By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi offered his most positive public comment about quarterback Brandon Weeden since owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner named him their personnel chief Jan. 18.
Addressing reporters Wednesday for the first time since his May 13 appearance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club in Canton, Lombardi was asked what he’s seen from Weeden this offseason. Lombardi didn’t heap praise upon Weeden, the team’s projected starter who has taken all of the first-team snaps throughout spring practices and the early stages of training camp, but he did offer a compliment.
“I think everybody that practices football has really good days and they have some bad days, and I think everything’s a learning experience,” Lombardi said. “And I think he clearly has proven in the offseason that he’s gotten better at everything they’ve asked him to do. So every day is about getting better, and I think that’s what a lot of players are doing.”
In his previous role as an analyst for NFL Network, Lombardi criticized former General Manager Tom Heckert and former President Mike Holmgren for drafting Weeden 22nd overall. Lombardi termed the selection a “panicked disaster.”
Even in May, just a couple of weeks after the Browns passed on all of the quarterbacks in the draft, Lombardi avoided praising Weeden when asked about him.
“Everything’s an evaluation,” Lombardi said at the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club. “We just have to keep going. Quarterback’s very important. I think Brandon’s a young player. It’s only his second year in the league. He’s got a great opportunity to demonstrate his talent. [Offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] has been around some really good quarterbacks. Norv and [coach Rob Chudzinski] have been able to modify their system to utilize the talent level of the player.”
Lombardi’s speech in Canton also took place four days before the Browns signed quarterback Brian Hoyer to a two-year deal reportedly worth $1.965 million. Hoyer, a St. Ignatius High School graduate and former backup to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, has shared second-team reps with Jason Campbell throughout training camp. The Browns signed Campbell to a two-year deal reportedly worth $3.75 million on March 26.
“Brian’s a guy who’s been in the league,” Lombardi said. “He hasn’t played a lot, but is experienced in terms of being around it. He works hard, and he’s a competitive kid. So it was an opportunity to add somebody to keep improving in that area and give him an opportunity.
“Jason’s an experienced player and we felt like before when we signed him, coach Chud, Joe [Banner] and everybody in the organization felt like that experience could certainly help an organization. I think he’s proven, he’s come in here, worked hard, he knows the system, he’s getting better with every single rep. So it’s a long way to go for everybody as they learn it.”
No. 1 wide receiver
Wide receiver Josh Gordon is another player Lombardi criticized while he had his TV gig. Heckert selected Gordon in the second round of last summer’s supplemental draft, and Lombardi labeled the decision a “waste” of a pick.
But Lombardi said Wednesday he’s eager to see Gordon, the team’s No. 1 receiver, evolve as a player. The NFL suspended Gordon for the first two regular-season games because he violated its substance-abuse policy. Gordon said prescription cough medicine that contained codeine, a banned substance by the NFL, caused a failed drug test.
“I’m excited to see Josh’s development as a player,” Lombardi said. “I think he’s shown this offseason with a great attitude, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that. I think he’s got to demonstrate that what he’s done is continue on. I think that’s what he wants to do. He wants to be a good player.”
Gordon has been criticized for loafing during practice, but Lombardi refused to pile on.
“I think Josh, like a lot of players, has come out here to try to get better every single day,” Lombardi said. “And I think that’s been really important.”
Lombardi said center Alex Mack fits the profile of a player the Browns want to sign to a contract extension. Mack, who played in the Pro Bowl in 2010, is about to enter the final season of his rookie contract.
“I think Alex certainly has proven that he’s a good player on and off the field,” Lombardi said. “I think he stands for that, and I think he has the ability to continue to play well. So he certainly fits the profile.”
Top draft pick
Lombardi is pleased with what he’s seen thus far from rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.
“I think Mingo is a lot like he was at LSU,” Lombardi said. “He plays hard. He’s kind of symbolic of what we’re trying to acquire here, players in terms of plays hard, plays with passion, athletic, can run and obviously he has a long way to go to learn his craft as a player. And he’s out here working every day to get better, and that’s the only way you can do it.”
Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard are penciled in as starters at outside linebacker, so Mingo will likely be used as a situational pass rusher during his rookie season. And cornerback Leon McFadden, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, has been practicing with the second-team defense all offseason.
So would Lombardi be disappointed if none of this year’s draft picks start as rookies?
“That’s an interesting question because starting doesn’t necessarily mean, I mean their playing time is more important to me than who gets introduced,” Lombardi said. “Even though introductions are an important part of football, I think who gets introduced isn’t as important. But I think as we build this team, I think you’ll see players play, and the younger players will play and grow, and I think that’s really more important.”
Pro Bowl makeover
Browns left tackle Joe Thomas has become a fixture at the Pro Bowl, earning trips to the NFL’s all-star game in each of his first six NFL seasons.
If Thomas makes his seventh consecutive appearance, the game will look a bit different because the Pro Bowl will be revamped beginning next year, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced Wednesday.
Instead of the AFC facing the NFC, players will be selected without regard to conference in voting by their peers, fans and coaches. Forty-three players will comprise each team.
Players will then be assigned to teams through the Pro Bowl Draft, in which two leading vote getters will join two NFL.com fantasy football champions to pick players. Hall of famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders will serve as alumni team captains, assisting the Pro Bowl team captains and fantasy football champions in the draft process.
“It remains to be seen if it’s going to be popular,” Thomas said. “Obviously, the NFL’s doing things to try to make the Pro Bowl more exciting. So we’ll see. I hope I get to go out there again and experience and see what it’s like when you don’t have AFC versus NFC, which is what it’s been forever.”
Other changes to the Pro Bowl were also announced, including the elimination of kickoffs. The ball will be placed on the 25-yard line at the start of each quarter and after scoring plays.
“I’m sure the guys that are on kickoff and kickoff return in the Pro Bowl probably appreciate it because that’s one of the least popular things to do when you’re out there is play special teams,” Thomas said. “You’re talking about guys that are stars and starters at their position across the board. Almost none of them ever play special teams, so having to go out there and do kickoff return and kickoff, it’s always tough getting people to volunteer to do that.”
Thomas, though, conceded one of his former teammates who has appeared in three Pro Bowls won’t be happy. “I’m sure [Josh] Cribbs doesn’t like that,” Thomas said.
The Pro Bowl player draft will air Jan. 22 on NFL Network. The Pro Bowl will be held Jan. 26 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu and will be televised by NBC.
Haslam to throw pitch
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is scheduled to throw out the first pitch before the Lake Erie Crushers’ game at 7:05 p.m. Friday at All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon, Browns director of communications Zak Gilbert confirmed.
The promotional theme for the Crushers’ matchup against the Washington Wild Things is Browns vs. Steelers Night. Haslam was a minority owner of the Steelers before striking a deal in August 2012 to buy the Browns to from Randy Lerner for about $1 billion.
Gilbert said Haslam will not address the media at the Crushers’ game. His family’s truck-stop empire, Pilot Flying J, is at the center of an ongoing federal investigation into fraud, and the probe has netted seven guilty pleas from former employees thus far.
Haslam attended training camp Wednesday for the second time since it opened to the public July 25. He also attended the first full-squad practice.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.