With training camp set to begin this week, it's time for my annual predictions as to the way things will shake out once the dust clears prior to the season opener against the criminal-laden Ravens. I'll follow up later this week with a piece on some of the best training camp battles fans can expect to see, as well as some sleepers to keep an eye on. I look forward to seeing a lot of you this weekend at camp. I will be there Saturday as a reporter and Sunday as a fan.
While the Green/Suggs battle will be an intriguing one, so should the battle for the third and potential fourth RB spots on the team. Many assume James Jackson will be handed the third RB spot and the others will be cast away. Maddox has had a great off-season and can be a factor in the return game. Echemandu is a guy I've always been high on that may even be able to play a little fullback. I see Jackson being dealt for a very late draft pick sometime between now and September.
Fullback (1): Terrelle Smith
Do the Browns keep a second fullback? If so, it will be at the cost of a fourth running back or ninth offensive lineman. If so, Ben Miller is the likely candidate. However, we all know how Butch likes flexibility and versatility, so don't be surprised if you see Amon Gordon, Darnell Sanders, or even Echemandu taking reps at FB to avoid burning two roster spots here. I think the Browns insistence on fully utilizing a true FB this season means a practice squad spot at worst for Ben Miller … who was impressive at camp last year before having to leave to fulfill a military assignment.
There's little question who our top three receivers are, but after that, it gets interesting. Each of the last two seasons, we've had an undrafted free agent emerge as a pleasant surprise. It was Frisman two years ago and C.J. Jones last year. Is Jason Geathers that guy this season? In the end, I see the Andre King era ending, a likely practice squad spot for Geathers, and Frisman and C.J. sticking as the fourth and fifth receivers.
Winslow Jr. and Heiden are givens to make the team. Aaron Shea, Darnell Sanders, and Chad Mustard will duke it out for one or two rosters spots behind the aforementioned duo. I think Shea's ride here is about over, as he's proven to be an inefficient blocker and we have no need for a true receiving tight end with Winslow now in town. Sanders is an enigma. The team always seems to have good things to say about him until it's time to actually put him in the game. I look for Chad Mustard to make this team as the third TE as nothing more than a blocker in what has been promised as a more ground heavy offensive attack.
Anyone that has been visiting this website regularly is aware of my frustration at the Browns refusal to seriously address the offensive line. This is the one area of this team that prevents me from being highly optimistic about the Browns overall prospects this year. Verba, Tucker, Faine, and Garmon are locked in as starters. Right now, the battle is between Zukauskas and DeMar for the last starting spot. I have the Browns leaving camp with nine offensive linemen, with Beasley and Gonzalez securing backup spots, and Fowler Jr. barely hanging on for his life as one of the last guys kept as a backup center/guard. Kirk Chambers will be a practice squad guy, even at age 27, if he is unable to outperform Beasley or Gonzalez.
The Browns have a lot of bodies here, but can they find three or four that can consistently apply pressure to opposing QB's? The off-season acquisition of Ekuban and the NFL Europe explosions by Jackson and Felipe Claybrooks make this position one I will be watching closely. Also, the team recently added former first round pick Jamaal Reynolds, and several defenders have told me that holdovers Cedric Scott and Mark Word also looked good at quarterback school. Brown, Lang, and Ekuban are locks to make the team if they stay healthy. Jackson really impressed me in Europe, showing an ability to consistently get to the QB. Claybrooks could be dealt late in camp, or kept as a 5th DE. Word, Scott, and Reynolds have their work cut out for them.
The Browns typically keep nine defensive linemen out of camp, and I think this year will be no different. And it is a wide open race to see who is going to land those last four spots. Warren and Roye return as starters, and the competition to back them up will start with Alvin McKinley (who special team contributions blocking kicks cannot be overlooked) and Michael Myers, who has a history with Dave Campo and André Patterson and played well at the end of last season. Antonio Garay is a kid that has always opened eyes when not hobbled with an injury. I'll predict that he stays healthy, and is one of the surprises that makes this opening day roster … sending Amon Gordon to the practice squad to start the year.
Who will start at linebacker is up in the air, but there shouldn't be too much intrigue about who we leave camp with. I think the only possible variation (again, barring injury) from the group above would be if either Josh Buhl (who may be worked at safety) or Mason Unck outperform and beat out Bentley. Sherrod Coates is another kid Butch has always liked that has some natural ability. When it's all said and done, I think Bentley will hang on to his job and Gardner will be waived or dealt. And either Unck or Buhl gets a practice squad spot.
Along with quarterback and linebacker, the cornerback position is another where there should not be too much speculation about who the team leaves camp with. ‘Cutch and Henry will start, Williams is the nickel back right now with Lehan pushing him. Bodden was very impressive in camp last year, and should stick again as the fifth corner if he can contribute on special teams. The chances are good that the team will leave camp with nine DB's, and Bodden will likely be battling a couple of the backup safeties for one of the final roster spots.
Little and Griffith are serviceable, if one-dimensional starters … and the depth behind them is largely unproven, making safety a worrisome area that I will keep a close eye on at camp. Crocker has been moved to free safety and will push Little for the starting job there. Then, the team is left with five players all competing for one or two spots as reserves. Hopefully one of David Gibson, Michael Jameson, David Young, Kentrell Curry, or Ricky Sharpe can elevate their game and supply the team with some much needed depth here. Gibson is a guy that does have some experience and has done some good things in this league … and as a result is the likely favorite for the fourth safety spot as it presently stands. It's put up or shut up time for Jameson, who has been here for several years. Curry showed promise but inexperience at quarterback school, and Sharpe played well in Europe. If the team leaves camp with only four safeties, the likelihood of a practice squad spot going to a kid like Kentrell appears likely given the teams lack of depth here caused by the Sean Jones injury.
Kicker (1): Phil Dawson
Punter (1): Derrick Frost
Long Snapper (1): Ryan Pontbriand
For the first time post-Betrayal, there will actually be a battle at one of the specialist positions, as the team went out and gave signing bonuses to Derrick Frost and Ryan Dutton, two young punters they were high on. Frost is a kid they have been pursuing since last year, and Dutton wowed scouts at an open tryout last year. The prediction here is that Frost wins the job, and we suffer little to no drop off from Gardocki. Dawson and Pontbriand are locks for roster spots.
OT Kirk Chambers, FB Ben Miller, DT Amon Gordon, OLB Mason Unck, S Kentrell Curry
RB James Jackson, WR Andre King, WR Jason Geathers, TE Darnell Sanders, TE Aaron Shea, OL Craig Osika, P Ryan Dutton, DE Felipe Claybrooks, DE Mark Word, DE Cedric Scott, DE Jamaal Reynolds, LB Josh Buhl, LB Barry Gardner, S Michael Jameson, S David Young, S Ricky Sharpe