“I’m very determined. That’s (starting on opening day) the goal. That should be everybody’s goal.”
That was what Browns rookie linebacker and first round pick Barkevious Mingo told the media today following a minicamp session. While he was drafted sixth overall, Mingo, an LSU product, played defensive end in college and is in the midst of an adjustment to playing right outside linebacker in Ray Horton’s new 3-4 defense. The rookie has been taking reps with the second team to this point through organized team activities. Jabaal Sheard, who also is making the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, is listed as the starter at that spot.
Mingo is right. Being a starter on opening day should be every player’s ultimate goal. Even if unrealistic, setting this type of target encourages players to inject extra intensity into the notoriously relaxed OTA portion of the NFL calendar and pushes those higher up the depth chart to do the same.
But one must question the true importance of who plays the first defensive snap of the season, especially when that question is being asked on June 5, 51 days before training camp opens. Especially with a proven commodity like Sheard currently ahead of him on the depth chart, it might not be realistic to think that Mingo will be a starter this season, let alone on opening day.
Some will point to Mingo’s high draft selection as evidence of why he must be expected to start this season. While it is clear from their investment of the sixth overall pick that the Browns brain trust thinks that he will eventually be a starter and very good player in this league, that does not require them to rush him along. Mingo has impressed thus far in OTAs (those who follow Browns beat writers will note that they have noted him deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage on each of the last two days), but a good comparable for Mingo may turn out to be Aldon Smith, the San Francisco defensive end/outside linebacker drafted seventh overall in the 2011 Draft. Smith was not a starter in his rookie season, instead appearing mainly as a defensive end pass rushing specialist when the 49ers went to their nickel package.
If Mingo ends up inhabiting this role for the Browns (albeit at outside linebacker instead of defensive end), it does not immediately make him a bust or mean his rookie campaign will be a lost season. It will simply mean that Ray Horton and his defensive staff are using a young player in ways that they believe will maximize both his impact as well as the impact of other defensive players like Sheard, who Browns fans should remember has recorded 15.5 sacks through his first two NFL seasons. Cleveland has committed to the pass rush and Horton’s defense by drafting Mingo, signing Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, and opting not to trade Sheard, and that depth should be looked on as a team strength, even if it means Mingo’s name won’t be announced as a defensive starter when the team runs down the FirstEnergy Stadium tunnel to face the Miami Dolphins on September 8.
Another Browns rookie defender who warrants mentioning is third round selection Leon McFadden, a cornerback out of San Diego State. With the departure of Sheldon Brown this offseason, the team finds itself with a gaping hole at the corner opposite standout Joe Haden. Buster Skrine, now entering his third NFL season, and offseason free agent signing Chris Owens have been getting most of the first team reps thus far in OTAs, but Sports Illustrated Senior NFL Writer Greg Bedard, who spent Wednesday in Berea at Browns minicamp, tweeted, “Looks like third-round pick Leon McFadden will be given every opportunity to start opposite Haden. Nice feet,” following his time observing the team.
McFadden’s situation is vastly different from Mingo’s. Cornerback is an obviously thin area of the Browns roster, so fans should expect to see McFadden a good amount this season, perhaps even in a starting role. Unlike Mingo, McFadden is competing with other unproven players, creating a higher likelihood that he will be able to win the job with an impressive training camp and preseason.
Browns fans should not get themselves too wrapped up in the semantics of the depth chart, especially at this early stage. The attacking style that Ray Horton prefers, combined with the Browns complete lack of depth at cornerback, will offer the Cleveland faithful plentiful opportunities to see both Mingo and McFadden on the field this upcoming season.