quarterback. The backfield featured William Green (who had proven the red flags about his emotional problems were accurate) and Lee Suggs (who’d had a history of injuries and played well only in fits and starts).

Any resemblance between that offense and this one isn’t coincidental. The 2016 team has a better offensive line.

On defense, it was clear that the team was short on playmakers– that none of the draft picks had worked out, and the improvement had come entirely from maxing out the free agent budget.

Again, pretty easy to see the parallels. When an injury to Desmond Bryant is seen as crippling, you know you ain’t got much in the tank.

If there was any doubt as to his ability to serve as GM, Davis eliminated it by:

  • Trading a #1 and #2 to move up a spot to draft Kellen “Endo” Winslow
  • Trading the fifth pick in the third round (pick #68), plus a #5 and #6 to get the 27th pick in round two (a jump of nine spots) to take safety Sean Jones.
  • In the fourth round, he drafted Luke McCown– whose brother Josh was already stinking out the league, even though he was considered more accomplished and talented than Luke. Luke played in 2015, but he has a career total of 356 attempts. He’s the emergency QB that nobody ever wants to see play.

Eric Mangini’s 2009 camp. It was year one; the dysfunctional Romeo Crennel-Phil Savage front office had been dispatched after a 4-12 season; so had many of its players. Absentee owner Randy Lerner let Mangini hire a puppet GM, so he had full control of the team. Free agency had been a disaster; the draft had been even worse:

  • Mangini traded unhappy TE Kellen Winslow (who had five years and 250 catches left) for a #2 they used on Mohammed Massaquoi (four years, 118 catches)
  • He sent the fifth pick in the entire draft to New York for the 17th pick in round one, a #2 (wasted by reaching for David Veikune, who might have gone undrafted) and veterans Kenyon Coleman, Abram Elam and Brett Ratliff, none of who were any good.
  • The 17th pick was traded to Tampa for the 19th pick and a #6 (Coy Francies)
  • The 19th pick (which got used on Jeremy Maclin) went to the Eagles for the 21st (Alex Mack) and another #6.

As was the case with 2016, a lot of people got drafted much earlier than where they were projected to go, with the coach insisting that he knew better than the rest of the NFL and all of the analysts.

The 2007 and 2008 seasons had made it clear that Derek Anderson didn’t have the decision-making or the touch to be a competent starting quarterback. Brady Quinn’s weak arm, difficulty reading defenses (not as bad as Anderson, but well below average) and lack of mobility proved he wasn’t the answer either.

The backfield featured an aging Jamaal Lewis and a player who had looked interesting in brief spots (Jerome Harrison). It was obvious that former Pro Bowl WR Brayon Edwards’s demons were getting the upper hand.

Rob Chudzinski’s 2013. The optimism of adding Norv Turner as coordinator had been more than offset by the decision to hire Ray Horton as defensive coordinator and the presence of “Moe” Banner and “Curly” Lombardi in the front office.

I thought “Larry” Haslam was the third stooge. Not everyone did.

The three QBs were different types of bad players (Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell); the only weapons the offense had were drug-added WR “Puff” Gordon and non-blocking TE “Poke” Cameron. RB Trent Richardson had been disappointing as a rookie (he would soon be liquidated in a firs sale), and there was nothing behind him in case he got hurt.

The defense hadn’t had any pass rush or played good run defense, and Horton’s career suggested that he wouldn’t be able to fix either.

The #1 pick (Meowkevious Mingo) had been an underachieving lineman in college. Cleveland was hoping to get more by playing him at linebacker. Most of the picks had been traded away for future picks.

The common theme in these training camps were:

  • A front office demanding respect even though it had done nothing to justify it.
  • Absence of a trustworthy quarterback– not even a credible fever dream where a miracle occurred.
  • A defense unlikely to play well enough to take any pressure off the offense.
  • A backfield weak enough to ensure the offense couldn’t even “manage the game.”

And that’s about where we are today. Despite its myriad flaws, the Mike Pettine-“Snapchat” Farmer regime did improve the team in two areas. The offensive line added G Joel Bitonio, a talented young guard, to a unit that featured Hall-of-Fame LT JoeThomas, Pro Bowl C Alex Mack, reliable veteran RG John Greco and developing RT Mitchell Schwartz.

All four starters in the defensive backfield had been to the Pro Bowl. SS Donte Whitner was losing his effectiveness, CB Tramon Williams was washed up, and both CB Joe Haden and FS Tashaun Gipson couldn’t stay healthy. That said, all four starters had been to the Pro Bowl– the worst you could say for them was that they weren’t as good as their reputation.

