The Browns have set the stage for several position battles to heat up today.
The team adjusted today’s practice schedule, allowing about a dozen recently signed players to begin participating as long as a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified in time. Practice is now set for 4:10-6 p.m., and the session is open to the public.
Per rules in the new labor deal, veteran players who recently signed can’t practice until the start of the new league year, which will happen at 4:01 p.m. today if a new CBA is approved. The Browns originally had practice scheduled for 8:45-11:15 a.m., meaning their recently signed players would have been required to wait until Friday morning to practice.
The only way around the wrinkle in the timeline established by the NFL would have been to change the time of today’s practice to after 4 p.m., so that’s exactly what the Browns have done. Browns coach Pat Shurmur and his assistants should have their full squad, except for injured players, practicing for the first time since training camp started last week.
Shurmur and Co. need all the time they can get to figure out what they have and which players will fill which roles. Here’s my view of some of the competitions the coaching staff will evaluate throughout camp and the preseason:
Colt McCoy is the starter, and Seneca Wallace is next in line. But determining the third-string quarterback is important. (Remember, McCoy began last season as the No. 3 quarterback, and he ended up starting eight games.) Jarrett Brown has a cannon of an arm, and he’s poised to hold off challenger Troy Weatherhead.
Peyton Hillis is the starter, but who else should get a significant amount of carries? The answer is Brandon Jackson, one of those recently signed players who will join the mix today. Jackson started 13 games last season for the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. In four seasons with the Packers, he never lost a fumble or committed a penalty. Montario Hardesty has been brought along slowly in practice as he tries to rebound from his second torn ACL. Any production from him will be a bonus.
With Lawrence Vickers reportedly heading to the Houston Texans via free agency, Browns rookie Owen Marecic is expected to start from wire to wire. Tyler Clutts, the only other fullback on the roster, won’t spoil Marecic’s opportunity.
This group is off to an interesting start because Mohamed Massaquoi (left foot), Josh Cribbs (left knee) and Carlton Mitchell (shoulder) have been sidelined. Meanwhile, Brian Robiskie, rookie Greg Little and Jordan Norwood, the slot receiver, have been practicing with the first-team offense. There isn’t really a competition to become the No. 1 receiver because there isn’t anyone on the team who can truly fill that role at this point. In other words, this battle is more about surviving roster cuts. Twelve receivers are on the roster, and the aforementioned six are favorites to be kept (five receivers made the team last year). But Demetrius Williams and Johnathan Haggerty are doing their best to make it a difficult decision.
Benjamin Watson is the undisputed starter, but he’s been sidelined with a concussion since Saturday. Evan Moore, who recently signed his restricted free-agent tender, will enter the competition today. Rookie Jordan Cameron started camp fourth on the unofficial depth chart behind Watson, Moore and Alex Smith, though he appears to be capable of usurping Smith and even threatening Moore for playing time.
Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack have their starting jobs locked down. Left guard Eric Steinbach will be in the same boat if he can return from a left knee injury that has kept him sidelined since camp started. Shawn Lauvao and Tony Pashos have been practicing with the first unit at right guard and right tackle, respectively. John Greco, Billy Yates and Pat Murray will fight to push an unproven Lauvao, plus fill in for Steinbach if needed. Branddon Braxton is demanding attention as he chases Pashos.
Tackle Phil Taylor, the Browns’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, will debut in practice today after signing a four-year contract reportedly worth $8.09 million on Tuesday. Shurmur said Taylor will immediately be in the mix with the first-team defense. As a result, tackle Scott Paxson will struggle to remain relevant. Ahtyba Rubin is a lock to start at the other tackle, and recently re-signed Jayme Mitchell and rookie Jabaal Sheard are the top left and right ends, respectively. Meanwhile, Marcus Benard, Auston English and undrafted rookie Jabari Fletcher will vie for a prominent role as a situational pass rusher. Benard is the clear-cut favorite.
Scott Fujita (strongside), D’Qwell Jackson (middle) and Chris Gocong (weakside) are the projected starters, but injury concerns surrounding Fujita and Jackson make backups vital. Unfortunately, there isn’t much depth. Undrafted rookie Brian Smith is Fujita’s backup. If anything were to happen to Jackson, Gocong could become the man in the middle, and Kaluka Maiava could fill in as the weakside backer. Basically, this group desperately needs reinforcements.
Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown and strong safety T.J. Ward are entrenched as starters. However, free safety and nickel cornerback are up for grabs. Mike Adams has been the first-string free safety since camp began, but Kent State product Usama Young will be in the fold starting today. The Browns recently signed Young to a three-year deal worth about $6 million, so he seemingly has the edge. The Browns also signed cornerback Dimitri Patterson, who started nine games for the Philadelphia Eagles last season. He is the top candidate to become the third corner, but rookie Buster Skrine is a dark horse.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.