BEREA—When the Browns lost their Pro Bowl tight end to free agency, most thought the team would make it a priority to add a pass receiver at the position, either in free agency or through the draft.
Jordan Cameron had reportedly agreed to terms to return to the Browns, but then signed with the Dolphins. Charles Clay was a player the team was believed to be pursuing, but he signed with the Bills.
However, the Browns ended up signing Rob Housler as a free agent and signed undrafted rookie free agent E.J. Bibbs. They did draft a tight end in the sixth-round in Randall Telfer, but he never made it to a practice and was placed on injured reserve with a foot injury. Housler has one reception for six yards and Bibbs has not been active for a game.
Most wondered where the production would come from in the receiving game and assumed it would be picked up by the free agent wide receivers signed Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline. Bowe has yet to catch a pass and Hartline has just nine catches for 128 yards.
Their best all-around tight end might have been right under their noses all along.
Gary Barnidge leads the Browns with 24 receptions, while Travis Benjamin has 22 catches.
Barnidge came into the 2015 season with a career total of 44 receptions and three touchdowns in his seven-years previously in the NFL. His best season was 13 receptions for 156 and no touchdowns. In 2013, he had 13 catches for 127 yards (9.8 avg.) and two touchdowns.
Barnidge is averaging 15.6 yards a catch with has 24 receptions for 374 yards and three touchdowns. He is currently tied with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and Cincinnati’s Tyler Effect for the league-lead among tight ends, but has more yards than either. Eifert has five touchdowns. Overall, Barnidge is tied for 16th in receptions in the AFC. Only Dallas’ Jason Witten (30) and Chicago’s Martellus Bennett (28).
Not only is he making a lot of receptions, but he is making big catches.
Barnidge is tied for third in third down receptions with 11 for 206 yards (18.7 avg.) and is tied for sixth overall, in the NFL.
Mike Pettine said the felt all along that Barnidge could step up and handle the role.
“We were confident when it all went down that we know the type of player that Gary is,” Pettine said. “Gary showed it last year in fewer opportunities. We saw Gary as a complete tight end. He is a more than adequate blocker, which sometimes is hard to find in today’s NFL at the tight end spot. A lot of these guys come in and they want to be more of the receiving type. Gary, one of the reasons he is good is we can have him out there in downs where teams can’t say, ‘Oh, their receiving tight end is on the field’ and adjust it accordingly. I think that is one of the reasons that he has gotten some good looks is because teams have been more in a vanilla-type defense than something geared to stop the pass.”
Barnidge has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last threw weeks. Last week, he made a circus catch pinning a ball between his legs and was able to bring it in for a touchdown.
Barnidge admitted that he has received a lot of attention for his catch against the Ravens.
“It has been crazy, but I try not to worry about that because I know people have wrote articles and stuff because everyone tells me,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t read any of them. I don’t worry about it because I am just worried about this week. You can’t worry about the past. The game is over with so now we are on to Denver.
“I really don’t worry about the attention because all the attention should be on the team now rather than any other individual, honestly.”
He said he doesn’t get caught up in all of the attention and hasn’t even watched the replays of the catch.
“Actually, I have only seen it the time on the field,” he said. “I haven’t watched it since. Everyone else tells me about. We watched it going over the film today, but that was the only other time I have seen it.
“The game is over,” he said. “We won. There is no need to dwell on the past. Now, we are going onto the next week. You have to keep doing it. You can’t rely on the past.”
Two weeks ago, Barnidge’s touchdown catch against the Chargers was also acrobatic as he hauled in the ball and was able to control it while getting his feet inbounds. Josh McCown has been the beneficiary of Barnidge’s catches.
He said he can’t wait for this week’s game.
“I just can’t wait to see what happens,” McCown said. “He’s on a roll now and he tends to do something new every week so we’ll see. I’m sure it’ll be good, whatever he does. I don’t know if he’s going to catch it with his shoes or something, but he’ll figure out something new. That’s the good thing about Gary is he’s been consistent and he’s played at a high level and certainly been a big factor to why we’ve been able to do the things we do offensively.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said he isn’t surprised by Barnidge’s success.
“Gary is one of those guys that nothing surprises me anymore,” DeFilippo said. “The way he handles his business, nothing is surprising.”
DeFilippo said Barnidge (6-6, 250) has the size that helps any quarterback in the offense.
“Anytime you have a big body who can occupy is a bonus for any offense.”
