By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: When Jordan Cameron joined some of his Browns teammates for dinner a few weeks ago at Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in Westlake, he didn’t leave the enormous chip on his shoulder at home.
Cameron has heard the masses tout his athletic ability while questioning his toughness and durability since former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. Many critics thought Cameron couldn’t block well enough or stay healthy long enough to evolve from a converted college basketball player with a limited football background to a standout tight end in the NFL.
He is well aware of the doubt, and it became the subject of dinner-table conversation with quarterback Brandon Weeden.
“He doesn’t think of himself as a basketball player,” Weeden said Friday after practice. “He was like, ‘Man, I get so sick of people asking me about it. I’ve been a football player for years now.’ He looks at himself as an up-and-coming elite tight end.”
Cameron is finally starting to play like one, and the Browns (3-2) need the trend to continue Sunday when the Detroit Lions (3-2) visit FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
“It’s just hard work and patience,” Cameron said. “Whatever you put in, you usually get out, and I’ve been working my butt off for a long time. I’m finally seeing some productivity, and I just need to keep it up.
“I want to be available for my team and be a playmaker and kind of shed that basketball [label]. ‘He’s a basketball guy. He’s just an athlete.’ I don’t want to be known as that. I want to be a football player.”
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Cameron leads the Browns with 33 catches for 396 yards and five touchdowns. His receptions are tied for sixth in the NFL and tied for second in the league among tight ends, trailing only the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham, who has 37 catches. Graham (593 yards) and the San Diego Chargers’ Antonio Gates (438 yards) are the only tight ends with more receiving yards than Cameron, who’s also tied for sixth in the NFL in scoring among nonkickers with 30 points.
In his first two seasons combined, Cameron had only 26 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown. Now he needs just two catches Sunday to set a record for the most catches by a Browns player through the first six games of a season — Earnest Byner had 34 in 1986. He also needs just one touchdown catch to join Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome as the only tight end in franchise history with six in a season.
Most observers thought Cameron would have a chance to produce more in the tight-end friendly system of first-year Browns coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but few could predict improvement of this magnitude.
“I think this system fits him better,” Weeden said. “If you look at what this system has done, Antonio Gates and those guys have always had big years as tight ends. We’re drawing plays up for him, getting him involved in the passing game. He’s playing with a lot of confidence. I think that goes a long way. He knows he’s going to win one-on-one matchups. He takes those one-on-one matchups to heart and tries to win those.
“I think he also is becoming a better blocking tight end, so he’s kind of become that dual-facet [player]. He’s pass protecting against some really good pass rushers. He’s also blocking against the run extremely well in the power game. He’s just come into his own. He’s really figured it out, and I’ve got a ton of confidence in him ‘cause I know he’s going to make plays.”
Cameron, 25, played basketball at Brigham Young University and the University of Southern California before focusing on football because he thought he would have a brighter future on the gridiron. He appeared in six games with USC’s football team in 2008 and five in 2009 without recording any statistics as a wide receiver. He then switched to tight end and played 12 games as a senior, tallying 16 catches for 126 yards and a touchdown.
Despite Cameron’s lack of experience, Heckert believed he had all the attributes of a dynamic, playmaking tight end. Others weren’t so sure how it would all translate, and Cameron has used the skepticism as motivation all along.
“When you get this label as a ‘potential guy,’ people are tired of hearing about someone’s potential for a couple years now,” Cameron said. “They’re probably like, ‘When’s he going to produce? When’s he going to be available for our team? When’s he going to help us?’ I think hopefully I’ve been getting away from that.”
In an effort to take the next step in his career, Cameron sought advice from Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, a future hall of famer. In July, they met and spent a couple of hours talking and running routes together in Huntington Beach, Calif. Cameron absorbed all the advice he could about technique, workout regimens, nutrition and injury prevention.
“He’s the best tight end to ever play,” Cameron said. “Anytime you can talk to someone that’s the best at what they do, you can take a lot from it.
“He’s always there for his team or his quarterback when they need him. I think I took that away from him — his consistency — and I want to try to replicate that as much as possible.”
So far, Cameron has been more than reliable this season. But he’s not satisfied or even willing to label this a “breakout” year just yet.
“I want to have sustained success, and I think I’ve got to do it over a long period of time,” Cameron said. “I think a lot of people can do it for five games. It’s not hard. I want to be consistent and show up every year. Hopefully I’ll have a long career and do this on a constant basis.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.