As the Browns kick off training camp officially on Friday with their first full practice, the expectations for the upcoming season should be minimal.
The franchise went through yet another overhaul this offseason from top to bottom that filtered deep into a roster that under-performed over the last few seasons. Although there’s really no place to go but up, there is quite a lot to watch for as camp kicks off.
Here’s a look at what will play out in the coming days and weeks:
New Hue Order – For the first time in nearly 6 years, the Browns actually hired the coach they wanted – Hue Jackson. In just a few short months it’s easy to see why the former Bengals offensive coordinator was so highly coveted this offseason. He’s brought an energy and enthusiasm not seen in a long time which will be one of the first things fans will notice when they visit camp. After hiring one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the league led by the likes of Ray Horton, Pep Hamilton and Al Saunders, the days of the lackadaisical, short, minimal contact practices are over. Jackson plans to take the same approach the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens do to training camp – tough, physical practices in pads with live contact and tackling in the hopes that by eliminating the soft and cautious approach the team has had in recent camps will pay dividends during the season.
RG3 And QB “Competition” – Jackson is all in on the attempted resurrection of Robert Griffin III and his career here in Cleveland which is why, barring injury, it is presumed that Griffin will be the starter week 1 Sept. 11 at Philadelphia. Griffin was consistently inconsistent during OTAs and minicamps this offseason but he’ll get the bulk of the first team reps over veteran Josh McCown making this whole “competition” pretty much a moot point. Jackson wants Griffin to “earn the job” but it is his to lose. It’s reasonable to attribute some of Griffin’s struggles to rust after not playing in 2015 and a new system, but he’ll need to get his game on point if this offense is to have any success this season. It would behoove the Browns to retain McCown to back up Griffin while Austin Davis could be the odd man out with rookie Cody Kessler in line to likely be the No. 3 QB.
Crowell Coming Clean – Running back Isaiah Crowell’s moment of anger and stupidity on Instagram earlier this month hovers over him as camp opens. While traveling to Dallas to meet with local police and attend the funeral of a slain officer coupled with a pair of apologies were positive steps towards making amends, he still has a lot to answer for and the spotlight will be on him. The reception he receives from fans as well as the organization will be interesting to watch considering how much he is being counted on to help carry the offense – literally – this season.
Josh Gordon – The reinstatement of Josh Gordon will also overshadow the start of camp as well as when he finally does hit the practice field. Gordon has kept in shape, but there’s a difference between being in shape and being in football shape. The quad injury is disappointing, but it won’t have a negative impact as the team prepares for the season because he isn’t able to practice or play until week 5 anyway. Gordon should be thanking his lucky stars he is getting one last chance at redemption and hopefully he’ll finally stay clean and bring more effort as well as a better attitude than he did when he returned from a 10-game ban in 2014. To say he is on thin ice is an understatement. Jackson has made it crystal clear to his locker room that he will not tolerate or waste much of his time on problem children.
Youth Movement – The Browns added 14 draft picks this offseason while allowing veterans Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson to walk in free agency and cutting Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Brian Hartline in addition to others. A total of 11 starters from a year ago are no longer on the team which opens the door for the rookies as well as second and third year players to compete for starting jobs and playing time. All eyes will be on rookies Corey Coleman, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Joe Schobert, Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins and Ricardo Lewis while second-year players Cameron Erving, who is expected to replace Alex Mack at center, Xavier Cooper, Duke Johnson, Ibraheim Campbell and Danny Shelton are expected to take the next step and contribute significantly.
Help Wanted – With the departure of half of their starters from a year ago, there are plenty of starting jobs up for grabs: right tackle, center, receiver(s), left and right defensive end, outside linebacker, free safety and strong safety as well as who will be the nickel and dime backs.
Health – Cornerback Joe Haden starts on PUP following ankle surgery in March but remains on track to be ready by week 1. Tight end Gary Barnidge has recovered from sports hernia surgery in early June and has passed his physical. Left defensive end Desmond Bryant is likely lost for the season after sustaining a torn pectoral muscle and undergoing surgery earlier this month. The Browns invested significantly in their strength and conditioning program this offseason in an effort to prevent and eliminate the rash of injuries that crippled the team during last year’s camp.