Swerb: What to Watch at Training Camp

Rich offers his thoughts on training camp battles and sleepers...

With training camp kicking off yesterday, Browns fans are chomping at the bit for updates and news to digest and discuss.  It's the time of year where fans start to make their predictions, pick their sleepers to make the team, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of our orange and brown clad warriors of the gridiron. 

Unlike last season, the 2004 Browns were able to upgrade their personnel depth through free agency.  The additions of Jeff Garcia, Terrelle Smith, Kelvin Garmon, Ebenezer Ekuban, Warrick Holdman, and David Gibson should go a long way towards upgrading the overall talent level of the 53 players left on the roster prior to the opener against the hated Ravens.  Add in another draft class, some lower tier signings, and rampant front office moves this off-season … and we have the makings of the most intriguing Browns training camp in quite some time.

Here are some of the top training camp battles to keep an eye on, as well as some of the sleepers to secure roster spots.

Top Training Camp Battles

1. Starting RB

The contenders:  William Green and Lee Suggs

Both backs have shown flashes of greatness.  Both backs were superstars in college.  Both backs looked great at quarterback school.  Now it's time to get it on.  Green is the slightly stronger back, Suggs has a slightly better burst.  Green seems to be doing well in overcoming the substance abuse issues that have plagued his career and knows that this is his last chance.  Chances are that Robiskie will share the load between the two, but the prediction here is that Willie has a great camp and emerges as the starter against the Ravens week one.

2. Starting LG

The contenders:  Enoch DeMar, Paul Zukauskas, Chad Beasley, Melvin Fowler Jr.

This will be the battle I will keep a very close eye on, as the Browns got horrid production from their guards last season.  Kelvin Garmon was brought in from San Diego to likely play right guard, while the above quartet will duke it out for the LG spot.  Zukauskas has the most starting experience, and DeMar is probably considered the favorite after quarterback school.  The Browns surprisingly have picked out Chad Beasley, who showed some things (albeit at tackle) late last season, as the top guy as camp opens. It's put up or shut up time for Fowler.  Here's hoping DeMar, who has the most upside, emerges from this mess.

3. Starting Weak-side LB

The contenders:  Warrick Holdman, Ben Taylor, Kevin Bentley

It was not a good sign for Kevin Bentley when the team announced they were moving him over to the weak side at quarterback school.  Bentley was a big disappointment on the strong side last year, and the team already has Holdman and Taylor on the weak side.  Also a key to this particular battle is Chaun Thompson, who the team has anointed as the starter this season on the strong side.  If Thompson struggles, expect to see Taylor or Bentley moved back.  Holdman has to be considered the favorite here right now, and played at an incredibly high level in 2001 and early 2002 before succumbing to a knee injury that hampered him last season.  Taylor showed plenty of promise last year before wearing down late, partly due to injuries.

4. The 4th (and maybe 5th) DE

The contenders:  Corey Jackson, Felipe Claybrooks, Mark Word, Jamal Reynolds, Cedric Scott

There's definitely a lot of promise in this lot, and if they can stay healthy, the Browns will feature their most lethal rotation of pass rushing ends since The Betrayal.  Courtney, Kenard, and Ebenezer are all locks as the first three DE's, but the battle to fill out the DE rotation should be an intriguing one.  Jackson looked sharp in Europe, as he was named NFL Europe's defensive MVP, and should enter camp as the favorite.  Claybrooks is seasoned, and also coming off a great year in Europe.  Reynolds is a former first round pick just acquired from the Packers, and Word is a guy that has consistently been able to apply pressure in his time here despite struggling against the run.  I'll be honest in saying that I will be surprised if Jackson does not make this team, which could shut all the others out if the team decides to leave camp with five DT's or seven LB's.

5. The 3rd (and maybe 4th) TE

The contenders:  Darnell Sanders, Aaron Shea, Chad Mustard

Darnell Sanders and Aaron Shea are going to have to fight hard for roster spots this year.  With Winslow Jr. in town, Heiden a lock to make the team, and the possibility good that the team will leave camp with two fullbacks … there may only be one more roster spot available at tight end.  And given the team's struggles in short yardage, and the sheer size and power of Chad Mustard, I see both players as being in grave danger (in there any other kind?) of losing their roster spots.

