The Browns are now nine practices into training camp. Sunday was an off day for the team, but they still managed to make news by releasing their first depth chart. With the preseason opener against the St. Louis Rams looming on Thursday at FirstEnergy Stadium, the release should tell us who will start the first football game in the newly renamed venue (well, American football – the stadium already hosted the United States Men’s National Team against Belgium in an international soccer friendly in May).
While most depth charts would list 11 starters on offense and the same number on defense, Rob Chudzinski’s staff seems to believe that the established rules of the NFL won’t apply to this Browns squad. I actually like this tactic; maybe the reason the Browns have struggled so much since returning to the NFL in 1999 is their refusal to bend the very rules of the sport. Most would have expected the Chicago Bears to make an attempt of this sort as Marc Trestman, formerly of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, takes over as head coach, but it appears Chudzinski has fired the first shot.
Bad CFL jokes aside, the bloated depth chart reveals almost nothing that wasn’t already known, but that’s to be expected when the team has only held nine training camp practices and still has four days before the first preseason contest. All of the major positional battles remain unresolved, leading to the extra names listed as “starters.”
On offense, the newly resigned John Greco and Jason Pinkston share top billing at left guard, while Pinkston joins Shuan Lauvao on the first line at right guard. It will be interesting to watch who gets what reps on Thursday. While those spots are obviously written in pencil, the other three line spots are clearly inked in pen. For those who have somehow managed to avoid any Browns information in the last year – and I’m not sure why you would be starting to follow the team now if that’s the case – that’s Joe Thomas at left tackle, Mitchell Schwartz on the right, and Alex Mack at center.
The skill positions are a list of the usual suspects. Brandon Weeden is still QB1 – sorry Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer fans – and he’ll be handing the ball to Trent Richardson. In spite of an underwhelming training camp performance thus far, Jordan Cameron retains his spot as the starting tight end. Gary Barnidge is currently listed as his backup. As expected, Greg Little and Josh Gordon are the starting receivers. With Gordon suspended for the season’s first two games, many have predicted that Davone Bess will be a starter in weeks one and two. However, Bess was listed as the backup to Little, with Travis Benjamin as the number two on Gordon’s side. This minor detail is interesting, but smart money should still be on Bess to replace Gordon during his ban.
The most impactful revelation from the depth chart is at fullback. I have previously written about Owen Marecic’s battle to reprise his role as the starter, but it appears he’s already lost his grip on the position. Converted running back Chris Ogbonnaya is the starter on this early depth chart with Marecic behind him. Such a quick reversal of fortune does not bode well for the third-year man out of Stanford, but he does have ample time to earn his spot back through the rest of camp.
The defense is much easier to decipher. Desmond Bryant is the right end, Phil Taylor the nose tackle, and Ahtyba Rubin is on the left. Craig Robertson and D’Qwell Jackson are the starting inside linebackers. Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard remain the first-string outside backers. Barkevious Mingo hasn’t yet worked his way past Sheard.
The secondary is an exercise in dichotomy. Left cornerback Joe Haden and strong safety T.J. Ward are two of the Browns’ best players and among the most established incumbent starters on the team. Meanwhile, the tandem of Buster Skrine and Chris Owens jointly hold the starting right cornerback spot. Tashaun Gipson has maintained his grasp on the starting free safety job, but he will continue to be pushed by rookie Jamoris Slaughter and Johnson Bademosi (Bademosi is listed as the backup to Ward at strong safety but has been taking reps at both spots).
The logjams also remain in the special teams group. Coordinator Chris Tabor has not yet picked a replacement for either of the team’s two departed specialists, punter Reggie Hodges and beloved placekicker Phil Dawson. Veteran Shayne Graham and untested Brandon Bogotay are listed together in Dawson’s old spot. T.J. Conley and Spencer Lanning share the top line at punter (and holder) previously occupied by Hodges. Speedster Travis Benjamin is the number one punt returner. Bademosi and running back Dion Lewis, acquired over the offseason from the Philadelphia Eagles, are 1a and 1b at kick returner. Christian Yount, who replaced Ryan Pontbriand midway through the 2011 season, retains his job as the starting long snapper.
On July 27, second year reserve offensive lineman Ryan Miller went down and stayed down. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, prompting concerns of a serious neck or spinal injury. Later that day, it was reported that Miller had a concussion. He was released that same evening. Under the NFL’s concussion policy, Miller remains out of all practices and games until he is cleared by an independent neurologist.
Various other players have sat out practice sessions with minor ailments. Trent Richardson was held out of practice on Friday as well as the team’s Family Fun Night session at FirstEnergy Stadium on Saturday night. Chudzinski said the team was being cautious and made the decision to sit Richardson because he was kicked in the shin during Thursday’s practice. He is expected to be back on Monday. Fellow running back Montario Hardesty was also idle Saturday night with an undisclosed injury.
Josh Gordon missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday with discomfort due to patellar tendinitis in his knee. He returned Thursday, but that same day new free agent wide receiver David Nelson left practice with pain in his right knee. Nelson, signed from the Buffalo Bills, was just cleared to practice on July 26 after missing most of last season with a torn ACL in that same knee.
Former team president Mike Holmgren showed up in Berea during Friday’s practice. He chatted with a few people, including Trent Richardson.
Current team president Alec Scheiner held a press conference Monday to discuss changes the organizations will undertake to improve the gameday experience for fans. I will have a longer take on the announced changes soon, but for now you can read about the plans at Waiting For Next Year.
At Saturday’s Family Fun Night, the 24,131 fans who came down to FirstEnergy Stadium got to see a special wrinkle in the playbook on the night’s last snap. The Browns brought Ryan Encinas, a five year-old lung cancer survivor from Cuyahoga Falls, into the huddle and handed him the ball. Flanked by the whole team, Encinas took the handoff, fumbled after a diving tackle attempt from Phil Taylor, but was able to recover the ball and go 50 yards for a touchdown as a raucous crowd cheered him on. Unconfirmed reports say that Encinas will overtake Montario Hardesty as the primary backup running back when the Browns release their next depth chart.