DeFilippo said Barnidge is a much better player than what people give him credit for.
“Gary is a very humble guy but I think he’s a much better athlete than what he gives himself credit for.”
When Barnidge was with the Carolina Panthers he said he was labeled more as a blocking tight end because he didn’t catch many passes.
“I think it helps because I always try to pride myself by not being known as one or the other,” he said. “I want to be known as both. I want to be known as someone who can block and catch the ball, not one or the other.”
Barnidge said the offense is having success because they’re playing as a unit.
“I don’t really think there is one reason,” he said. “As a whole, offensively, the receivers are doing great routes getting me open, Josh is putting the ball in great places, our line is blocking, our running backs are blocking. Everyone is getting opportunities, more opportunities on the field, as well. I have been behind Pro Bowlers in my career so it is tough when you are behind guys who have been to Pro Bowls to get that opportunity.”
McCown was a teammate of Barnidge while they were both in Carolina during the 2008 season. McCown said he saw the talent in Barnidge back then.
“When we worked together in Carolina, I thought he was really good and I’ve always followed him through his career,” McCown said. “I like his skill-set. I think sometimes people look at Gary and he may not be as sexy as a guy as (Chargers) Antonio Gates or somebody, but at the same time, he just gets open, he catches balls and does a good job when the ball is around him. He tracks it and he pulls it in. Can’t say enough about him.”
Haden, Gipson, Robertson Miss: Three players sat out Thursday’s practice, with those being DB Joe Haden (concussion), DB Tashaun Gipson (ankle) and LB Craig Robertson (ankle).
Haden is still in the NFL’s concussion protocol after hitting his head on the ground against the Ravens. Robertson was on the stationary bike during the early portion of Wednesday’s practice.
Several other players were limited or listed on the injury report, including DL Desmond Bryant (shoulder), RB Isaiah Crowell (toe), LB Karlos Dansby ( RB Shaun Draughn (back), DB Tashaun Gipson (ankle), DB Joe Haden (concussion), WR Brian Hartline (thigh), QB Johnny Manziel (right elbow). QB Josh McCown (ankle), LB Craig Robertson (ankle), OL Mitchell Schwartz (thumb), LB Scott Solomon (knee) and RB Robert Turbin (ankle).
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil is hopeful that both Haden and Gipson will be able to play this week. Although Gipson hasn’t practiced, O’Neil said he has looked good walking around.
“He’s looked good this week,” he said “(He) still has a chance.
“(I’m) still holding out that Joe can go.”
New DB: The Browns signed DB Don Jones (5-11, 195) when they placed LB Scott Solomon on season-ending injured reserve with a knee injury. Jones is in his third NFL season out of Arkansas State. Originally a seventh-round pick by the Dolphins in 2013, Jones has appeared in 34 career games as a reserve and has 23 career special teams tackles. He appeared in five games with the Saints this season and has one special teams tackle.
Jones was not on the field during the open portion of practice, but Pettine said Jones will start out on special teams.
“That’s what he’s been primarily done,” Pettine said. “For a safety, it’s a lot to learn (coming in new). It’s tough to get reps there. He’ll start ton eams first and see what he knows and what he can play.”
On Robertson, Pettine said.
“He’s progressing,” Pettine said. “He’s close to where he is starting to run.”
Coons isn’t always Perfect: Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said that K Travis Coons has his share of misses during practice.
”(Coons) gets his misses out of the way during the week in practice,” Tabor said.
Coons is a perfect 11-of-11 on field goals this season, including the game-winner in overtime against the Ravens last Sunday.
O’Neil Praises Manning: Despite being ranked 30th in the NFL among quarterbacks this season, O’Neil still respects his play.
“He’s undefeated and on tape he looks like he’s playing at a high level,” O’Neil said. “The wins are high, so they’re doing something right.”
Turbin Debut: There’s a chance that RB Robert Turbin will be activated this week for the first time since he was signed.
“He looks good,” Pettine said. “He was close last week, but we wanted him to get 100 percent. (Thursday) will be a big day for him and we’ll determine his comfort zone (with the offense.”
Bowe Watch: It seems that every week, DeFilippo is asked about WR Dwayne Bowe, who has yet to catch a pass this season. Last week, Bowe was inactive.
“We’re going to need Dwayne at some point this season,”DeFilippo said. “There’s no doubt about it. I see progress in Dwayne every week.”