The Browns held their fourth full-squad practice of training camp this morning. Here are some highlights:
Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson strengthened his case to earn a starting job at the beginning of the season.
Starting strongside linebacker Scott Fujita is suspended for the first three games for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, and the Browns will need to find a replacement if Fujita loses his battle with the league in federal court.
“I’m not really worried about that," said Johnson, who has been practicing at both outside linebacker spots. "I’m just trying to come out here and play wherever they need me to play. If they need me to [be] the water boy, I’ll get the water. If they need me to strap up helmets, I’ll do that, too. So I’m just out here trying to play.”
Johnson, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, had two interceptions today in 11-on-11 drills. He also worked with the first-team defense when it switched to its goal-line personnel.
Kaluka Maiava started at weakside linebacker and Chris Gocong moved from that spot and filled in on the strong side last season when Fujita missed six games with injuries. At the end of minicamp in June, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said he was prepared to re-insert Maiava into the starting lineup, provided Fujita’s suspension is upheld, but Johnson might be able to change Jauron’s mind if he continues to flash.
“He an interception, a couple actually,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said of Johnson. “He looked good on goal line. The linebackers are a crew, much like the O-line and D-line, where you might say before you put the pads on that there’s all these guys that are kind of bunched up. And I think the pads then tend to separate the linebackers and what we think. And he’s had a couple good days. He really has.”
Johnson picked off a pass from quarterback Thaddeus Lewis in the first 11-on-11 session of practice. He later ended the third-team offense’s two-minute drill when he dropped back and intercepted quarterback Seneca Wallace’s pass over the middle on fourth down.
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Johnson said he considers his coverage skills one of his strengths.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good athlete,” Johnson said. “I was just doing my job on that play [during the two-minute drill]. My job was to get back and watch the quarterback’s eyes. I think the ball got tipped, and it just bounced right to me.
“I’ve never had problems in space moving around and feeling my body against other people. I have a good sense of space, so I feel like that’s one of my stronger points.”
Another golden opportunity
Wide receiver Josh Gordon, whom the Browns picked in the second round of the NFL’s supplemental draft July 12, worked with the first-team offense when it used three-receiver sets. Gordon and Mohamed Massaquoi lined up on the outside, and Greg Little moved to the slot.
“I think that’s one way for us to get three of what we consider our better receivers on the field,” Shurmur said. “We do use a lot of three wide receiver sets, and today because we were working in two minute, it probably showed up that way quite a bit, probably more than maybe some other practice.”
In other words, Gordon is on track to become a significant contributor and maybe even a starter sooner than some thought.
The 6-3, 225-pound Gordon is often targeted during practice, so he’s already had plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent in camp. He has flashed, though Shurmur said he must continue to improve to become the type of playmaker the Browns believe he can be.
“I don’t know if it’s conscious or subconscious, but a really big guy that can really catch it, things tend to find you,” Shurmur said. “But I think he’s got a long way to go in terms of learning it and playing receiver at this level. He’s made great progress to this point, but he’s got a long way to go. But he’s eager and he’s smart. He’s really very football smart, and I think that shows.”
Competition at corner
Cornerback Sheldon Brown is penciled in as a starter, but Shurmur said Buster Skrine and Dimitri Patterson could push for more playing time. Last season, Skrine played in dime packages as a rookie, and Patterson served as the team’s nickel corner.
“Sheldon’s starting right now, but I really like some of the development that I’ve seen,” Shurmur said. “I’ve talked about it. Buster is a gritty, gritty guy. Dimitri Patterson challenges, my goodness, and you could see those guys playing outside for sure.”
Brown, who’s on the verge of entering his 11th NFL season, doesn’t plan on giving any ground without a fight.
“I’m headed into this season like I’ve headed into every season,” Brown said. “I don’t know where my career got skewed to some people. I think they kinda think I just showed up and they gave me my job for 11 years. I don’t understand where that came from, so I approach every year the same. I guess they’re just going to give my job to me again or give it away or however the media wants to see that. Naw, I come to work and I let them make the business decisions. That’s how I approach the season.”
With short-yardage, goal-line and two-minute situations at the forefront, today’s practice the most lively since camp began last week.
In goal line, the defense repeatedly stopped the offense’s ground attack. Fifth-string running back Adonis Thomas scored the lone rushing touchdown during the goal-line sessions.
The tight ends, though, had more success. Quarterback Colt McCoy connected with tight end Jordan Cameron, who flashed throughout the day, for a touchdown in the back corner of the end zone on a play-action pass. Quarterback Brandon Weeden, who continued to take the majority of the first-team reps, rolled to his right and hit tight end Benjamin Watson in the end zone with a touchdown pass.
Weeden and the first-team offense went four-and-out in the two-minute drill. McCoy and the second unit marched down the field, setting up Phil Dawson’s successful 36-yard field. The third-team offense’s drill ended with Johnson picking off Wallace.
Weeden and the first unit got another shot at the end of practice. Defensive linemen Brian Schaefering and Jabaal Sheard batted down consecutive passes, and Weeden’s third-down attempt fell incomplete. On fourth down, Weeden dumped the ball off to running back Trent Richardson, and the coaches generously granted him a first down to keep the drill alive. Weeden then completed two passes to Gordon and another to Massaquoi to set up Dawson’s successful 34-yard field goal.
The Browns don’t have practice on Tuesday, but Shurmur still expects his players to be productive during the down time.
“I expect that it’s an off day but it’s not a vacation day,” Shurmur said. “Although by rules we can’t structure anything other than treatments if they’re injured, I would anticipate that they’re gonna take care of their bodies and use it in a way that they’ll prepare themselves for practice, of course, on Wednesdays. Typically you see a lot of guys around the building on off days like I saw last year, and I would anticipate that they come in and watch extra film and there’ll be guys that try to get off their feet and do the treatment and the things you need to do with your body physically to get ready to practice the next day.”
Rookie fullback Brad Smelley and linebacker Craig Robertson briefly exchanged punches during a goal-line drill. Perhaps they were fighting for sole possession of jersey No. 47, which they both wear. In a two-minute drill, defensive end Emmanuel Stephens threw a punch at left guard Jason Pinkston, who didn’t have much time to respond because Shurmur ordered him to hustle to the line of scrimmage for the next play.
Defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin (pelvis) and Phil Taylor (pectoral muscle), fullback Eddie Williams, tight end Evan Moore and wide receiver Carlton Mitchell (leg) continued to sit out.