BEREA: Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson said he doesn’t know whether he’s part of the Browns’ contingency plan for replacing Scott Fujita, but he’s determined to prove he’s ready and willing to do anything he’s asked.
“I’m just trying to come out here and play wherever they need me to play,” Johnson said. “If they need me to [be] the water boy, I’ll get the water. If they need me to strap up helmets, I’ll do that, too.”
The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Johnson made a strong case for himself Monday by intercepting two passes in 11-on-11 drills. He also worked with the first-team defense when it switched to its goal-line personnel.
“He had an interception, a couple actually,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “He looked good on goal line. The linebackers are a crew, much like the O-line and D-line, where you might say before you put the pads on that there’s all these guys that are kind of bunched up. And I think the pads then tend to separate the linebackers and what we think. And he’s had a couple good days. He really has.”
If he continues to shine, Johnson might receive a golden opportunity. Fujita has repeatedly denied his alleged involvement in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal, and he’s fighting his three-game suspension in federal court. Still, Shurmur said the Browns are preparing to play without Fujita, even though he has received the first-team reps at strongside linebacker thus far in camp.
When Fujita missed six games with injuries last season, Kaluka Maiava came off the bench and started at weakside linebacker, and starting weakside linebacker Chris Gocong moved to the strong side. At the end of minicamp in June, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said he was prepared to re-insert Maiava into the starting lineup, provided Fujita’s suspension is upheld, though Johnson might be able to change Jauron’s mind.
Johnson, who has been working at strongside and weakside linebacker, hopes to make more statements during camp, especially now that he’s allowed to hit.
“Football is played with pads on,” said Johnson, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. “It’s not played with T-shirts and shorts. I like to come out here and be one of the guys hitting, not the guys getting hit. That’s just how I play.”
The interceptions won’t hurt his cause, either. The Browns’ linebackers have had trouble covering tight ends in recent years.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good athlete,” Johnson said. “I’ve never had problems in space moving around and feeling my body against other people. I have a good sense of space, so I feel like that’s one of my stronger points.”
Wide receiver Josh Gordon, whom the Browns picked in the second round of the NFL’s supplemental draft July 12, worked with the first-team offense when it used three-receiver sets. Gordon and Mohamed Massaquoi lined up on the outside, and Greg Little moved to the slot.
“I think that’s one way for us to get three of what we consider our better receivers on the field,” Shurmur said. “We do use a lot of three wide receiver sets, and today because we were working in two minute, it probably showed up that way quite a bit.”
In other words, Gordon is on track to become a significant contributor and maybe even a starter sooner than some thought.
The 6-3, 225-pound Gordon is often targeted during practice, so he’s already had plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent in camp. Still, Shurmur said he must continue to improve to become the type of playmaker the Browns believe he can be.
“I don’t know if it’s conscious or subconscious, but a really big guy that can really catch it, things tend to find you,” Shurmur said. “But I think he’s got a long way to go in terms of learning it and playing receiver at this level. He’s made great progress to this point, but he’s got a long way to go. But he’s eager and he’s smart. He’s really very football smart, and I think that shows.”
Competition at corner
Cornerback Sheldon Brown is penciled in as a starter, but Shurmur said Buster Skrine and Dimitri Patterson could push for more playing time. Last season, Skrine played in dime packages as a rookie, and Patterson served as the team’s nickel corner.
“Sheldon’s starting right now, but I really like some of the development that I’ve seen,” Shurmur said. “I’ve talked about it. Buster is a gritty, gritty guy. Dimitri Patterson challenges, my goodness, and you could see those guys playing outside for sure.”
Brown, who’s on the verge of entering his 11th NFL season, doesn’t plan on giving any ground without a fight.
“I’m headed into this season like I’ve headed into every season,” Brown said. “I don’t know where my career got skewed to some people. I think they kinda think I just showed up and they gave me my job for 11 years. I don’t understand where that came from, so I approach every year the same. I guess they’re just going to give my job to me again or give it away or however the media wants to see that. No, I come to work and I let them make the business decisions. That’s how I approach the season.”
Rookie fullback Brad Smelley and linebacker Craig Robertson briefly exchanged blows during a goal-line drill. Perhaps they were fighting for sole possession of jersey No. 47, which they both wear.
In a two-minute drill, defensive end Emmanuel Stephens threw a punch at left guard Jason Pinkston, who didn’t have much time to respond because Shurmur ordered him to hustle to the line of scrimmage for the next play.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.