With mini camp wrapping up this week its officially vacation time for the NFL, until everybody returns for Training Camp in August. Some may recall a piece I did summarizing 5 stories to watch for after the first week of OTAs. Now that mini camp has ended let’s take a look at some of the things we’ve learned.
The Run Defense: DT Danny Shelton, the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft, was finally permitted to join the team for mini camp. Shelton was excluded from OTAs as he had not yet graduated university. Though coaches had been in constant contact with the massive lineman, the concern was how quickly he would be able to catch up physically and mentally. According to head coach Mike Pettine, while Shelton took up MMA to stay in shape, it is clearly no substitute for the work done by those who had been participating at the team facility. That is to be expected but it was encouraging to see him embracing teammates and leaning on them for knowledge. He named fellow defensive tackles Billy Winn and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen among others as early mentors. The defensive unit has set the tone thus far in the offseason. Fellow rookie DT Xavier Cooper has been effective against the run, as well as LB Scott Solomon. Shelton will be relied upon heavily to get up to speed as the season approaches to help anchor the Browns last place run defense.
The Secondary: Staying on the defensive side of the ball, starting FS Tashaun Gipson ended his holdout and signed the 2nd round tender placed on him. It was a very welcome sight to see him show up for mini camp, though Pettine stated it was “disappointing” that he showed up with a minor hamstring injury and did not participate. It remains a priority of the Ray Farmer and company to reach a long term deal with the Pro Bowl safety before he leaves via free agency next year, but his presence at minicamp is a definite relief. The staple of a Mike Pettine defense is a strong secondary. The crowded DB room has looked very impressive thus far, with even players at the bottom of the depth chart looking like potential starters. Not to mention last year’s first round pick Justin Gilbert is back looking more focused and in better shape. With a healthy Gipson resuming his role, this could be the best secondary in the NFL.
The Receivers: Moving from the stellar DB’s to the players they are asked to cover; the wide receivers. The popular opinion among national media is that the Browns’ passing attack is a makeshift unit comprised of has “beens” and “unproven youngsters”. To be fair, that is exactly what it looks like on the surface. But mini camp told a slightly different story. Coaches have lauded Dwayne Bowe for his ability to use size and veteran savvy to make plays. Brian Hartline has looked good as well and should allow Andrew “Hawk” Hawkins to move back to his natural position in the slot. Also, according to Browns Daily’s Nathan Zegura, upstart 2nd year receiver Taylor Gabriel is the team’s best receiver. Going against Joe Haden in practice every day has got to help one’s route running. They also still have Travis Benjamin and Marlon Moore fighting for spots and both possess deep ball speed. 4th round pick Vince Mayle is recovering from thumb surgery and has been taking mental reps, so he will have a steep hill to climb into the starting rotation this year. OC John “Flip” Defilippo has been putting a lot on the receiver’s plate early; lining them up in multiple spots to create mismatches. However it stands to reason that once the season commences Bowe and Hartline will likely see most of their action on the outside. Keep an eye out once Mandatory training camp starts because outside of Bowe, and Hawk the competition could actually be a lot more intense then the masses think it will.
The Tight Ends/Fullbacks: There hasn’t been much noise either way regarding the TE group. Rob Housler remains the main passing threat of the group with the others primarily blocking. However it is worth noting that serious value is being placed on the receiving ability of the FB.
The Backs: Duke Johnson is everywhere! As the last Cleveland Browns rookie to sign his contract, “The Duke” wasted no time asserting himself as one of the team’s most potent weapons. He has lined up at almost every skill position so far from kick returner to RB, and made plays at all of them. It’s encouraging to see that he appears to be as advertised. He should add a great dimension to a potentially underwhelming offense. This is especially true since there is such an emphasis on throwing to the backs this year. There were reports of friction in the RB room last year. However this year has been different. There is cohesiveness. The trio of Duke, Isaiah Crowell, and Terrence West look to thrive behind a dominant offensive line.
The Offensive Line: Much like the tight end group, this is really par for the course. The line is solid and everybody has maintained their positions thus far. That is, of course, with the exception of 19th overall pick Cameron Erving. He’s gotten reps at every position on the line but is currently penciled in to compete for the starting RG job with John Greco. Greco has been taking the reps at Center while Alex Mack continues to recover from last year’s leg injury.
Special Teams: The Punt/Kick returner positions don’t appear to have a clear front-runner, though Duke Johnson has been added to that mix and may emerge as the favorite as the regular season approaches.
The Quarterbacks: And last, but not least, we have the QB non-competition. Johnny Manziel finally spoke to the media for the first time after his stint in rehab. He said the typical Johnny things about having to do better and grow up and even announced he is retiring the “money sign”. I hope for his sake that’s all true. Except the money sign, I never had a problem with that, he just didn’t score enough touchdowns to justify it. However, it looks as though that may be too little too late because the staff seems all but decided on starting Josh McCown. McCown has been getting good reviews all offseason, so this is not a shock. I truly hope that Johnny comes into training camp driven and focused. McCown is a true Professional and seems to have a good grasp of the offense. He has been and will continue to get majority of the first team reps. If Johnny can’t find his way onto the field this year in favor of Josh McCown then it is unclear what the future holds for him. You have to think the Browns would be looking for a franchise signal caller next year.
Here are some of the biggest standouts from the offseason:
LB Scott Solomon: You don’t earn the nickname “Bloodbath” for no reason. I truly don’t know if Barkevious Mingo is going to get his job back.
RB Duke Johnson: He was on the receiving end of Johnny’s only real “wow” throw so far. He may end this year as the team’s best RB, WR and Returner all at the same time. No kidding.