The meaningful preseason action is over. We have our best read on the 2010 Cleveland Browns as we are going to get until the games count. Thursday's finale against the Bears will determine perhaps the bottom 5-7 spots on the roster.
The Great Lakes Classic was a very mixed bag. You had some nice performances on offense, individual bright spots on defense, starting players fumbling (indoors, mind you), red zone penalties, and generally bad defense.
Given that, rather than just address the Detroit game, let's look position by position at what we've seen so far.
When the Browns brought in Jake Delhomme, I was skeptical. His 2009 season in Carolina was miserable. During the preseason Delhomme has been efficient, and he has been smart. We've seen pre-snap reads and on-the-fly decision making that has not been seen in Cleveland since Bernie Kosar was under center. Despite complaints that the offense has stuck to safe, short throws, the Browns have gone on many long, sustained drives. The ball has been spread around to many different receivers. Let's see what happens when the games count, but this has been tremendously encouraging after the dismal quarterback play of 2008 and 2009.
Seneca Wallace has exceeded my expectations as a backup. His ability to extend plays by running is an interesting dimension. We got a hint in the Detroit game that the Browns may mix in Wallace in non-wildcat situations just to bring a different dynamic to a specific situation.
Colt McCoy had his most meaningful action against the Lions. It's hard to get much of a read on him after playing with the bottom of the roster guys, but he's not ready for prime time. I did think he improved on holding the ball too long in Detroit, but he's thrown several interceptions and also fumbled twice.
Brett Ratliff appears to me to be the same quarterback he was last year. He's really had one or at most two good series against Green Bay, again playing at garbage time. Ratliff should have been beaten out by Richard Bartel last year. I haven't seen anything to change my mind.
The knock on Jerome Harrison has been a tendency to not practice hard. Maybe that's what we've seen in the preseason. It's been pedestrian outside of a long pass reception against the Rams. Three fumbles, two leading to opponent points is a concern.
Peyton Hillis will be a folk hero in Cleveland for his hard-nosed style of play. He runs hard and catches well out of the backfield. He's also picked up a loose ball and turned it into positive yardage. He's an excellent change of pace from Harrison.
James Davis has made the most of his chances with Montario Hardesty injured. A lot of people said he would not make the team. He'll be on the roster beyond next weekend, mark it down. Meanwhile, his primary competition, Chris Jennings, has had a fairly miserable preseason. Too many attempts to run backward after making a big play doing that against Jacksonville back in January.
Lawrence Vickers is the best fullback in the NFL. End of discussion.
The reports of how bad the receivers are may be true when the bullets fly in two weeks, but I've been encouraged across the board. The top four receivers from a year ago have all shown improvement.
Mohammed Massaquoi has had limited playing time, but he's caught meaningful passes. He caught two passes that converted fourth downs.
His draft mate, Brian Robiskie, looks like he has made a significant improvement over a largely irrelevant 2009 campaign. His 23-yarder along the sideline was a great play as was his touchdown catch in Green Bay.
Is this the year that Joshua Cribbs makes the leap to being an NFL wide receiver? Early returns look promising. He's made several nice plays including a touchdown catch against the Rams and one of the best catches you'll see in Detroit. He's getting open more, even on plays when he is not the receiver. It goes without saying that he's a great blocker.
Sixth round pick Carlton Mitchell has not done a lot. He had a nice run on an end around against the Lions. He's probably a project. Once again, it's hard to get a read there.
Veteran Bobby Engram hasn't seen a lot of meaningful playing time except in the scrimmage and against the Lions. He could be a solid possession guy, but if Robiskie fills that mold, does that mean Engram is the odd man out?
This battle seems cut-and-dried to me. Ben Watson is the top tight end. He's had an excellent preseason. Evan Moore has built on his late-season audition last year and will be used as a slot receiver at times. He just has to take care of the rock. Robert Royal had a pretty sad 2009, but he blocks well and has had one big catch against the Rams. He sticks. Alex Smith was OK, but it don't see it as enough to save him a spot. Joel Gamble has already been cut once.
The left side is set. Joe Thomas is fantastic and Eric Steinbach is a solid veteran. I've become mildly concerned about Alex Mack this preseason. There have been way too many bad snaps. Plus, he hasn't had the consistent success we saw at the end of last year. Points to Mack, though, since he's a guy who gets downfield really well.
On the right side, it's been a revolving door. It looks to me like the combination of Shawn Luavao and John St. Clair is the best option available, assuming Floyd Womack can't return to open the season. Luavao may be a rookie, but he's solid. St. Clair has looked better than what we saw much of last year, but he is still the weak link. Tony Pashos was underwhelming in his one game against the Lions. Maybe he isn't football-ready yet, so I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt there.
Among the backups, there will be some tough calls. If Womack is healthy enough to be on the active roster and the Browns keep all of the players I listed above, there are probably one or two spots at most left. While Billy Yates struggled with the first team, he's got potential and can back up at center. I like Pat Murray as a developmental player. Scott Kooistra is a veteran, so it's the active roster or bust for him. The Browns already have a lot of players with experience, so he may be the odd man out.
Ahtyba Rubin has been developing into a solid nose tackle. Robaire has given nothing but effort since he arrived in Cleveland. Kenyon Coleman has been perhaps the best of the imports from New York who followed Eric Magini to Cleveland. Assuming Shaun Rogers is healthy, these four will be the core of the line.