The team had many weaknesses, but it did at least have those two building blocks. And since many people believe that the offensive line (which protects the quarterback) and the defensive backfield (which prevents the opposing QB from making plays) are the most important elements of the team, the Browns were better-positioned than many teams.

That’s all gone now.

  • Mack left (the result of Sashi Brown’s mismanagement of his contract) and a team that plays in a division with three other 3-4 teams (when the nose tackle lines up on the center) has to hope that Cameron Erving— who looked wretched as a rookie– will be the first #1 pick that Farmer made that pans out.
  • After losing Schwartz after the front office threw a tantrum and rescinded his offer, the Browns have to hope that #3 pick Shon Coleman (who’s already 25) is recovered from his bout with cancer and can play at a high level as a rookie.
  • Whitner (who had declined markedly) was cut in the hopes that last year’s #4 pick Ibraheim Campbell would be able to replace him. He played fairly well, but only had 102 snaps on defense (249 on kicking teams), so this requires a leap of faith. Since Whitner didn’t play pass defense, Campbell’s lack of coverage skills are less damaging– he won’t make things worse.
  • The Browns think former waiver pickup Jordan Poyer can step in for Gipson. He played well enough in his 424 snaps last years (and in spots before that) to make that belief viable.

A secondary issue is depth. As new Browns front offices always do, the Marx Brothers let a number of players who played a lot in 2015 leave. Both Mack and Schwartz played on all of the offense’s 1,103 snaps. The other departures included:

  • QB Billy Relapse (435 snaps) and Connor Shaw (0; he was on IR)
  • TE Jim Dray (448)
  • DT Randy Starks (466)
  • WRs Travis Benjamin (850), Brian Hartline (514) and Dwayne Bowe (81– grrr…)
  • LB Scott Solomon (33), Craig Robertson (381) and Karlos Dansby (1,031)
  • DBs Johnson Bademosi (166) and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (0)

With two exceptions– Benjamin and Robertson were the team’s best players at their positions– none of these players will be difficult to replace (Bowe and Relapse will improve their team by their absence). But you still need to replace them.

In addition to Mack and Schwartz, Dansby missed only 16 snaps out of 1,057. That’s three full-time players. Whitner, Gipson and Benjamin each played 75% of the snaps– if we toss in Bryant’s 527 missing snaps, we’re up to six player seasons.

It’s not like the team will miss Manziel, Brian Hartline and Johnson Bademosi. But that’s still 1,115 snaps that have to be accounted for. Now we have seven player-seasons.

Starks, Dray and Robertson combined for 1,295 snaps– more than one player. Since DE Armonty Bryant was suspended for four games, you lose some of his 480 snaps. That’s eight players and part of a ninth– over 40% of the starting offensive and defensive line.

And if you start listing replacements, remember that you can’t use them as depth. Erving played 424 snaps; even if he can play 670 more as a starter and not kill the guy behind center. you’ll still have to find someone else to replace Erving’s time. If you think Chris Kirksey can play as much and as well as Dansby {SMIRK} you have to replace his 567 snaps.

You think Jamie Meder can be as good as Starks? I agree, but you’ll need a backup nose tackle who can provide 390 snaps. If Poyer is starting, he can’t play the 424 snaps at dime back. And if Xavier Cooper (363 snaps) or John Hughes (430) replace Bryant, they have to be accounted for.

The Browns added a little help from trades and free agency, but not a lot:

  • LB Justin Tuggle (yes, he’s Jesse’s son) played 42 games for Texas in 3 years, but mostly on kicking teams. He started 11 games and can be thought of as a young Tank Carder.
  • G Alvin Bailey spent three seasons in Seattle. Despite the Seahawks’ serious line issues, he started only 8 games. He’s mostly an insurance policy– if Erving busts out at center, John Greco shifts over and Bailey fills his spot.
  • CB Jamar Taylor is a former #2 pick who played his way out of Miami. He came in a swap of #7 picks on draft day. He played in 33 games, staring 9. The word is that he didn’t fit their scheme and they just wanted to dump him. Which doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play.
  • FS Rahim Moore has played 64 games in 6 years, starting 54. After four seasons in Denver, he jumped to Texas for a huge contract. He lost his job after 6 starts and got cut to remove his contract.
  • LB Demario Davis is the most interesting addition, because he has credentials. The Jets picked him in the third round in 2012, he has played all 64 games and started 51. Rex Ryan loved his size, speed and hitting; Todd Bowles found his blown assignments annoying last year.

