Browns training camp has unique feel

You can never say it feels normal around Browns’ training camp.

Not with an off day yesterday that could have turned into another interesting episode of Johnny Manziel’s personal life.

Not with a hearing scheduled Friday with an arbitrator to determine the result of Josh Gordon’s appeal of a possible year-long suspension.

For the first four days of camp, however, talk was all about football. The early stages of the five-week process have been revealing in several ways and have given indications of what to expect when final cuts are made.

The quarterback competition, not surprisingly, has dominated much of the conversation and has attracted media representatives from across the nation. Early impressions are what was expected – Brian Hoyer looks more comfortable and assertive, while Manziel looks like a rookie.

Coach Mike Pettine said during the June minicamp that Hoyer would enter camp atop the depth chart. He went a step further on the first day of camp and said that Hoyer would start the preseason opener against the Detroit Lions.

Barring an injury, it would be a shock if Hoyer isn’t named the opening-day starter just before the third preseason game. As of now, it doesn’t look close as Hoyer has widened his lead.

Manziel looks like a quarterback who wants to be let loose from the shackles of living in the pocket. He’s a product of college football’s video-game style of offensive play, which allowed him to create on the fly.

The more offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan develops a package tailored to Manziel’s skills, the better Manziel should look. There have already been more read-option plays than in all the camps combined that memory can serve.

Beyond the quarterback battle, there are other interesting developments. One is the play of cornerback Justin Gilbert, the forgotten first-round draft choice. Gilbert has been the most impressive rookie, showing great closing speed and in-the-air ball awareness.

Buster Skrine remains Joe Haden’s corner partner in the base defense with the first team, but that won’t last long. Nothing against Skrine, but Gilbert looks like a star in the making. He’ll start the opener.

A case could be made for guard Joel Bitonio being the most impressive rookie, but it’s difficult to judge offensive linemen until game action. So far the practice pace has been nothing more than “thud,” which means hit but no one should go to the ground.

Ben Tate’s confident, bordering on cocky, attitude would lead one to believe that he’s certain he’ll start at running back. That may well be the case, but rookie Terrance West won’t go away quietly. West brings his own style of cockiness to the plate and is determined to be the starter.

The best guess is that the two will split time early in the season. The offense is based on a run-first philosophy, and it’s doubtful that Tate is a 25-carry-a-game back.

Recent reports that Gordon might have a legitimate chance to win an appeal of his suspension is great news for Shanahan. While general manager Ray Farmer consistently defends his decision to not draft a receiver, the fact is that the position (minus Gordon) looks below par.

Miles Austin has remained healthy and looks good, and Andrew Hawkins shows up consistently from the slot. Beyond that, there are question marks across the board. Without Gordon, the offense will need Austin to stay healthy and Nate Burleson to show more than he has to date.

The defense has a chance to be really good. It can’t help but be better with linebacker Karlos Dansby on the inside and Donte Whitner at safety. The Gilbert-Haden tandem has the potential to be one of the top duos in the NFL.

Pettine is a strong believer in never having enough quality cornerbacks, which is why Gilbert, Pierre Desir, Marcus Trufant and Aaron Berry were added in the offseason.

“I’ve never seen that much depth in the DB room,” Skrine said. “Aaron Berry isn’t in the starting group right now, but he very well could be. It’s just super deep in the DB room right now.”

The defensive line should benefit by moving Ahtyba Rubin from a 3-4 end to the nose. Rubin dealt with nagging leg injuries the last two seasons. With Phil Taylor off to a slow start with a minor injury, Rubin needs to stay healthy and produce.

Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant is moving well after ending last season on injured reserve following a medical procedure to correct a heart condition. The other Bryant – Armonty – has looked even better. Armonty played well in limited opportunities last season. He plays low and is quick off the snap.

More will be revealed as the pace of practices picks up. Play will be live today when the goal-line offense is installed. Saturday’s scrimmage at Infocision Stadium in Akron will also see live hitting.