I think Brian Schaefering may have earned his place with the big boys this preseason. He's made play after play, including forcing the fumble that led to an Eric Wright touchdown in Detroit. Assuming C. J. Mosley is ready to play, that group of six may be the defensive line.
The Browns had a number of other players show some potential. I liked Derreck Robinson the best, but Brian Sanford and Swanson Miller made some plays here and there. Cliff Geathers looks too raw to me. Titus Adams has potential, but don't be surprised if he lands on IR. Probably none of these guys will make it barring an injury.
This has to be the most disappointing player group on the roster. When you play a 3-4 defense, that is not a good thing. Because of it, opposing teams have moved the ball at will on the defense much of the time. The injury to D'Qwell Jackson may have ripple effects throughout this season.
Among the front line players, most have been quiet. Chris Gocong has probably been the best in terms of being around the play. Matt Roth showed a bit more in the Lions game than what we've seen so far. I've been very disappointed in Scott Fujita. He's seems out of position all the time. Likewise, veteran Eric Barton was not a favorite of mine last year. He probably need to hang ‘em up. David Bowens played against Detroit, but he looked like he isn't ready yet. Let's see where he is in two weeks.
Among the backups, I've taken note of Marcus Bernard, a guy who seems to have steadily improved since he arrived. I'd like to see him get a shot. Jason Trusnick was the afterthought in the Edwards trade, but he contributed last year and has made some plays this preseason. Blake Costanzo is a fabulous special teams player and showed enough to me on defense to keep him around.
David Veikune may have run out of chances. He made one noteworthy play against the Lions, and while it showed hustle, it also resulted in a 15-yard penalty. Likewise, special teams play may or not be enough to save Kaluka Maiava. Titus Brown looked like he had a spot sewn up last year, then he got injured. He may be caught in the numbers game.
Watch these players against the Bears. There is a lot of sorting out to do among the backups.
This group looks to be significantly improved overall. Yet, the safety position in particular is going to be a problem. Sheldon Brown is a veteran and his experience may provide a boost. He's had a quiet preseason. Eric Wright, meanwhile, looks like a player who has had a fire lit under him. He's made tackles, had near interceptions, made some nice tackles, and even scored a touchdown. Last year's scapegoat, Brandon McDonald, looked good at the scrimmage and in Green Bay, but did not have as good an effort in the last two games.
The rookies, Joe Haden and T. J. Ward have been thrown into the fire and look like they will be contributors immediately. They will make mistakes. Haden has been burned and Ward has not always wrapped up. The encouraging thing to me is they appear to be improving each game. Ward is the hard-hitter he was advertised to be. Haden has shown a pattern of waiting until a pass is in a receivers hands and slapping it out. Of course, that mean's he's close enough to do so.
Abe Elam was a weak spot last season and he's looked lost throughout camp. Problem is, the Browns may not have many other options. Veteran Mike Adams is a valuable backup and swing player, but I don't think the Browns want to make him the starter. It might be the best option. He had holes in his game, but you can't fault Adams for his effort.
Larry Asante has faded through camp. He's a fifth round pick, so you can't expect miracles. If he can play on special teams, he might be the fourth safety. Gerard Lawson might make the team again as a bottom of the roster DB because he also plays well on special teams. Another special teams ace, Ray Ventrone, has not looked good on defense. Who knows if Nick Sorenson will be able to play after his scary injury in Detroit?
Joshua Cribbs is one of the best return men of all time. The Browns have some very solid options to back him up in Joe Haden, Chansi Stuckey, and Gerard Lawson.
Phil Dawson is also a special kicker. He is not appreciated throughout the NFL as he should be because he has played on losing teams.
Color me pessimistic, but I have concerns about Reggie Hodges. He is inconsistent at best and tends toward allowing kicks to be blocked as in Kansas City last December. The Browns will miss Dave Zastudil.
Ryan Pointbriand is a machine at long snapper.
The Browns have had excellent coverage units for some time.
There has been much debate about the decision to retain Eric Magini. We are about to see the fruits of that decision. So far, the team looks disciplined and professional. That was not always the case under Romeo Crennel.
I was one of the critics of Brian Daboll last year, but so far, having any sort of passing game at all certainly changes the picture. I like the balance we've seen on offense, but I think when the games count, the Browns will run a bit more than we've seen so far. And of course, we've seen no wildcat yet.
Rob Ryan is going to have to pull a big rabbit out of his hat to get anything out of this defense the way it looks now. When some of the inured veterans return and we see some real scheming we may see a return of some of the success at the end of last year. I still believe a lot of that success was assisted by bad weather, so don't be surprised if the Browns are in a shootout every week.
Brad Seeley inherited great personnel, but he didn't mess up an excellent special teams unit. I think he did a lot to make it better.
The Browns have two of their softer games at the start of the season, so they might get off to a good start. After that, the next seven games are brutal, including trips to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans, plus hosting Atlanta, the Jets, and New England. If the team can arrive at the end of that stretch at even 4-5, they could make some noise down the stretch. I don't see a playoff run, but they could be worrying some opponents later in the year. At least I don't expect the team to be the disaster it was for the first 10 or 12 weeks of 2009. I think the Browns are looking at 6 wins, perhaps 7 if a few things break right. An 8-8 finish would have to be considered a fantastic success.
The final audition for the players on the bubble.
The season is short. Bark hard!