Below is my list of the top 10 Browns players to watch tonight, when they host the Philadelphia Eagles in the third preseason game of the year for both teams.
Note: Players who were featured on my two previous lists were not eligible for this version. They are identified at the bottom.
1. Cornerback Joe Haden (No. 23): His outstanding training camp took a bizarre turn Wednesday when coach Pat Shurmur kicked him out of practice after Haden pulled rookie wide receiver Travis Benjamin down by the jersey and had a heated exchange with Shurmur. Meanwhile, the threat of a four-game suspension for a reported failed drug test is looming. Can Haden continue to perform at a high level despite the drama? The Browns can’t afford him to collapse the way running back Peyton Hillis did last year.
2. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (No. 9): Shurmur believes he’s “worth developing.” If Lewis continues to reward Shurmur for his faith, he’ll strengthen his case to become the No. 3 quarterback and thus increase the chances of Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace ending up with another team.
3. Defensive end Frostee Rucker (No. 92): The team’s primary free-agent acquisition in the offseason hopes to debut with the Browns after missing most of camp with an injured right knee. As the starting right end, he’ll be counted on to help the defense improve against the run.
4. Wide receiver Greg Little (No. 15): He had a solid camp, and his progress paid off when he had four catches for 45 yards last week against the Green Bay Packers. His chemistry with rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden will be vital to the success of the offense.
5. Strong safety David Sims (No. 36): His teammates call him “Baby Bubba” because his muscular build is akin to that of special-teams ace Ray “Bubba” Ventrone. Sims, though, has received attention for his play, too. He intercepted a pass with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter to seal the Browns’ preseason win over the Detroit Lions, and he returned another interception 38 yards for a touchdown against the Packers. He could threaten Usama Young, who has missed most of camp with a reported hamstring injury, for a roster spot.
6. Weakside linebacker Craig Robertson (No. 47): He has impressed throughout camp, and the Browns’ brass has noticed. Like Sims, Robertson seems to have knack for making plays. His 23-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Packers was nullified by a neutral-zone infraction. Still, he appears to have enough talent to eventually push Kaluka Maiava, the starter on the weak side, for playing time.
7. Wide receiver Jordan Norwood (No. 10): Shurmur said he wants to keep six receivers on the roster, and Norwood appears to have an edge for the final spot. He’s a solid special-teams player, and his 45-yard punt return against the Lions certainly didn’t hurt his cause.
8. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Josh Cooper (No. 88): He’s Norwood’s main competition, and it’s a close battle. He could pull ahead with strong performances in the final two exhibition games. If not, the Browns will try to sign him to their practice squad.
9. Wide receiver Carlton Mitchell (No. 18): He’s missed most of camp with an injured right leg. He seems like a long shot to make the team for the third year in a row, so he needs to step up right away.
10. Right guard Shawn Lauvao (No. 66): He has shown improvement from last year, but he and rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz might go through some growing pains together. The Eagles’ defensive line will be a good test.
Top 10 heading into second preseason game: 1. Wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (No. 11); 2. McCoy (No. 12); 3. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (No. 71); 4. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade (No. 26); 5. Cornerback Buster Skrine (No. 22); 6. Undrafted rookie middle linebacker L.J. Fort (No. 40); 7. Defensive end Emmanuel Stephens (No. 96); 8. Tight end Evan Moore (No. 89); 9. Free safety Eric Hagg (No. 27); and 10. Rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn (No. 79)
Top 10 heading into preseason opener: 1. Weeden (No. 3); 2. Running back Montario Hardesty (No. 20); 3. Rookie defensive tackle John Hughes (No. 93); 4. Schwartz (No. 72); 5. Rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon (No. 86); 6. Rookie strongside linebacker James-Michael Johnson (No. 50); 7. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson (No. 21); 8. Maiava (No. 56); 9. Tight end Jordan Cameron (No. 84); and 10. Benjamin (No. 80).
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 at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.