For years, covering the NFL had a dead period following the college player draft. Now, we have rookie camps, off-season training activities, and, of course, the ever-important mini-camps.
The days of the trusty notepad, typewriter, and dull early summer months are gone. In their place are handheld working devices, over-the-air text transmission, and the Cleveland Browns in the news readying for a successful football season all Summer long.
What? Vinny? You put "Browns" and "successful season" in the same sentence?
Sure did. There is talent on this team and they are not as dreadful as many in the national media would like to make them appear.
To support this claim, I consider these exhibits:
The Browns offensive line has been revamped in a manner which should allow them to mesh quickly. Let us not forget what the team was up against in 2006: Center Hank Fraley arrived just prior to the regular season, the starting guards moved about as well as the Terminal Tower, and the performance from the tackles could lead an outside eye to believe they suffered from some ailment.
Numerous sessions of ingesting the Cleveland offense has left me with far too many Maalox moments. The Browns' offensive line was as poor as it gets, actually very comparable to those "dominant" lines in Oakland and Houston.
Former offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon was a disaster on game day, he was a terrible game planner, and his communication skills were atrocious.
Welcome Rob Chudzinski and be happy. Chudzinski is an aggressive young coach, a true "student of the game", to use that cliche. He excelled when getting the opportunity to work with Cam Cameron as a member of the San Diego coaching staff. Where Carthon would call plays to call plays, Chudzinski is going to put players in a position to succeed, utilizing individual strengths and scheme mismatches to the advantage of the offense, rather than "run the play and hope something positive occurs", a non-strategy which riddled this Browns team over the past couple seasons.
Many years later, former Browns' head coach Marty Schottenheimer still has an impact on Browns' football: He permitted Chudzinski to interview for the offensive coordinator position with the Browns, while Cameron was interviewing to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
I know this all sounds so... familiar... but it sure sounds good one month away from entering training camp.
After watching the team recently in mini camp, I will say this is the most pre-snap movement as I've seen while watching the Browns. When - not if - this team understands the concepts of the offense, they could be something to watch.
The off-season acquisitions of guards Eric Steinbach and Seth McKinney will quickly provide this team with the capability of running the football and protecting the quarterback. Getting starting right tackle Ryan Tucker back from a bout with a mental disorder and adding left tackle Joe Thomas in the college player draft gives the Browns talent across the line. We would be amiss if we did not mention the starter last season at left tackle, Kevin Shaffer, remains with the team and could move to the opposite side of the line.
Browns' head honcho Phil Savage knows the game starts up front and has made some wise moves in getting an offensive line in place to give this team a chance to win.
The new Browns offense heavily utilizes the tight end. Lingering knee woes continue to hamper tight end Kellen Winslow, but reports he will not play in the 2007 simply aren't true. Winslow is in great shape and is in the weight room daily, in addition to doing light running. While the tight end will not work with the team in contact drills in the beginning weeks of training camp, he will be in camp working on other aspects of preparation.
As much as Winslow is a critical part of the Browns offense, the team appears confident and comfortable at the wide receiver position. Braylon Edwards needs to man-up and take hold of the number-one receiver position, while Joe Jurevicius, Tim Carter, Travis Wilson, and Joshua Cribbs compete for the second through fifth receiver spots.
Edwards is the key here: if he can regain the trust of his teammates and display the traits of a committed, dedicated receiver, he will have the opportunity to shine in this offensive scheme.
While the focus of the off-season activities of this team has focused on the quarterback position, what makes this team tick will start in the backfield. Free agent acquisition running back Jamal Lewis needs to be the player he was with the Baltimore Ravens and more. According to Lewis, he is healthy for the first time in a couple seasons and has something to prove.
Sure, he does, he is on a one-year deal. If he bombs, and his market value will be lower than Charlie Frye's value this off-season. Backup Jerome Harrison will see playing time, will spell Lewis on third down passing situations, and will team with the veteran Lewis to give the Browns' offense an entirely different look.
While the starting spot belongs to Lewis', the Browns are going to get Harrison on the field. Whether it is coming out of the backfield or lining up as a slot receiver, he will gain experience in the 2007 season.
Despite all these positives, the quarterback position could derail the promising 2007 offense.
Prior to the 2007 draft, Chudzinski gave his evaluation of the offense to Savage. Interestingly enough, talk of the quarterback position was an ongoing issue with the walls of the Browns' training facility. With Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, and Ken Dorsey on the roster, the team was looking at Brady Quinn from Notre Dame as a potential selection for the team.
The consensus within the organization was Thomas would provide a greater stability than Quinn would. This direction did not mean the organization was satisfied with the quarterback position, as the philosophy is quite the contrary, as we have been informed by a source close to the organization.
Within Chudzinski's new offensive scheme, the quarterback is required to make quick reads and be accurate in the passing game. There are concerns within the organization that Anderson is not agile enough to move in the pocket and make consistent throws. With Frye, there are concerns regarding his ability to absorb the game and make quick, correct decisions.
Enter Quinn, the quarterback the team sought in the draft after realizing drafting JaMarcus Russell was a pipe dream. Watching Quinn on film, the organization viewed a player that got the ball out of the pocket quickly, was athletic, a leader, and had the mental capacity and preparation to adjust to the pro game. On the other side, the organization had some reservations about his arm strength and fundamentals (let us note, the coaching staff is not concerned after having him in camp). An aspect of Quinn's ability was he could lead his Notre Dame team despite not being very talented on the offensive side of the ball.
Despite the reservations, Chudzinski has an offensive scheme in place which utilizes the talents of the players at the quarterback position. While not interchangeable by any means, the belief is the team can be successful with any of the quarterbacks on the roster as the starter.
Still, there is a reason the Browns were not going to be denied Quinn on draft day.
The organization views Quinn as the perfect compliment to the Chudzinski offense and he will see playing time in the 2007 season. While Quinn wants to be the starter on opening day, the organization is not going to rush him, though a strong showing in training camp (which I expect, as do some members of the coaching staff) could make the competition at the quarterback position one which may be in debate until the late days of camp.