Taylor, Moore and Davis represent players who might actually be able to play well. Other than them, it will be the rookies.

By NFL standards, the Browns are making an enormous number of changes– far more than most teams would be comfortable with. A friend who has worked for a very successful GM told me:

“You are talking about implementing a new defense, changing all four linebackers, three of your four defensive backs and two defensive linemen. That’s a recipe for chaos. You’re also putting in a new offense, and you intend to swap out the quarterback, all of your receivers [he thinks Andrew Hawkins is worn down and will be cut] and two linemen. You also don’t know who your running back is.

“We try never to change more than one starter per position group in a year. If something isn’t working, it takes too much time to identify the problem. We don’t believe we can identify problems during practice– we need to see the unit play in games.

“The way exhibition season is structured nowadays– one series in the first game, one quarter in the second, one half in the third and no plays at all in the final game– there simply isn’t time to do the amount of changeover that you want. You will still be trying to set your lineup in the fifth or sixth game.”

He also made comments about the decision-making ability of Hue Jackson, Horton and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. To turn some fairly lengthy and nuanced comments into bumper-sticker style bluntness, they’re not good at rotating players or structuring competitions. Typically one player gets the job with all the snaps. If he fails, the #2 guy moves up and the former #1 is in limbo. If #2 fails, he goes into the same doghouse, while the #3 guy plays.

Many teams would make their primary goal on defense to sort out the traffic jam at rush linebacker, where they currently have Mingo, Armonty Bryant, Nate Orchard and rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib.He’s expecting Mingo to be cut and Orchard to be traded.

Paul Kruger, he thinks, will be forced to play strongside linebacker. “That’s not his best position, but you don’t have anyone else who can play it.”

In the secondary, he expects Poyer and Campbell to play at safety, neither doing a great job. Moore, most likely will end up spelling them both.

He thinks Taylor (whom he says fits Horton’s system), Charles Gaines (too small) or K-Waun Williams (bad injury history) will have to step in for Tramon Williams. “He simply doesn’t have the speed he’ll need.” He also speculated that Haden might be at the end of his career as a starter, due to his frame and the number of injuries he’s had.

On offense, he made a few comments  “You will have to play Robert Griffin or cut him. He will not permit you to do anything else. Duke Johnson will have to be a spot player.”

His suggestion at receiver was #1 pick Corey Coleman (whom he thinks is almost identical Baylor’s last #1 pick at receiver, Kendall Wright)  and #5 pick Jordan Peyton (he likes his hands), with Andrew Hawkins in the slot (“He could help you more if you gave him an assignment he could do.”)

He expects to see Austin Pasztor at right tackle, Greco at center and #5 pick Spencer Drango at guard, at least for a while. He says Shon Coleman will probably take longer to catch onto the NFL than many people expect. (“He seems like a multi-year project.”) He doesn’t expect to see Erving survive in a division where all three opponents play a 3-4, and Tennessee (coordinator Dick LeBeau) and New England are on the schedule. He also said:

“With all the Bears they’ve collected, their best bet would be to discard Jackson’s offense and run Baylor’s. Their players haven’t adapted well to the NFL; to get production from them, their teams have had to adapt to them.”

Overall he sees a 4-12 team:

“Change needs to be managed. Retaining Schwartz and Dansby, would at least have enabled you to judge the turnover from fixed points of reference. You will have chaos at every offensive skill position, and that assumes that you keep Davis and remove McCown. I don’t see a single place where I am sure you are better, even though I expect Danny Shelton to make a major stepforward.”

There’s an ugly thought.

That leaves me with the unit comments– what you should look for.

Quarterback:The most important goal of training camp will be getting Josh McCown off the team. He’s 37 and he had a terrible 2015. McCown made his rating look better than they were by refusing to throw unless he saw a player wide open. That reduced incomplete passes and interceptions, but raised sacks, fumbles and holding penalties. Also, he got injured constantly.

Griffin has a history of injuries. His backup can’t be a player who stands such a high chance of wiping himself out. It would leave the Browns with undrafted free agent Cody “Smooth as Slink” Kessler’s or Terrelle Pryor at the controls.

I’m aware of where Kessler’s was drafted. I’m referring to his skill level. I can poop in a pie plate, but that doesn’t mean it’s pumpkin pie.

