A look at the Browns' offense position-by-position on the eve of Training Camp 2010
Top Dog: Jake Delhomme gets the first crack after a terrible ending to a Hollywood-like story he created in Carolina and an offseason in which he didn't exactly receive ringing endorsements from the guys who brought him to Cleveland. He does bring a level of legitimacy, professionalism and experience that have been missing, and he should be able to guide a young group of skill players early on in what everybody in the stadium knows is going to be a run-first offense. Ultimately, though, he'll have to convert third downs and avoid turnovers to give this team a chance to win.
One to Know: Third-round rookie Colt McCoy is the latest, greatest hope to be the long-term savior. Maybe he's not under as much immediate pressure as some of the others were, and he's certainly in a better environment as far as having a chance at long-term success. This camp is big for his progress and confidence, and all hope in Berea seems to be that he'll watch from the sideline once the real games start. His status as long-term savior can then be re-evaluated next February.
Bottom Line: Delhomme is the guy -- except when backup Seneca Wallace and some guy named Cribbs get their snaps to keep the defense guessing out of Wildcat formations. Variety is a good thing, as is the run game with an offensive line that's got a chance to be pretty good. But the Browns need Delhomme to be steady and productive in what seem to be winnable games early, and the last thing they need later is another quarterback controversy.
Top Dog: Jerome Harrison started running last Dec. 19 and didn't stop over the next three games, shattering Jim Brown's single-game franchise record and making people wonder why Jamal Lewis ever got a carry last season at all. Harrison now gets his first crack at being the feature back and gets to do it while chasing a big contract; he'll play 2010 on a one-year restricted free-agent tender. Durability is the question, but his confidence has never been higher. Neither has the overall talent and depth level in the Browns' running back room; not recently, anyway.
One to Know: Second-round rookie Montario Hardesty sure seemed like Eric Mangini's favorite rookie during the spring, and it seems he made the most of the chances he earned when Harrison treated the optional workouts as such. There's certainly precedent for rookie runners having immediate success, and his SEC pedigree suggests he's as ready as anybody. Hardesty still will have some learning and adjusting to do, but his history and style suggest he'll be even better when the pads come on. Like his competition here, the biggest question remains his ability to get tough yards when everybody in the stadium knows the Browns are running.
Bottom Line: It takes blocking at every level, a threat of the pass and the right back finding a rhythm. But in Harrison, Hardesty and '09 training camp star James Davis -- who's returning from a season-ending shoulder injury -- the Browns have three guys capable of following one of the league's best fullbacks, Lawrence Vickers, to daylight. How they sort themselves out starts right away and includes factors such as Davis' health and how many reps the rookie earns early on.
Top Dog: Mohamed Massaquoi led the Browns last year in a rookie season that was far from perfect but pretty darn good. He's been thrust into the number one receiver role and though he won't exactly scare the Darrell Revises of the world, he's a smart, polished, sure-handed guy who certainly will benefit from a year's experience and better play by those receivers and quarterbacks around him. Though Mike Holmgren was exactly right this week when he said "there weren't any numbers to have" for the receivers last year, Massaquoi finished in the top five in the league in yards per catch.
One to Know: Chansi Stuckey. Mangini and Brian Daboll insisted on playing Stuckey last year as a quick guy out of the slot after acquiring him in the Braylon Edwards trade, but he didn't exactly make Browns fans forget about Brian Brennan -- or even Dennis Northcutt. Stuckey was a semi-productive guy in his time with the Jets and figures to get more early chances here with Joshua Cribbs seeming set for less of a traditional receiver role. He's a different type of player than Brian Robiskie and rookie Carlton Mitchell and if defenses have to focus on the tight end -- something that wasn't an issue last year -- he could find opportunities to make plays in the middle of the field.
Bottom Line: Massaquoi and Robiskie should be -- and need to -- better. The quarterback play should be -- and needs to -- better. How it all comes together remains to be seen. Rookie Carlton Mitchell has size and speed but a long way to go. Bobby Engram was a late add as a veteran presence, but he's 37. Undrafted rookie Jonathan Haggerty was one of the stars of the spring but might be in a numbers crunch considering Cribbs, Massaquoi and Robiskie (and probably Mitchell) are roster locks and Stuckey, Engram, Jake Allen (another coaching staff favorite) and Syndric Steptoe are also in the mix.
Top Dog: Ben Watson had a nice run with New England and got a nice contract from the Browns to headline and help resuscitate this group, which was probably the league's worst last year. If Watson is still on his A-game he's a legitimate weapon with soft hands and big-game experience. But he's pushing 30 and the Patriots let him walk at a time they didn't have a single tight end under contract, so a wait-and-see approach is best.
One to Know: Evan Moore: Red zone hero? This guy came from literally nowhere, through Green Bay's injured reserve to the practice squad to being a weapon at the end of '09. He stands 6'8 and catches just about everything, so there's plenty to work with. Problem is last December it was obvious the Browns were going to pass every time he was on the field, but a full camp of working on his blocking should help. Plus, if he's really as good as he showed in glimpses this spring, the Browns can work around whatever blocking deficiencies may exist.
Bottom Line: With Watson, Moore and Alex Smith this group is much improved. Robert Royal still has the chance to make the team as a special teamer and a blocker, too, and as long as he's not asked to catch the ball that's just fine. One of the best ways to measure immediate improvement in the NFL is to turn glaring weaknesses into at least functional areas, so this is a group to watch closely.
Top Dog: Joe Thomas is one of the league's best at one of its most important positions and still getting better. He's a solid player, solid person and if he stays healthy the Browns will be backing the Brinks truck into his driveway long before he has the chance to schedule a free-agency segment on one of those ESPN fishing shows.
One to Know: Tony Pashos. Fans attending training camp will immediately notice that this guy is a 330-pound monster; he was brought into play right tackle and help add even more power to the power running game. But right tackle was a weakness in the passing game last year and Pashos has struggled against speed rushers in the past. If he's solid in that area and a mauler in the run game, this could grow into a top-10 O-line. If not, Colt's time could come by necessity sooner rather than later
Bottom Line: Thomas is a rock. Eric Steinbach is a smart, solid pro. Alex Mack might be a star. Look for Mangini to juggle everybody but Thomas and Mack and try to find a combination that works, but Pashos is the favorite at right tackle with Floyd Womack the leader at right guard, ahead of rookie Shawn Lauvao and second-year player Pat Murray. There's not a lot of depth here, so staying healthy is very, very important.
Tough Cuts: At running back, somebody who got significant work last year -- Davis or Chris Jennings, presumably -- isn't going to make this year's team. And wouldn't it be positively Browns-like if the guy acquired in the Brady Quinn trade, Peyton Hillis, didn't make it, either? If the young receivers have developed at the rate the team hopes, there will be tough cuts there as well.
Three Burning Questions
1. Can a Cribbs-heavy run game keep defenses guessing over a sustained period of time?
2. Delhomme is liked and supported in the locker room. If the wins aren't there early, does that change?
3. Can one of the tight ends be good enough to change games in the middle of the field and off of play action the way the Browns have had done to them in recent years?
No quarterback controversy, no Jamal Lewis and a coordinator who's no longer a rookie instantly mean this offense is better. The growth of Massaquoi and Robiskie should be noticeable, too. But there are still questions about the overall talent and depth level, about who really scares any AFC North defense and about the quarterback position in general. Keeping defenses guessing means the Browns will have to run it effectively and in a variety of ways, and throw it against eight-man fronts. Time will tell, but expect a better offense than last year's version. Just don't expect it to crack the NFL's top 20.