6. The Final DB Roster Spots

The contenders:  Leigh Bodden, David Gibson, Kentrell Curry, Michael Jameson, Ricky Sharpe, David Young

It's highly likely that the Browns will emerge from camp with nine defensive backs.  And I count seven as being virtual locks.  McCutcheon, Henry, Roosevelt Williams, Lehan, Little, Griffith, and Crocker.  This leaves two spots available for the six players listed above.  Also, with the team eleven million dollars under the cap, this is one area you may see the team make a move to add a veteran that becomes a cap casualty between now and September.  With the roster as is, I would out my money on Bodden and Gibson to emerge from this pack of DB's.

7. The 4th and 5th WR's

The contenders:  Frisman Jackson, C.J. Jones, Andre King, Jason Geathers

I have nothing against Andre King, but I feel the end of the road may be near.  In Frisman, C.J., and Geathers … the team has three young, big, strong wideouts that they need to start grooming for the future.  Special teams' impact will play a big role in determining who ends up filling these spots, and that has also been the reason Andre King has continued to stick.  Richard Alston and Laterence Dunbar are also names to keep an eye on, but in the end, I see Fris and C.J. making this team as the fourth and fifth receivers.

8. The Punter

The contenders:  Derrick Frost and Ryan Dutton

Finally!  Some drama in the kicking game for Browns fans during training camp.  With Gardocki selling his soul and going to Pittsburgh, the Browns signed two relatively unheralded kids to battle for his job.  Both were undrafted and went to tiny schools.  But both have shown freakish ability in individual workouts.  Unlike a lot of fans, I see little to no drop off in this area from Gardocki, who was regressing anyway.

A Dozen Sleepers To Keep An Eye On

For the purposes of this list, I have excluded all '04 draft picks, as well as any players that spent significant time with the team a year ago.  Players are listed in order of my perceived likelihood of them making this team out of camp. 

