Bert Reed of Florida State showes promise.
CLEVELAND, Ohio — With Browns organized team activities in full swing and training camp set to start in about eight weeks, the team’s starting positions are pretty well set and the final roster is taking shape.
On offense, the Browns have added at least three new starters in quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. That number could increase if receiver Travis Benjamin and fullback Brad Smelley crack the lineup.
On defense, they’ve added starting right end Frostee Rucker, backup end Juqua Parker and anticipated key contributors in rookie defensive tackle John Hughes and rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson.
How it all translates on the field remains to be seen, but the Browns think they’ll be better by virtue of their new starting quarterback, their upgraded offense and their young players benefiting from a year in their new system.
“It’s easy to say we think we’re a lot better, but until we start winning more than five games, we can’t say that,” said Browns General Manager Tom Heckert this week. “We’re real excited about this year. I think we can overcome some of the things [that] probably the last couple years we couldn’t. The guys we drafted the first year are two years into this thing. They’re not rookies anymore. There aren’t going to be the learning curves. We think some of these close games we’ve lost over the years, we’re going to win.”
With that, a look at how the 2012 roster shapes up, position by position:
• Quarterback: The only thing that seems certain right now is that Brandon Weeden, the No. 22 overall pick, will start. As for his backup, it’s anyone’s guess. Will it be Colt McCoy, who’s determined to battle for the starting job? Or Seneca Wallace, who’s promised to mentor Weeden? And what about Thad Lewis, whom the Browns like as a developmental player? Sometime before the season, the Browns must decide if they’ll keep McCoy and Wallace, or part with one or both. If they decide to go in another direction, they could sign a veteran such as an A.J. Feeley, who mentored Sam Bradford when Pat Shurmur was in St. Louis. The Browns are also open to trade possibilities.
“If something happens, great. If it doesn’t, we’re fine with whatever happens,” Heckert said this week.
Why it’s better: The Browns are convinced that Weeden’s big, strong arm will make all the difference in their points-starved offense and their receiving corps.
• Running back: The Browns are loaded, with No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Richardson will be the workhorse, but the Browns also plan to use Hardesty and Jackson a lot. Jackson was set to be the third-down back last season before he suffered a season-ending toe injury, and he will probably be featured in that role in 2012. Hardesty was slowed by a calf injury, but he looks healthy and strong this year. The question is, will they have room for Ogbonnaya?
Why it’s better: The Browns were down to their fourth and fifth backs last season. Now they have a player (Richardson) that some say ranks up there with Adrian Peterson as well as two healthy backups.
• Fullback: Second-year back Owen Marecic took first-team reps on the first day of OTAs, but seventh-round pick Smelley of Alabama is expected to challenge. Smelley also can also play tight end. The Browns also have developmental fullback Eddie Williams, who was called up from their practice squad at the end of last season.
Why it’s better: Marecic suffered multiple concussions last season, and the Browns now have some insurance against that — and a promising lead blocker — in Smelley.
• Wide receiver: Greg Little and Mohamed Massaquoi were the starters in camp, but fourth-rounder Benjamin will challenge. Little came in leaner and more polished after leading the team with 61 catches for 709 yards in 2011 and is poised for a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Massaquoi was slowed by his broken foot and concussion last season, but he is expected to come up big this year. Backups Josh Cribbs, Jordan Norwood, Carlton Mitchell and Rod Windsor caught a lot of passes in OTAs, and rookie free agents Josh Cooper of Oklahoma State and Bert Reed of Florida State showed promise.
Why it’s better: They all know the system now; Weeden’s big arm should help them; Little has a year under his belt; Massaquoi should be healthier; and Benjamin brings dangerous, blazing speed.
• Tight end: The Browns have a surplus of quality tight ends, with Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Alex Smith, Jordan Cameron, Dan Gronkowski and part-timer Smelley, and not all will make the final roster. Watson is fully recovered from the concussions that landed him on injured reserve, and Smith is back from a shoulder injury that cost him the final two games. Moore was underutilized in the passing game and should fare better this year. Cameron will have to step up his game in Year 2.
Why it’s better: They should all benefit from Weeden’s accurate passing and touch on shorter routes. Watson had to learn a whole new offense after seven years in the same scheme and should be more productive.
• Offensive line: Four of the starters on the first day of OTAs were the same as last season, with Oniel Cousins starting at right tackle instead of the departed Tony Pashos. Second-round draft pick Mitchell Schwartz will be plugged in at right tackle eventually, but coach Pat Shurmur is making the rookies earn their jobs. With Pashos gutting it out on a torn ankle tendon, McCoy was often under siege from the right side. If Schwartz is as good as the Browns anticipate, Weeden won’t have that problem this year. The line, featuring Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, should be one of the best in the NFL. The Browns also drafted massive backup guard/tackle Ryan Miller in the fifth round out of Colorado.
Why it’s better: Schwartz should solidify the crucial right tackle spot, which opponents are attacking more and more with their premier rushers. Guards Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao should also be improved with a full year under their belts.
• Defensive line: The line took a huge hit when tackle Phil Taylor suffered a torn pectoral muscle the day before rookie minicamp, but the Browns expect him to be back by late October or early November. Making the loss easier to take is the fact that the Browns drafted tackles Hughes and Billy Winn in the third and sixth rounds, respectively. The Browns are so confident in their ability that they don’t feel compelled to sign a veteran before camp. They are also excited about the free-agent signings of starting right end Rucker and reserve end Parker as well as the return of end Emmanuel Stephens from a torn pectoral muscle.
Why it’s better: Jabaal Sheard was a load at left end as rookie, with 8.5 sacks, and he has what it takes to play at a Pro Bowl clip in 2012. Rucker, also explosive off the edge, is an immediate upgrade over Jayme Mitchell at right end. The key here is how Hughes and Winn can fill in until Taylor comes back. But Ahtyba Rubin is superb enough to help make the guy next to him look good.
• Linebacker: The starters are Chris Gocong on the weak side, Scott Fujita on the strong side and D’Qwell Jackson in the middle, although Jackson missed the first day of OTAs with a stiff back and is being cautious. Fujita is optimistic he’ll win the appeal of his three-game suspension stemming from the Saints’ bounty system, a charge he vehemently denies. While Fujita was out at the end of last year with a hand injury, Gocong slid over to the strong side and Kaluka Maiava moved in at weak side. Gocong had some of his best games at the Sam, including eight tackles in Pittsburgh. The Browns drafted energetic, high-motor, versatile linebackers Johnson in the fourth round and Emmanuel Acho in the sixth.
Why it’s better: Johnson and Acho provide instant depth and explosiveness. Both can play inside or out. Maiava will also be better in his second year back from ACL surgery.
• Defensive back: Starters on the first day of OTAs were Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown at cornerback, T.J. Ward at strong safety and Eric Hagg at free safety. The surprise was Hagg, who took reps before last year’s part-time starter, Usama Young. Dimitri Patterson, last year’s nickel back, might also alternate some with 11-year pro Brown at right corner. The Browns also like speedster Buster Skrine, who will play against multi-receiver sets, and they drafted Trevin Wade out of Arizona in the seventh round.
Why it’s better: If the DBs can hang onto the ball this year, they’ll be much improved. They should also be better with Ward back from the foot injury that caused him to miss the final eight games.