1. The depth of the roster is being tested, and that's a blessing and a curse.
During off-season meetings, it was painfully obvious that the team was devastatingly thin at multiple critical positions, such as the defensive line, wide receiver, running back, and quarterback. The offensive line fell off of a figurative cliff with the loss of Alex Mack, and tested their depth heavily with injuries to K'waun Williams and Joe Haden late in the season.
Fast forward to 2015, and the same positions have been beefed up and are exhibiting their depth. The same fan base that wondered how they were going to find five capable receivers after another suspension to Josh Gordon and without any premium draft picks at WR is now similarly befuddled by how the Browns will ONLY keep 6 WR and an appropriate amount of lineman.
Electric moments from Darius Jennings, Josh Lenz, and Terelle Pyror show a willingness to bring in receivers with elite athleticism in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Shane Wynn is flashing, showing traits that were very attractive to the coaching staff last year as they kept speedster Taylor Gabriel over Charles Johnson.
The addition of Tramon Williams gives the Browns two solid options of covering the slot, and keeps Pierre Desir and Justin Gilbert hungry for snaps on the outside. On the day K'Waun Williams* sat, it was Williams who kicked inside for Pierre Desir to eat up outside cornerback reps. This isn't surprising; Mike Pettine and Jim O' Neil have both preached how important it is to develop the border cornerbacking skills of their rangy guys.
Billy Winn's injury was tough to swallow. The coaching staff loved how hard Winn worked in the offseason to shed weight and explosiveness, but it's clear the defensive line remains very capable in his absence. Adding Randy Starks and Danny Shelton to the starting unit and returning John Hughes and Phil Taylor to the rotation has significantly beefed up the depth, and it was apparent from practice and scrimmage snaps that the units starting caliber quality is a LOAD for the second team to handle. (It's borderline criminal to let Danny Shelton receive snaps against them; he's habitually crashing the middle and causing trouble even when double teamed.)
* K'Waun Williams is STILL being overlooked by media as part of this elite secondary, and it completely baffles me.
2. It will be impossible to know how Coach Flip and Mike Pettine prefer to rotate their running backs before the season begins in earnest.
Thank goodness Ned Flanders and Jalen Parmele were available to provide bodies that resemble running backs for the Browns to practice with. I have no idea how these guys look, but journeyman Shaun Draughn was borderline beastly by comparison. The Browns are clearly frustrated with Johnson's injury, as he brought an element to the offense that was severely lacking last season (flexibility and pass-catching). The Browns moved Johnson all over the field in his limited work, and will be sure he's 100% healthy before returning him to the rotation.
Every Browns beat reporter insists that Pettine wants to divide reps for his starting bruisers, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. Provided West returns from his calf strain in the next week or two, no one can predict how he'll see work behind preemptive starter Crowell.
3. The Browns will be forced to cut a talented WR or TE before camp is over, barring unforeseen injuries.
It's highly unlikely that with the changes to the practice squad rules that the Browns are able to sneak anyone of substance onto it. Josh Lenz, Terrelle Pryor, and Darius Jennings are making explosive plays and exhibiting consistent hands every day, and when they start doing that in scrimmages, teams WILL take notice. It's also nigh impossible to sneak 4th round draft picks with the kind of production Vince Mayle has onto the squad, and Travis Benjamin would immediately be snagged off of waivers by a team looking to reclaim some of the punt returning capability the young man flashed in 2013. In short, the Cleveland faithful have gone from cursing Ray Farmer's name for not investing early picks in a light position to praising the scouting department for unearthing more explosive talent from unorthodox places.
4. The Browns should do more yoga.
....Or something else to keep those hamstrings loose. 8 hamstring injuries in the first week?! It looks like a 40 and over basketball league roster in Berea. I'll bet you can smell the Ben Gay from Medina.
5. Johnny Manziel looks great through a week of practice and scrimmage, and so did Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr last year.
