Training camp positional battles are as much a hallmark of the summer as breaking out the grill, watching fireworks and afternoon thunderstorms. Every NFL team, no matter how settled the roster seems, will have players battling it out for roster spots or starting snaps at various positions during training camps. For the Browns, who are still in the throes of yet another rebuild, there will be a number of high-profile battles playing themselves out this summer.
We all know that quarterback is the big one. Will Josh McCown remain the starter, as Mike Pettine proclaimed him earlier in May, or will Johnny Manziel take enough of a leap to surpass him? It will be parsed from every angle for the next few months; this battle is no secret. But what of the other training camp battles, ones that may not be as high-profile as McCown-versus-Manziel, but are nonetheless just as important to the Browns’ chances for success in 2015? Let’s take a look at three.
A kicker seems like an inconsequential piece of the Browns’ puzzle this year, but it’s not. Kickers often lead their teams in scoring and though coming away with field goals feels like a waste of a red-zone appearance, those three points provided from them can make a huge difference in the win column. And with the Browns unexpectedly releasing veteran Garrett Hartley earlier in the month, two young kickers now seem poised to battle it out for the job.
Those two players are Travis Coons and Carey Spear. Spear, went undrafted in 2014 and joined the Philadelphia Eagles but was released in August of that year. Coons, too, was an undrafted player in 2014, signing on with Washington until also being released as part of the team’s final roster cuts. Coons spent two years as the kicker for Washington State, making 101 of his 102 extra point attempts and 24 of his 30 field goals, giving him an 80 percent hit rate. Spear was a four-year starter for Vanderbilt. He, too, made 101 of his 102 extra point attempts, and he made 39 of 50 field goal attempts.
Both men’s collegiate field goal percentages would put them in the bottom of the NFL, which means that this summer—and likely before then—will be spent further honing their kicking accuracy. It’s also possible that Hartley or another veteran kicker could join the Browns’ roster if neither Coons nor Spear pan out. But at least for the bulk of training camp, and well into the Browns’ four preseason games, the two will be vying for one very important job.
For months, one of the biggest criticisms of the Browns is their lack of receiving depth. However, that criticism isn’t entirely accurate. The Browns certainly have receivers, but it is true they don’t have a cache of young wideouts to keep the roster competitive beyond 2015. That, though, is something that they may not be able to further address this year. Now, they have to simply work with what they have.
The offseason signings of veteran free agents Brian Hartline and Dwayne Bowe give the Browns added experience at receiver, which will help any quarterback who lines up under center for the team this year. But it also muddies the waters some. Are Hartline and Bowe considered automatic starters because of their veteran statuses? And what does that mean for Andrew Hawkins, who led the Browns in receptions, receiving yards and yards after the catch? Does that make young Taylor Gabriel the odd man out, or can he fight off the likes of Hartline and Bowe and remain a starter?
Further, the Browns also drafted a receiver in Round 4 this year, Vince Mayle. Can he make the 53-man roster or is he a candidate for the practice squad? Also complicating matters is the team taking running back Duke Johnson in Round 3 of the draft; he has considerable receiving abilities that should make him valuable at least on third downs. And adding free-agent tight end Rob Housler also adds another receiving target.
With the Browns focusing more on running the ball this year, they won’t be needing five receivers on the field very often. The competition for not just regular-season playing time but also simply a roster spot will be fierce at the receiver position this summer.
The Browns don’t quite have a logjam at the outside linebacker position at present, but a battle appears to be shaping up regardless. The drama will play out between two men—2013 first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and 2015 second-round pick Nate Orchard. The Browns must improve their pass-rush—they totaled just 31 team sacks in 2014—and with Mingo accounting for only two of those, Orchard could certainly eat into Mingo’s snaps this year.
In two seasons, Mingo has had just seven sacks. The speedy edge rusher just has not been as productive in the NFL as he was in college at LSU. That doesn’t mean that Mingo cannot regain that form, especially now that he’s recovered from offseason shoulder surgery and, as he said in April, this upcoming season for him is “going to be a different story.” Plus, the pressure put on him by Orchard’s mere presence could spur a more motivated Mingo to finally come into his own.
Orchard should not affect the playing time of fellow Utah product Paul Kruger, who led the team in sacks last year, with 11. It could affect Kruger’s roster spot in a year’s time, but for this season, the main battle will come down to Mingo and Orchard. Will they ultimately split snaps based on down-and-distance? Will the rookie outperform the third-year veteran to the point where Mingo is mostly on the bench? Or will Mingo’s NFL experience win out?
Head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil like to use multiple defensive fronts, but the vast majority of their situational rotation is on the defensive line and not among the linebackers. Though there will be room for Orchard and Mingo to timeshare, one of the two will technically be the starter week-to-week. And that will be based, primarily, on who can get to the quarterback the most often. It should be noted, however, that the Browns are heavily invested in improving their run defense this year, and Mingo and Orchard will both be parts of that effort as well. That, too, could influence the Browns’ decisions about the two men’s playing time and their roles on the defense.
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