By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: A new hairstyle is not the only thing with which Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is experimenting.
Horton, who recently chopped off the braids he had for seven years, is eager to test how all the pieces and parts fit into his 3-4, multi-front, attacking scheme once the Browns hold their first full-squad practice of training camp from 4-6:30 p.m. Thursday and the competition intensifies.
Horton conceded transitioning from the team’s old 4-3 scheme to his style poses challenges, so camp will serve as an important trial. After spending the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, Horton is on a mission to get his new team up to speed.
“I keep saying there’s a learning curve, a transition period, to get accustomed to what we’re doing, how I call a game, how they best react to a game, what they do best,” Horton said Tuesday at the Browns’ headquarters. “We’re going to use this period, I think, to see, ‘OK, we can do an unlimited amount of stuff. I can move guys all around.’ Or, ‘This guy is suited best for that.’
“The players like it. I like it. What I’m hoping is the opponents don’t like it. It’s a great time for us in training camp to experiment with a couple things, moving guys, position flexibility, scheme flexibility. Can this work? Will this work? It’s a learning process for me as well as them.”
As Horton discussed the defensive outlook for the Browns, he shared his thoughts about each position, identifying what he knows about his new players and what he hopes to discover about them during camp.
Horton shot down the notion that he’ll ask rookie Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, to gain weight as he switches from a defensive end at Louisiana State University to an outside linebacker in the NFL. The 6-foot-4 Mingo has consistently weighed about 237 pounds since the Browns drafted him.
“How fast is he? Can he drop? Can he catch?” Horton said. “I want an athletic player that can get after the quarterback. I’m not going to say a thing to him about his weight. I’m going to say, ‘Get off the ball,’ meaning, ‘Go get the quarterback. Go back, cover this guy.’ I’m not going to say a thing to him about his weight. I want a football player. Now whether he plays 235, 241, 239, I guarantee he’s going to lose weight [during camp] with all this heat.”
Horton has been pleased with Mingo’s progress, but he enters camp behind Jabaal Sheard on the depth chart. Sheard’s switch from a 4-3 defensive end to an outside linebacker has received rave reviews from the coaching staff. He’s penciled in to start opposite Paul Kruger, the Browns’ top free-agent acquisition this offseason.
“Fantastic,” Horton said of Sheard. “He was one of the surprises of OTAs and minicamp for me. He transitioned from left to right and now we’re playing him on both sides and everybody’s worried about, ‘Can he stand up? Can he do this? Can he do that?’
“I think when you have good athletes they can do a lot. He’s really done a good job of absorbing the defense and playing both sides. He’s really going to be a versatile player where I can use him to move him around and use his skill to the best of his ability.”
Craig Robertson has also impressed in the early stages as the first-team inside linebacker next to D’Qwell Jackson.
“Pleasant surprise,” Horton said. “I wouldn’t say a surprise. I would say he was what I had envisioned and hoped he would be — a young, athletic backer, who is savvy. When I came here, I wasn’t sure how he would be on picking things up, but he’s been everything I wanted. That’s my little ace in the hole I hope, and we’ll find out.”
The Browns have young, unproven players competing to start at free safety alongside strong safety T.J. Ward. Tashaun Gipson took all the reps with the first-team defense in spring practices, followed by Johnson Bademosi, who has never previously played the position.
“It’s a fluid position for me right now,” Horton said. “Johnson is moving from corner to safety. He’ll be a nickel candidate. He’s one of those players that I’m talking about position flexibility. Can he do multiple things? He’s making good progress, not great progress, good progress of assimilating calls, responsibilities.
“We will find somewhere in our mix of young DBs some good young starters that they’re going to have to step up and prove that they can play very good winning NFL football, and that’s going to be a position of need, of expectation, of careful scrutiny of can we do it? Can the young guys handle it? That we’ll find out. I don’t have that answer yet. It’s a concern of ours that we have to find quality starters and depth there.”
Horton indicated that, for now, the Browns are not interested in adding free-agent defensive back Kerry Rhodes, his starting free safety last season with the Cardinals.
“Right now, we’re committed to our roster,” Horton said. “We talk about injuries, attrition and we make sure we have a backup plan. You have to have an avenue, and he’s one of the players on the street right now.”
The Browns have three players — rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine — competing to become the starting cornerback opposite Joe Haden. They also need to fill the role of a nickel corner who’ll cover the slot in three-receiver sets.
McFadden, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, toiled on the second-team defense during the spring while Owens and Skrine split time with the first unit.
“Leon, just like Mingo, is a young rookie,” Horton said. “Has a growing curve, a learning curve. I would like to play them as much as they will allow me to play them. Now what is that? That’s up to them.”
The Browns have 13 defensive linemen on the roster, which seems like a lot for a team that will use a three-man front in its base package.
“Maybe we want six defensive linemen,” Horton said. “Maybe we want five defensive linemen. Maybe we want seven corners. Maybe we want three safeties. I don’t know the numbers, but I keep preaching give me good, quality players, and I’ll fit them in somewhere.”
Horton called rookie defensive end Armonty Bryant a “project.” The Browns picked the 6-4, 265-pound Bryant in the seventh round.
“We need him to get a little bit more weight, and he was a pick that sometimes you’re looking around the corner to say, ‘Can this guy get X amount of height, weight, girth?’ ” Horton said. “And he’s that kind of guy. He’s got speed, athletic ability, and it’s a process for him to get better and learn. And we’ll give him as much as he can handle and see if he can handle NFL double teams.”
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.