BEREA: The Browns drafted Leon McFadden in the third round of the NFL Draft in April in hopes of filling their need for a starting cornerback opposite Joe Haden.
But they also signed someone Haden describes as “a little, grimy dude,” and that guy plans to put up a fight against McFadden and anyone else standing in his way of cracking the starting lineup.
The feisty newcomer is Chris Owens, who spent the past four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons before signing a one-year contract with the Browns in March as an unrestricted free agent. Although many assume McFadden will become the Robin to Haden’s Batman, Owens believes he has a chance to earn the part, too.
“I watched [Haden] when I was back in Atlanta,” Owens said Thursday after practice. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy, and now that I came here and get to see him play, I’ve got a lot of respect for his game. To be paired with him, possibly starting opposite of him, would be a real good opportunity for me to step my game up and make some plays because I know they’d be coming for me.”
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Owens served primarily as a nickel corner with the Falcons, but he worked quite a bit on the outside the past three weeks during the Browns’ organized team activities. On Thursday, he lined up opposite Haden with the first-team defense, and Buster Skrine covered the slot in the nickel package. McFadden, meanwhile, practiced with the second unit.
So as the Browns prepare for their mandatory minicamp, which runs Tuesday through Thursday, Owens is in the driver’s seat of their competition at corner. Of course, he’ll need to hold off McFadden as the position battle heats up. Owens has started 12 of the 59 regular-season games in which he has appeared.
“I’m comfortable inside and outside,” said Owens, who the Falcons picked in the third round (No. 90 overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft. “Whichever one I play depends on the coaches. I put that in their hands, whether I’m playing outside or inside.
“You win positions in training camp. I think everybody knows that. So we don’t know who’s starting yet. I’m definitely going to compete my butt off, and we’ll see what happens come August.”
Still, Owens has already been practicing like a man determined to take the next step in his career.
“[He’s] tussling with people already when we don’t have equipment on,” said Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. “Right now, it’s a lot of footwork stuff and knowing the plays. You’ll know a lot more when you get those pads on. You can’t judge right now. It’s too early.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski became familiar with the Falcons and the rest of the NFC South while spending the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. Owens caught his eye.
“He has really good feet, mirror skills and cover skills,” Chudzinski said. “He was a guy that we wanted to bring in and put into the mix with our corners to get a chance to compete. In this league, you need corners, and you need to have good corners. Chris has been doing a nice job out there.”
Owens compiled 22 tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble in 13 games this past season. He also allowed a passer rating of just 68.9 on balls thrown into his coverage and played 24.3 percent of the defensive snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
No matter how much playing time Owens earns with the Browns, he’s planning to become a leader. Owens, 26, is 11 days older than strong safety T.J. Ward, meaning he is the elder statesman of the secondary. Haden and Skrine are 24, and McFadden is 22.
“I think leaders do things on and off the field,” Owens said. “A guy will lead by example. As long as I do my job, whether it’s special teams, nickel, outside, as long as I make plays and show my teammates that I’m worthy of being a leader, that would be a great opportunity. And off the field, you’ve got to keep all the nonsense where it’s at.”
But on the field, there’s nothing wrong with being “a little, grimy dude” who’s eager to make a mark with his new team.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. 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.