Storylines to follow during Browns’ camps
May is a month when baseball’s divisional races take form, NBA playoffs are won and horse racing takes center stage on two occasions.
It’s not a month to make concrete evaluations about NFL football teams based on a few OTA practices. There are enough intertwining variables to make the process too fluid for anything to take root.
That doesn’t mean you can’t speculate. After viewing one entire Browns’ OTA practice Wednesday, there are some things fans might be interested in following when training camp opens in late July.
Don’t expect to see quarterback Johnnny Manziel with the third team too long. Coach Mike Pettine might want Manziel to act like a backup, but not to Tyler Thigpen, whose throws look worse than the ones Colt McCoy used to put up in practice.
Love that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is installing the pistol formation, which has the quarterback align about 3 yards behind center instead of 7 in the shotgun. It’s a perfect offense for the elusive, quick Manziel. He can settle into the pocket quicker, thus giving him more time to work his scrambling act, while at the same time allowing for normal handoffs to the running back, who’s usually aligned a few yards directly behind the quarterback.
The general consensus is that Manziel will start the season opener, but I disagree. Brian Hoyer has embraced the starting role he’s been given and is determined to ride it all the way to Heinz Field for the first game. People seem to forget that Hoyer was the best quarterback in camp last season. Brandon Weeden was given the starting job only because he was a first-round draft choice.
Watch cornerback Justin Gilbert closely in camp. Word is that he’s adept at off-man coverage (aligning at about 7 to 8 yards from the line of scrimmage) but needs to work on his press technique. He was beaten once off a press look Wednesday on a short inside route.
Gilbert apparently played mainly to the boundary (short) side in college. With the hash marks being closer in the NFL than in college, there isn’t a big difference between the boundary and field (wide) sides. In other words, how will Gilbert perform with more space to defend?
The secondary may very well be etched in stone with Joe Haden and Gilbert at the corners and Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson at the safeties, although Buster Skrine worked with the ones at a corner this week. Gipson’s role will become more important if, as expected, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil presents a lot of single high safety looks. A quick-thinking, athletic, aggressive safety in the mold of Seattle’s Earl Thomas is as good as gold.
It’s been observed that rookie inside linebacker Christian Kirksey (6-2, 235) has the lean look of a safety. He actually had more of a linebacker look than I thought, despite not wearing full pads. If Kirksey shows any ability to defend the pass, he’ll be on the field a considerable amount of time ahead of Craig Robertson, who was awful in coverage last season.
If outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo has added weight, I’m not seeing it. He said during the recent full-squad camp that the coaches are fine with his weight, but he still looks a bit too lean. Speed can be a great equalizer on the pass rush, assuming a full complement of moves has been perfected, but there’s no substitute for strength when setting the edge on the run.
Rookie guard Joel Bitonio worked with the first-team offense on the left side, only because Paul McQuistan wasn’t on the field. Expect to see more of that in camp. The Browns were so pleased to see Bitonio available when they picked him 35th overall that they passed on USC receiver Marqise Lee. Bitonio is a lock to start the opener.
There’s a feeling of impending doom concerning the possibility that receiver Josh Gordon might be suspended the entire season for a violation of the NFL’s drug policy. You realize how vital Gordon was to the offense when you hear the recently signed Miles Austin gush over him. “This is actually the first time I kind of brushed up to him,” Austin said. “It’s like, ‘Man, this guy is huge.’ ” That coming from a man who is 6-2 and 215 pounds.
Receiver Andrew Hawkins (all 5-7 and 180 pounds of him) will be a fan favorite. He has quick, darting moves that will drive defenders crazy in the slot. “The one guy I like when I work more with him every day is Andrew Hawkins,” Hoyer said. “The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with (Wes) Welker. The guy runs every route to win. He’s going full blast. You can see him out there. You can tell when he walks back to the huddle that he gave his all on every play. The more guys you can get like that, the better your team becomes.”