The latter two, Bridgewater and Carr, still struggled to perform when the running game struggled. Bortles lit up the season and was a complete disaster when the bullets began to fly. Manziel (when he inevitably sees the field) will have the benefit of one of the best 3 offensive lines in the league protecting him and a consistent run game, but he'll have to do more of what he exhibited this week. Manziel's biggest development was shown in his presence in the pocket; the videos released from the team of him climbing the pocket and delivering strikes to his second and third option are incredibly heartening to fans starved for dynamic quarterbacking play. It's hard to take preseason numbers too seriously, but Manziel knows that he has to string productive practice days and film days together over weeks, not days. The good news? Even if Manziel does not start in the first game, he's shown that he learned the two most valuable lessons that he could from a disastrous first year: that off-field preparation is the difference between starting and washing out, and that he has to LIVE football later.
A thousand words have been spilled about Manziel in only a short amount of time, but the truth is that the glowing reports from his coaches and teammates (like Joe Thomas) are a complete 180 degree shift from the perception of last year’s attitude and ethic. Manziel has been matching his words with action, laying low and putting in the work, and this year it's not just lip service. He's clearly much more versed in the offense, which is remarkable given he's only had about three months to digest it. He's still a work in progress, but even the most vocal critics are starting to look forward to watching the young man spin the ball.
6. Josh McCown's deep ball accuracy and mobility could be the biggest differences between last years quarterback play and this years.
The two things that truly crushed the Browns offense in 2014 were both related to the inability of the quarterback to take advantage of opponents crashing the line with run blitzes. In the beginning of the year, Brian Hoyer was ultimately able to put touchdowns on the board despite being terribly inaccurate under pressure by taking advantage of downfield receivers with miles of space between them and the nearest defender. Even after the gut-wrenching way he fell apart down the stretch, Pro Football Focus still rates him as one of the top 7 deep ball throwers in the NFL last year. (PFF doesn't take into account what the receiver DOES with the ball, such as slowing up or diving, once it's in their hand.) When Hoyer was unable to connect off of play-action OR run the ball, defenders were happy to take away his safety valves. The results were an abject failure, and without a passing game to keep the defense honest or an elite offensive line that can run the ball regardless of defensive looks, the offense crashed to earth.
Josh McCown is a pretty regular guy. The things that he does well, as exhibited by his 2013 tape, is throw a pretty deep ball when there isn't pressure in his face, and force a linebacker to be aware of his short distance scrambling ability. These were both on display in the Browns scrimmage, as the vanilla defense and quality O-line play kept the pocket clean, and he was free to throw ropes downfield. When the defense did flush McCown from the pocket, he was easily able to outrun Kruger to the boundary and get a clean look at the end zone. If (big if) the Browns can keep him clean and force the defenses to respect his scrambling ability, McCown's job will be MUCH easier, and we could see a very capable quarterback on the field.
In short, McCown could excel at the two things that Hoyer was unable to do, and its clear that the offense is built to keep quarterbacks, "driving in their lanes" and simplifying the game plan. It's also clear to me that this offense will be very similar for any of the four quarterbacks currently on the roster. (How about that Connor Shaw?)
7. It's going to be an incredibly unpopular move, but the Browns front office knows that it will be best for the long term interests of the Cleveland Browns to keep McCown under center for week one unless Johnny Manziel proves incapable of stapling to the bench.
Deep breaths, Browns fans.
Every great throw and run one Jonathan Paul Manziel makes in practice or preseason games will raise the decibel levels of the cacophony of fans chanting for him to take the reigns of the first team offense. If the Manziel mania was loud last season, amidst clearly unprepared and unattractive and uninspired quarterback play last preseason, the prospect of him actually producing on the field and having fun will bring the fans to unheard of levels. McCown will quickly face the same problem Brian Hoyer had; every misstep will bring the calls for Manziel to louder and louder levels.
