Despite his resume, Shayne Graham realized he would be kicking in Phil Dawson’s shadow when he signed a one-year, $940,000 deal with the Browns on Monday.
Graham, a veteran of 12 NFL seasons, earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2005 and ranks fifth in league history with a field-goal percentage of 85.4 (245-of-297). He’s coming off a season in which he made 37-of-44 field goals (84.1 percent) for the Houston Texans, including two playoff games.
But Graham conceded Dawson, 38, is “a legend” in Cleveland.
Dawson joined the expansion Browns in 1999 and became the face of the franchise during the past 14 years. He made the Pro Bowl last season, connecting on 29-of-31 field goals, before signing a one-year deal reportedly worth $2.25 million with the San Francisco 49ers on March 19.
Graham, 35, acknowledged getting caught up in trying to fill Dawson’s shoes wouldn’t be the right approach for him. Instead, he’ll simply try to make a name for himself in Cleveland and resist comparisons to his predecessor.
“Phil not only was a great kicker, but he was a great guy,” Graham said Thursday after the third and final practice of the team’s voluntary minicamp wrapped up at its training facility in Berea. “You don’t look to replace a guy like that. You don’t look to replace anyone. You look to make your own place, and all I can hope to do is do my best and help out the team.
“I have all the respect in the world for how Phil has kicked in these conditions and with this team. He’s been a tremendous kicker, I have a lot of respect for him and I’ve always been impressed with him. I wish him all the luck in the world where he is now. But looking out for myself, it doesn’t really change my thought process that I’m filling in for a guy that’s a legend here because all I can do is look to help my team now.”
NFL kickers know each other, and Graham is familiar with Dawson from the eight seasons he spent playing in the AFC North. Graham played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 2003-09 and the Baltimore Ravens in 2011. Since he signed with the Browns, he hasn’t talked to Dawson, but he plans to do so.
“I’ll probably try to catch up with him just to try to get some advice on the area or things that he’s experienced since he’s been here,” Graham said.
In the meantime, Graham will focus on winning a job as the Browns enter phase two of their offseason-conditioning program. Their first set of organized team activities (OTAs) is set to run May 14-16. Graham is the front-runner to become the Browns’ primary kicker, though Brandon Bogotay, 23, is also on the roster.
Graham believes he had a “good” season in 2012, but he said it was not “outstanding.” He went 24-of-24 on field goals of 39 yards or less, 8-of-10 on field goals of 40-49 yards and 5-of-10 on field goals of 50 yards or longer, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“I didn’t miss any short field goals, but I would have liked to make a couple more of those 50s that were missed,” Graham said. “No matter what happens, it’s your job to make them, so no excuses. I should have made more of them, and I just look for more chances to get a few more in the future.”
Graham knows how challenging it can be to kick in the cold, windy weather in Cleveland. Dawson is so well respected among NFL kickers partly because of the consistency he displayed in less-than-ideal conditions.
“On an away team, I think I’ve played here either eight or nine times, and I’ve had everything from beautiful weather to cold, frozen-ground weather and windy and snow and rain,” Graham said. “You name it, I’ve probably been in it in this stadium. So that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make it easier, but it just means you have experience under your belt to know how to adapt to certain things. Playing in Cincinnati, playing for Baltimore, this is a tough division and every point matters. So I know what my role would be if I were here.”
ESPN NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay believes the Browns could trade down from the No. 6 overall pick on April 25, but he thinks Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is good enough to persuade the organization to stay put.
“I still think Dee Milliner is worth that pick, and I don’t even know that he’s going to get there,” McShay said Friday during a conference call. “So if they like Milliner as much as I do and value him at that spot, then I think you take him if he falls to No. 6. You usually see the top corner go somewhere in that range, the 5-10 range, and I think Milliner qualifies.”
Most draft gurus have labeled Milliner the No. 1 cornerback in this year’s class. However, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock recently changed his rankings. He lists Houston’s D.J. Hayden as the top corner, followed by Milliner, Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes, Washington’s Desmond Trufant and Mississippi State’s Johnathan Banks.
“[Hayden] finds the football,” Mayock said during a conference call Thursday. “What I like about him is once he finds it, he turns into a running back. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns [last season], and whether he’s in press [coverage] with his back to the quarterback or in off with his eyes on the quarterback, he finds the football and makes a play on it.”
McShay said if Milliner is not available at No. 6 and the Browns aren’t going to target West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, which he doesn’t believe should be ruled out, he thinks they would try to trade down. Browns CEO Joe Banner made it clear Thursday during a pre-draft news conference that the team is open to moving down.
The most logical trade partners seem to be two teams looking for offensive left tackles — the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins, who have the 11th and 12th overall picks, respectively. But the Dolphins, who have two second-round picks, reportedly have Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert on their radar and could trade for him.
“Some teams have the ammunition,” McShay said. “Miami’s one of them. But what’s going to happen with Miami? Are they going to solve their offensive tackle situation before the draft? Are they going to have to package the picks and move up?
“I definitely think the Browns will try to [trade down] and are in a spot in the draft where you could see it, especially if one of those offensive tackles — [Texas A&M’s Luke] Joeckel, [Central Michigan’s Eric] Fisher or [Oklahoma’s] Lane Johnson – is available. But if they’re off the board, I’m not sure there’s a player you see a team beyond No. 6 wanting to give away extra picks in order to move up to that spot for.”
Eager to experiment
Wide receiver David Nelson and left guard Jason Pinkston were the only Browns players who missed all three practices during minicamp. Nelson is rehabilitating from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in the first week of last season, and Pinkston is trying to work his way back to the field after his 2012 season was cut short when doctors discovered a blood clot in his lung.
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is eager to see how Nelson, who spent the past three seasons with the Buffalo Bills and signed with the Browns on April 8, will fit in with wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little. Chudzinski said the team expects Nelson to be ready for training camp.
“I am looking forward to seeing David out here,” Chudzinski said. “He will be in the mix there. He has played primarily in the slot, so we will see how that goes when we get out here. How much he will play on the outside remains to be seen.”
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.