BEREA: Mike Niam watched the dream of his former Hudson High School teammate Brian Winters come true during the NFL Draft, and now Niam is on a mission to establish his own place in the league.
Niam, an inside linebacker from Wofford College, is one of 20 prospects participating in the Browns’ three-day rookie minicamp this weekend on a tryout basis. If he can dazzle the coaching staff, there’s a chance he could earn a job with his hometown team as an undrafted free agent.
“It would mean everything,” Niam said Friday after the first practice of rookie minicamp. “It’s my dream to play in the NFL, and that would be one step closer to it.
“Just to be able to play in front of my family and friends, that would be awesome playing in my hometown. It would definitely be my favorite place to wind up in.”
Winters landed with the New York Jets, who selected him in the third round (No. 72 overall) and are counting on him to compete for a starting role as a guard.
On Thursday, the Jets signed Winters, a former standout left tackle at Kent State University, to a four-year deal worth about $3 million, according to reports.
“He’s an outstanding player,” Niam said of Winters. “I knew ever since he signed with Kent State that he was going to be an NFL pick. I’m just really happy for him, and I’m hoping he has great success.”
Winters graduated from Hudson in 2009, and Bill Nagy, a 2006 Hudson graduate, plays guard for the Detroit Lions. Now Niam, who graduated from Hudson in 2008, has a shot to join the list of former Explorers in the NFL.
“That says a lot about Hudson,” Niam said.
But like the other players trying out at minicamps throughout the league, Niam is a long shot to sign. Still, the Browns could use depth at inside linebacker, and none of their 18 undrafted free-agent signees plays the position.
“I definitely have [noticed the need for an inside linebacker], but I can’t really worry about that now,” he said. “I’m just trying to do everything I can to impress the coaches and hopefully get another shot.”
The 6-foot-2, 243-pound Niam realizes his ability to learn is being evaluated just as much as his performance on the field. He reported to rookie minicamp Thursday and received an iPad full of playbook materials he’s expected to retain on the fly. He’s already spent a significant amount of time in meetings with inside linebackers coach Ken Flajole.
“It’s a lot of information quick, and I’m just trying to learn,” Niam said. “It’s not too bad. I’m picking it up pretty well. It’s just different than college obviously, a lot more complicated, a lot more detailed. But I’m doing pretty well.”
Once he stepped onto the field, Niam immediately noticed the Browns practice at a much more intense pace than his college team. Niam, though, is convinced he’s worthy of a roster spot in the NFL after getting his first taste of life at the professional level.
“I feel confident that I belong in the NFL,” Niam said. “I believe I have the ability. I have the mental knowledge, and I definitely think I belong.”
Joining a cause
Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and former teammates Chris Gocong and Eric Barton have become ambassadors for Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to ending homophobia in sports.
Former Browns and New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, who recently retired from the NFL, is also an ambassador for the group. He recruited Jackson and former Browns linebackers Gocong and Barton.
Since NBA veteran Jason Collins announced last month that he is gay in a first-person essay for Sports Illustrated, the debate about whether an openly gay player would be accepted in the NFL has intensified.
“I believe that everyone should be treated the same,” Jackson said in an announcement on Athlete Ally’s website. “That’s my thought as a person and as a teammate. Joining Athlete Ally is my way of letting it be known that I would respect any teammate — gay or straight. It just doesn’t matter.”
Jackson, Gocong and Barton join Fujita, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe, Donte Stallworth and Connor Barwin as NFL players who serve as ambassadors for Athlete Ally. They act as liaisons between the organization and the league, promote the group’s mission and encourage their colleagues to join the effort.
Free safety Jamoris Slaughter and offensive tackle Chris Faulk were the only players who sat out the first practice of rookie minicamp. Forty-six players participated.
Slaughter, a sixth-round draft pick from Notre Dame, suffered a season-ending ruptured Achilles’ tendon in his left leg Sept. 15 against Michigan State. Faulk, who signed as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana State, tore two ligaments in his right knee during a September practice and missed virtually all of this past season.
Both players were on the field Friday, stretching and working out on exercise bikes.
“Slaughter we are expecting to be back ready for training camp,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “Maybe he will be ready sooner. I don’t know, but we are planning on training camp for him. For Faulk, we are looking at basically the same thing.”
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was on the field watching practice despite his truck-stop company, Pilot Flying J, being targeted in an ongoing federal investigation into an alleged fraud scheme.
A few veteran players, including cornerback Joe Haden and outside linebacker Paul Kruger, also watched practice. Haden’s younger brother, former Boston College running back Josh, is participating in rookie minicamp on a tryout basis. Kruger’s younger brother, former Utah defensive tackle Dave, signed with the Browns as an undrafted free agent.
“The big brothers were real interested in those guys,” Chudzinski said.
The Lions signed defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah to a five-year contract Friday, according to the team’s website. Ansah, the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, striking a deal could clear the way for outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall pick, to do the same with the Browns. … Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi is scheduled to address the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club on Monday at Tozzi’s on 12th in Canton. Lunch will be served starting at 11 a.m. The program is set to begin at 12:10 p.m. … Browns running back Trent Richardson is ranked 71st on NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2013.” Richardson’s place on the list was revealed Thursday night.
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.