Austin Davis hasn’t been a terrible quarterback despite being forced to play at Southern Mississippi and under a mongoloid like Jeff Fisher. With him, Griffin and Kessler’s, you could reasonably claim you were building or rebuilding. With McCown in the middle, you can’t.

He was there to be a bridge to Manziel. The thing he was bridging to is gone. I know that the old white people like him, but he can’t play– and should not be on a rebuilding team.

Running Back: Someone needs to step up. Isaiah Crowell has had two seasons to blossom and hasn’t; Duke Johnson was worthless carrying the ball. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Terrell Watson (a one-dimensional banger, but a fine short-yardage guy) or Glenn Winston (if he can control himself) break out.

Receiver: With both Travis Benjamin (850 snaps and 125 targets) and Brian Hartline (514 snaps, 77 targets) gone, there is plenty of space. The problem is that the Browns drafted too many receivers to play. Corey Coleman, being a #1, needs to get every shot, but

  • Ricardo Louis (#4, Auburn) drops passes. Lots of them.
  • Jordan Payton (#5, UCLA) has great hands, but he is slow. Very slow.

Rashard Higgins (#5, Colorado State) played for a team that threw a lot, having decent seasons (68-75 catches, 837 and 1,062 yards; 6-8 TDs) as a freshman and a junior, but a phenomenal sophomore year (96 catches, 1,750 yards, 17 scores). Since he’s very light, it is probably not a great idea to play him opposite Coleman.

One of the most significant “tells” will be what, if anything, the new regime does with Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel. Both have contributed for two years, without glaring shortcomings; none of the rummies the Browns used at quarterback last season were on the same page with either.

A good organization would figure out ways to use them. A bad one will cut or trade them.

Offensive Line: Presumably the Browns will give Erving at least eight games to lose his job, so the only question here is whether Shon Coleman, Austin Pasztor or Avin Bailey gets to play. Pasztor is the most competent now; Coleman had better be the player the Browns hope he will be.

Bailey couldn’t break through in Seattle, which has a much worse line than the Browns.

There is a small possibility that #5 pick Spencer Drango will have such an impressive training camp that he pushes Greco to the bench. He’s what you might call a “young John Greco” or “Poor man’s Mitchell Schwartz”.

If he’s getting reps at tackle, it means the Browns are in trouble. Everyone who scouts the draft likes Drango, but nobody thinks he can play tackle.

Defensive line: The correct thing to do would be to put Meder (who has played well in limited reps) and Xavier Cooper (last year’s #3) at ends, and make John Hughes (the 2012 version of Cooper) Shelton’s backup. You’d have two ends who fit the 3-4 profile and all four players (counting Shelton) would be young. Or flip Hughes with Meder if you like him

If you see Orchard, Ogbah, Mingo or Nassib out there, sound the alarm. Not one of those players is stocky and strong– the kind of ends who can tie up two blockers. It means the Browns will have to trade for someone, pick them up or get pancaked on the run.

Linebacker: A bunch of people seem confused by what to do with these players. It’s really very simple. Here is what we know about Kruger:

  • He’s 30, and signed through the end of 2017. At most, he’s got one more contract left, and he’ll want to go to a winner.
  • The Browns owe him $13.5 million. So he’s untradeable (unless he agrees to take a 70% pay cut)– they can keep him or cut him.
  • He’s not the pass rusher he was advertised as. Not without Terrell Suggs and Halotio Ngata.

The best thing to do is to stick him on the strongside (he covers pretty well) use Mingo (on the last year of his contract) as his backup, put Davis (whom they signed) and Kirksey (they have a #3 tied up in him) inside and let the other guys fight it out for the rush job.

I don’t know if they will do it, but that is what I’d do, and it is what both of the people in front offices said they would do. Nate Orchard (a former #2 who looked OK at times as a rookie) ought to be first.

Secondary: Normally you would play the free agents you signed or the veterans you acquired. But since Moore was run out of Houston and Miami gave up on Taylor, that doesn’t have to apply.

I would have run Tramon Williams out of town during the “dump all the veterans” period, but since he’s here, someone will need to take his job. Maybe they can just keep reducing his snaps.

At free safety Rahim Moore and Jordan Poyer ought to have the second or third-best competition of camp  (OLB and RT). They should just hand strong safety to Ibraheim Campbell.

Kicking Teams: A competent coach would be looking to replace Travis Coons ASAP. He doesn’t have the leg to succeed. It’s easy to find kickers, so they ought to get to work on it. But since they kept Chris Tabor as coach, I’m not hopeful.


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