Here is my list of the top 10 Browns players to watch tonight when they visit the Detroit Lions in the preseason opener for both teams:
1. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden (No. 3): The 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft and the most important selection of President Mike Holmgren’s era makes his NFL debut. His rocket arm is impressive, but how will he respond when the tempo picks up and he feels heat from the Lions’ pass rush?
2. Running back Montario Hardesty (No. 20): He’ll start in place of rookie Trent Richardson, who had surgery on his left knee Thursday. Hardesty missed his rookie season with a torn ACL and sat out six games last year with a torn calf muscle. He has looked good in training camp, but can he keep it going?
3. Rookie defensive tackle John Hughes (No. 93): He has worked mostly with the second-team defense while veteran Scott Paxson has practiced with the first unit. Still, the Browns listed Hughes, a third-round pick, as a starter on their depth chart, so they’re counting on him to replace Phil Taylor, whose surgically repaired pectoral muscle will keep him out at least until October.
4. Rookie offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz (No. 72): A second-round pick, he has been summoned to immediately start at right tackle. In practices, he has struggled at times in pass protection against defensive end Jabaal Sheard, so it’ll be interesting to see him against the Lions’ stellar linemen.
5. Rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon (No. 86): He has flashed his skills since the Browns picked him in the second round of the supplemental draft July 12, but he also has had some rough practices as of late, citing fatigue as a reason. Will he bounce back and show more signs he’s capable of becoming a No. 1 receiver?
6. Rookie strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson (No. 50): He’ll be thrust into the starting lineup if Scott Fujita’s three-game suspension for his alleged role in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal is upheld. Can Johnson, a fourth-round pick, give the Browns the speed they lack at the position?
7. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson (No. 21): He’ll likely start if Joe Haden receives a suspension for a reported failed drug test. Patterson thrived last season as the Browns’ nickel corner. He also started nine regular-season games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010, but he must hold off second-year corner Buster Skrine.
8. Weakside linebacker Kaluka Maiava (No. 56): He’s starting in place of Chris Gocong, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon Saturday. He started six games last year, but as an undersized linebacker, can he give the Browns what they need for an entire season in the grueling AFC North?
9. Tight end Jordan Cameron (No. 84): A fourth-round pick in 2011, he has been one of the Browns’ most-improved players during camp. Will his strong performances in practices translate to game days? If so, Evan Moore might be in danger of losing playing time.
10. Rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin (No. 80): After a lackluster spring, he has been stellar during camp. What will his elite speed do for the Browns’ offense in live action?
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 at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.