1. The Quarterback Battle
It's been the talk of the off-season and it will be the talk of training camp as well ... at least through August 23rd. That's when the Browns travel to Detroit for their third preseason game of the year, and it's the only date mentioned specifically by Butch Davis as a possible target for naming either Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb the starting quarterback. A decision could come sooner, but Davis has said it will definitely be made by week three of the preseason.
The early bet has to be placed on Tim Couch holding on to his job. While the Browns have had some very real concerns about Couch's ability to give himself completely to Bruce Arians' system, the once and future franchise quarterback has done everything possible to help his cause ever since Davis announced the position was open for competition. Instead of adopting a feeling of entitlement to the job, Couch has avoided sulking and used the first real competition of his athletic career as an opportunity to grow as a quarterback.
"If the spring is any indication, then I think (the competition) will be very positive (for Tim)," said Davis. "I think that is the mark of a champion - how they respond to adversity and a challenge ... Tim has always been pretty focused. Where I see the biggest difference in Tim is his decisiveness. The more comfortable and the more familiar that he is with what we are doing, the quicker and the faster he is making decisions."
Couch has the talent to be one of the league's top quarterbacks, but watch to see if he continues to grow in the offense. In the last two camps, Holcomb has clearly looked more comfortable in the system that is almost identical to the one he was in for five years with the Colts.
Davis believes Holcomb's mastery of the offense and his performance in his stints as the starter when Couch was injured has earned him the opportunity to at least compete for the job.
"I think he's thrived (given the opportunity)," said Davis. "Any time you are pigeonholed as the third quarterback in Indianapolis and then the backup behind Peyton Manning - and Peyton's one of those guys that doesn't like to share reps - you don't get a chance to show what you can do. I'm sure he's excited about getting more opportunities and more quality opportunities."
2. The New Defensive Coaches
Watch new defensive coordinator Dave Campo and defensive line coach Andre Patterson. Davis brought Campo on board because they think alike and Davis trusts him to pay attention to details that were overlooked by previous coordinator Foge Fazio. Davis should also be comfortable with Patterson, whose style has been compared to Davis in his days as a defensive line coach.
The updated defensive scheme will be more aggressive and attempt to take advantage of the team's improved speed, hoping that will help hide some of the inexperience at linebacker. The best way to hide that inexperience is improved play on the defensive line - a unit that must play better, both against the run and in generating a pass rush. Gerard Warren needs a breakout year and Courtney Brown needs to finally justify his high draft selection. Their improvement would dramatically help the young linebackers adjust to life in the pros.
Watch to see if Patterson specifically can light a fire under Warren and Brown, assuming the latter is even in uniform after recovering from microfracture surgery in the off-season. Also, watch to see if Warren even needs help motivating himself. Warren has said he has discovered a new desire to work harder and become a dominant defensive tackle.
3. Qasim Mitchell and Melvin Fowler
For now, the Browns seem resigned to maintaining some continuity on the offensive line, keeping 80-percent of last year's line intact by replacing only Dave Wohlabaugh with first-round pick Jeff Faine. While Wohlabaugh was a competent veteran, Faine could already be an upgrade in his rookie year.
The most likely position battle could be at right guard, where Shaun O'Hara is bigger and has benefited from a full year as a starter. He improved dramatically in the final third of the year. Mammoth rookie Qasim Mitchell is just too big and has too much potential to ignore. The undrafted free agent missed all of last year to injury, and coming from North Carolina A&T, he still is very raw at the pro level. How he performs in preseason, more than camp, will be the best indicator of his readiness.
"(Mitchell) is getting better," said Davis. "He's another one of those guys that didn't go home (this off-season) - he stayed here the entire time ... It'll be very interesting (to see how he does). He's a guy that has a lot of potential and we're anxious to see him go in and play. We want to see how he can play when we're not in the huddle with him - if you cut the umbilical cord from him, that's the real acid test. There's nobody to help you and you have to sink or swim and takes those little baby steps. He's going to make some mistakes and he's going to do some good things and we'll see how he progresses."
Fowler seems to have lost some of his baby fat from last season, and could be ready to compete with Barry Stokes at left guard. Davis likes the meanness Stokes brings to the field, but Fowler has started to offer a hint that he might successfully make the move from center to guard, and he is the higher pick. He has the talent, but does he have the willingness to get down and dirty that Stokes has?
4. Chaun Thompson
Watch him in camp simply because he is fun to watch. In minicamp, hardly a session went by without him making some type of jaw-dropping athletic play.
But don't just watch Thompson to marvel at his size, speed and athleticism. Watch to see how quickly he learns the system. Look to see if he appears lost, or if he seems comfortable and confident. If he can adjust to the pro game quickly after playing at tiny West Texas A&M, he could make an impact as a rookie simply because he is arguably the most athletically gifted of all the Browns.
"I'm anxious (to see him)," said Davis. "We all saw bits and pieces and glimpses (during the mini-camp). I don't think there was a drill where he didn't make something happen - just about everyday he got an interception and every other day he picked up a fumble and scored. He's a guy that has fascinating athletic ability and he's learning quickly."
5. The Camp Surprise
Some young player always seems to step up from out of nowhere in training camp. In 1999, it was Wali Rainer who impressed in camp and ended up taking a starting job for two years when Chris Spielman's comeback failed. In 2000, Lewis Sanders appeared to be a big second-day find, but injuries kept him from being productive. In 2001, it was Anthony Henry, who went on to post 10 interceptions as a rookie.
Last year, Kevin Bentley followed Henry as the winner of the Maurice Bassett Award, awarded to the best rookie in camp. But Bentley was a bit of a known quantity. The bigger surprise was Qasim Mitchell, whose size inspired some early interest.
One of the early bets for this year has to be fifth-round pick Michael Lehan,
who shined in minicamp. Lehan has nice size at 6-0, 190, but his instincts and
speed are what really make him stand out. Several free-agent receivers have
impressed early, including East Carolina's Richard Alston, Minnesota's Antoine
Burns and Iowa's C.J. Jones.