  1. DE Corey Jackson - A former college hoops player that averaged 10 points and 11 rebounds per game his senior season at the University of Nevada, Jackson excelled overseas for the Frankfurt Galaxy this off-season.   He registered 9 ½ sacks and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in NFL Europe.  Jackson was waived in camp last year, and then re-signed on two different occasions back to the practice squad before being sent to Europe by the team to add experience.  He ended up dominating.  Jackson has always had great size and speed, but lacked experience, playing in just eight games as a walk-on during his senior season in college.  I see Corey as the favorite right now to win the spot as the fourth DE behind Courtney, Kenard, and Ebenezer.
  1. FB Ben Miller - Miller has been in camp the past two seasons with the team, but could not play during the season due to a commitment to fulfill two years of service for the Air Force, where he went to school and played left tackle.  The Browns moved him to fullback, and have liked what they've seen.  With his commitment to the academy now complete, Miller is free to pursue a career with the Browns.  Look for Miller to stick, as a practice squad guy at the worst, as insurance for Terrelle Smith.  Butch loves this kid.
  1. S David Gibson - Signed after Sean Jones went down, Gibson has more experience than any of the other safeties vying for spots behind Earl Little and Robert Griffith.  A former USC Trojan, Gibson was drafted by the Buccaneers, and then was reacquired via trade by Tony Dungy when he went over to the Colts.  Gibson started nine games for Dungy in '02, before being waived and reacquired by the Bucs last season, where he played nine games for them as a backup safety … helping fill the void left by an injured John Lynch.  Gibson has experience, and is a solid cover two safety, and is the likely front runner as it stands for the fourth safety spot behind Little, Griffith, and Crocker.
  1. DT Antonio Garay - Antonio is a kid a lot of Browns fans have forgotten about, due in large part to a knee surgery that prematurely ended last season for him.  He saw very limited action for the team last year, but did show flashes when given reps.  Garay is an incredible athlete for a man over 300 pounds, and was also a two-time All-American as a heavyweight wrestler at Boston College.  Throughout his career, Garay has always produced when he has been able to stay healthy and on the field.  My "gut feeling" tells me Garay rebounds, is one of the surprises of camp, and secures one of the spots in the DT rotation behind Gerard and Orpheus.
  1. DE Felipe Claybrooks - Felipe has been with the Browns off and on since 2001, and has had some injury problems throughout his time here.  The team sent him over to NFL Europe, where he led the league with 11 ½ sacks as a member of the Cologne franchise.  Claybrooks is looking to parlay that momentum into a spot with the team out of camp, and has to be considered a strong possibility for that based on his experience as well as his performance overseas.
  1. TE Chad Mustard - The "Big Horse" quickly became a fan favorite at camp last year due to his massive size (6'6, 290) and brute strength.  He narrowly missed making the team out of camp, but was re-added to the roster halfway through the season, seeing some limited action with the team … mostly on special teams.  With the Browns vow to go to a power running game under new offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie and a new pass catching tight end in town, in my view, Mustard is the frontrunner for the third TE spot right now over Aaron Shea and Darnell Sanders.  The Browns were the worst team in the league in short yardage situations last year, and the "Big Horse" could be a big help in that area.
  1. RB Nick Maddox - Most fans assume that it is a given that we will leave camp with Green, Suggs, and Jackson as our three backs … but I'm not sure how safe of an assumption that is.  Maddox, the former Florida St. star, was signed late last year and impressed the team with his pass catching ability out of the backfield as well as his ability to return kicks, two facets of the game he is more adept at than James Jackson.  Maddox is a gritty kid that has been working hard all off-season to add strength and agility, and is my sleeper to nail down the role as a 3rd down back and kick returner.
  1. LB Josh Buhl - Buhl led the entire NCAA (Div I) in tackles last year as an outside linebacker for Kansas St.  Some may remember the 18 tackles he posted against the Buckeyes in their Fiesta Bowl romp over the Wildcats.  Buhl went undrafted due to concerns over his size (6'0, 210) but was quickly acquired by the Browns after the draft as a free agent.  Despite speculation that the team may try him at safety due to his size and the Sean Jones injury, they did not work him there at quarterback school.  I still feel that remains a solid possibility.  This kid may not have ideal size, but he has a great football IQ, and is always around the ball.  The prediction here is that the team works him at OLB and SS, and he sticks as a practice squad guy.
  1. LB Mason Unck - Like Jackson and Claybrooks, Unck was a force to be reckon with in NFL Europe this off-season.  As a teammate of Corey Jackson's in Frankfurt, Unck made 1st Team All Defense in Europe, and registered 65 tackles, 4 INT's, 2 forced fumbles.  Unck was signed by the team last season as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona St., where he starred there at MLB.  Look for Unck to push Kevin Bentley and Barry Gardner hard for one of the final roster spots.
  1. S Kentrell Curry - Curry was a top prospect heading into his senior season at Georgia last year, where he played alongside Sean Jones at safety for the Bulldogs.  His senior year was hampered by injuries, and Kentrell went from a promising first day pick to a kid the Browns were able to pick up after the draft.  The Browns like Curry, and he has the potential to be one of the true post-draft steals as a free agent if he can stay healthy.  The Browns need all the help they can get at safety, and the chances appear good of Kentrell at least sticking as a practice squad player out of camp.
  1. WR Jason Geathers - Two years ago it was Frisman Jackson.  Last year it was C.J. Jones.  And now, with those two hoping to land spots as the teams' fourth and fifth wideouts, the Browns hope that Jason Geathers is this year's pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent WR.  Geathers is a kid Butch recruited to Miami Fla., and at 6'3 and 220 lbs., has great size and strength.  He flipped back and forth between RB and WR at Miami Fla. And went undrafted due to some concerns about his quickness.  The Browns will look to him to help push Frisman, C.J., and Andre King for the final WR spots on the team.
  1. S Ricky Sharpe - Sharpe is another one of those kids the Browns sent over to NFL Europe, and he too enjoyed success over there.  He was signed as an undrafted free agent last season out of San Diego St. and was one of the last cuts by the team last year.  Sharpe has always had nice vision and footwork, and it will be interesting to see if he has added the size and strength the team has asked of him.  Sharpe will be in the mix for one of the final DB spots.

Rich Swerbinsky


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