Training camp is officially over. Here are some thoughts on what has taken place the last four weeks in Berea.
– D’Qwell Jackson is the captain of that defense. No doubt about it. He leads the group.
Coach Chudzinski likes to pit the offense against the defense in certain situational challenges. Usually, these consist of fourth down plays at the end of practice. He will spot the ball inside the ten and announce that it is fourth and goal, with the offense needing a touchdown to win. Usually there is something riding on the competition, like peanut butter sandwiches for dinner or perhaps the right to skip evening positional meetings.
Nobody fights harder for his squad to win these challenges than Jackson. Sometimes that means arguing a point or a penalty or a spot. D’Qwell is maybe even more vocal when the second team is concerned. The guys feed off him. He is a very valuable part of the defense.
He has also earned the right to sit out plays in camp. Several practices Jackson would start out working with the first unit when the team comes together for 11-on-11 work, but eventually gave way to younger players like L.J. Fort to get reps in with the first team. Jackson is in condition. If the regular season started tomorrow, you can bet number 52 would play all the defensive snaps.
– I believe Joe Haden when he says that he has matured between this last season and now. Whether it is his recent marriage or the embarrassment of being suspended last season for Adderall, Haden is less flash and more substance this year. Don’t get me wrong, he still wears his trademark flamboyant shoes, but he is doing less trash talking this season and more team building.
His battles with Greg Little and Josh Gordon have been great in camp. Haden makes Gordon and Little better at their positions. He forces them to be at the top of their game, and vice versa. That may have been said last year, but this year it is a reality. Haden has had a good camp, but he doesn’t get the better of Gordon and Little each time. They are making each other better.
– Speaking of Greg Little, I still don’t quite know what to make of him. You may have read that he is putting in extra work in practice. That is true. He takes extra reps at the juggs machine catching passes before and after practice. He runs extra routes with Brandon Weeden after practice. He has been working with the defensive line during hand fighting drills to work on getting separation from defensive backs.
All that being said, he still isn’t sure-handed. He doesn’t beat defensive backs with any real consistency. He has size. He’s tough enough. Playing opposite Josh Gordon will certainly help. That is, once Gordon gets back from suspension, and assuming he stays out of any further trouble.
– Brandon Weeden looks much better this season. It is impossible to determine how much credit for that goes to offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Turner has been very vocal during camp practices. His presence and intensity with the offense has freed Rob Chudzinski up to be a head coach. I don’t know how many wins this will translate to, but Chudzinski has been set up to succeed.
Whether or not Weeden can make the corrections necessary to be a consistent, effective quarterback is still up in the air. The keys to the offense will be his soon enough. It has been customized for him, but the first couple of weeks without Gordon could mean a slow start. Gordon accounts for 43% of Weeden’s passing yards this preseason (yes, sample size alert). Last year he accounted for 24%. Hopefully Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin can pick up some of the slack.
– Meanwhile, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack keep plugging away. Those two are just pros. They play every down, every practice like it’s a game. Mitchell Schwartz appears to be cut from the same cloth, which is such a luxury. Even if the team has to go into the regular season with uncertainty at right guard, the line will still be a strength.
– The secondary is still the weakness of the team. I have this fear that everyone is overvaluing what we have on the roster. Buster Skrine does look improved, but there were times last season that having him on the field was a distinct liability. Has he improved that much? Are we sure that Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi are capable of holding down the other safety spot? That secondary is one injury away from being trouble.
– Overall, the team is ahead of where I thought they might be at this time. The big key over the next two weeks will be avoiding any more injuries, and getting some of the walking wounded back on the field. Hopefully the plan for Trent Richardson is working and has him ready to go week one. The same goes for T.J. Ward who has sat out many drills and both the preseason games nursing his injury.