By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
BEREA: Rookie tight end MarQueis Gray is preparing for an important audition in the Big Apple that could shape his future in the NFL.
Well, technically he’ll be at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., when the Browns (4-10) visit the New York Jets (6-8) on Sunday.
But you get the point.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said Gray will “have a good opportunity” if starting tight end Jordan Cameron is sidelined with a concussion he suffered this past weekend in a 38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears. Cameron did not practice Wednesday, when Chudzinski revealed the injury during a news conference. He also missed the final two games of last season with a concussion, so it wouldn’t be surprising if history repeated itself this year.
Gary Barnidge, Cameron’s primary backup, is on standby along with Gray, who’s listed third on the depth chart and is in line to receive the most drastic increase in playing time.
“I have to make sure I know what I’m doing and not cause any disruptions on offense and make sure I’m helping as much as I can,” Gray said. “If I do so, then probably you’ll see a lot more of me next year.
“We’re going to miss [Cameron] tremendously, his playmaking ability. But fortunately, it’s my time now. I have to step up.”
Immediately after falling to the Bears, the Browns knew they might face the Jets without one of their best defensive players — cornerback Joe Haden, who was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with a hip pointer and did not practice Wednesday. But it wasn’t until Monday that they learned Cameron, the offense’s most dangerous weapon other than wide receiver Josh Gordon, might also miss his first game of the season.
Asked when Cameron suffered a concussion, Chudzinski said, “He didn’t report [symptoms] until Monday, so it was maybe late in the game but not sure exactly the play.”
Cameron is in the midst of a breakout season in which he’s played all 14 games and 930-of-975 snaps (95.4 percent), the most of any skill player on offense. Cameron has tallied a team-high 75 catches for 848 yards and seven touchdowns, placing him in the Pro Bowl conversation.
“He’s been a great playmaker for us, and he’s been doing a great job this season,” Gordon said. “But we’re definitely going to bounce back from it. We’ve been dealing with things like that all year, so we’ve got guys definitely ready to step up to the challenge and step in his place.”
Added Chudzinski: “I’m really pleased with how he’s jumped out and improved in such a short amount of time. He’s proved to be a consistent playmaker and really done a nice job of catching the ball, learning the game, getting open, understanding the nuances of that position and the versatility that you need in that position. And he’s grown as a blocker as well.”
Gray dreams of making a leap similar to the one Cameron has made after converting from a college basketball player to a full-time football player at the University of Southern California and a fourth-round draft pick in 2011.
“He told me he started playing tight end not too long ago,” Gray said. “To see the things he’s been able to do in this league is very inspiring. To see him come to work every day and his athleticism, hopefully one day when I get all the technique and stuff down, I’ll be able to do the same thing.”
Gray signed with the San Francisco 49ers on May 2 as an undrafted free agent who primarily played quarterback in addition to some wide receiver at the University of Minnesota. The Browns claimed him off waivers Sept. 1, a week before their season opener. He has embraced the switch to tight end, even though he conceded he was shocked the first time coaches asked him to work at the position this past January leading up to the Texas vs. the Nation Game.
“I believe it’s unheard of, especially going to the NFL,” Gray said of transitioning from quarterback to tight end. “… I figured I was a little smaller. I don’t really see a quarterback playing tight end, but I did it. I haven’t complained about it once.”
The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Gray said he’s gained 5 to 10 pounds since he entered the league and wants to pack on more weight in the offseason. He considers running routes and catching his strengths and blocking a weakness.
“I had never been in a three-point stance since Pee Wees,” said Gray, who missed two games in November with a hamstring injury and has two catches for 8 yards this season.
On the other hand, Barnidge is eager to prove he is a solid receiver, not just a blocker, if he’s summoned to fill the void created by Cameron’s injury. He has 11 catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns this season.
“The knock on me coming out of college was that, ‘Oh, he has to work on his blocking,’ so I really worked on it,” said Barnidge, who’s in his fifth NFL season out of the University of Louisville. “Now people see me more as a blocker instead of a receiver, when I can do both. It’s all right. I want to be known as multi-talented.”
Gray has already shown versatility this season as a Wildcat quarterback. He has five carries for 39 yards (7.8 average), but he knows he must prove himself as a reliable tight end if he wants to secure a future with the Browns.
“No one likes to keep changing teams,” Gray said. “I got here in Week 1 of the season. I’m feeling comfortable. I love the guys. I love the relationship we have here. I just want to make sure I’m here.”
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.