Remember, this is the reasonable take section, and this is not nearly as much fun as projecting what the most entertaining scenario is.
What happens in the 2016 season if Manziel collapses in his second stint of NFL football? What happens if all the mechanics issues that seem to have sorted themselves out in 5 days of practice reappear? What happens if the precarious social balance established in rehab and kept in a cocoon of safety in Berea disappears in the harsh spotlight of the NFL?
Manziel needs to build his confidence and capability level to the point where they can get the best out of him when he does see the field. He can't afford to fumble through a typical rookie season, which is essentially what he enters this year with.
Haslam and Pettine know that they need to do/get right by Manziel, and that if he fails again, the team will feel obligated to look at quarterbacks in the 2016 draft class. If McCown can stay on the field, even for the majority of the season, they can continue to build what the 2014 season set the foundation for: a gritty defense and running game that minimizes the impact of the quarterback. Manziel will be put on the field when Pettine feels like he's ready, not when he feels that it's time to learn lessons the hard way. Once the team goes to Manziel, as was reported last year, it will be devastating to go back. I don't envy the decision for the coaches, since it's obvious to 100% of observers who has the higher ceiling for development between the 22 year-old and a 36 year-old veteran.
Also, it's important to note that this is the first stretch of stability and off-field consistency Manziel has ever enjoyed. It's fair for the team to ask him to string together months, versus weeks, before turning over the fate of the team to him.
8. Cam Erving appears more likely than ever to begin the season as a backup guard and center, and that's perfectly acceptable.
A very vocal minority of football analysts insist that a first round pick is obligated to play immediately to be considered successful. In Cam Erving's case, that couldn't be further from the truth.
The Browns refuse to ever let an offensive line injury derail their ability to run the ball effectively ever again. Erving provides that capability in spades, and adds a safety blanket for Alex Mack next year by either moving to center or slotting in at guard for John Greco, who would then move to center. Neither are nearly the same options that keeping Alex Mack are, but the team backed themselves into a corner with the contract that they were forced to sign.
Unfortunately for Erving, it's impossible for a rookie guard to play at the same level Greco has over the last two years. (PFF regards Greco as a top 12 guard in the NFL, and I'm inclined to agree with them) He's viewed as a better fit for an interior line position, and Mitchell Shwartz isn no slouch anyway. It's a potentially silly use of a first round pick, but fans shouldn't view his inability to break into the lineup as an indictment of his ability. Fans should look at the Browns OL selections the same way the Giants hoard defensive lineman. Despite having elite front four talent, the giants continue to use high picks on talent there, and have ready replacements at all times.
Personally, I like the Giants use of first round picks better, but I'm not making these picks. The Browns demand depth and elite talent in the trenches, and thus, Cam Erving.
If Erving is able to back up all interior positions and Michael Bowie (who was lauded by Pettine as having an excellent camp) can cover both tackle spots, then it allows the Browns to reliably back up every position on the offensive line while only using two 53 man roster spots. Underrated flexibility with highly capable production.
9. Pierre Desir's playing time with the starting unit is far more of a reflection of his hard work, production, and football ethic than it is an indictment of Justin Gilbert's capability or standing, and that's also great news.
Justin Gilbert has allegedly "gotten right" with the defensive backs group, and has played well in practice. Unfortunately, he still missed time in OTA's for personal reasons, and when Pierre Desir saw real action late in the season in 2014, he surprised coaches with his capability. Mike Pettine will never use draft status as an excuse to bump inconsistent players up the depth chart, so Gilbert is going to have to string consistency across weeks, not days. Pierre Desir's hamstring might a blessing in disguise for Gilbert, who will get a chance to prove it with the starting unit until he heals. Gilbert MUST make hay while the sun shines, so to speak. If Gilbert can be consistent, the Browns secondary while not only be one of the best in the league, but it will also be one of the deepest.
Back next week, when the Browns will be one step closer to honest-to-goodness football.