Trent Richardson. Brandon Weeden. Joe Haden. We know these guys are absolutely critical to any progress the Browns can hope to have this upcoming season. That much is obvious. But, what about the not-so-obvious? As we get ramped up for Miami on Sunday, after watching the four preseason games, reading press conference transcripts, and having a lot of time to think, here are five guys that I’m keying in on as being quiet keys to the Browns’ improvement.
Craig Robertson – Both Rick and I picked Robertson as our breakout player yesterday in the season prediction roundtable piece. People are going to focus on the elder statesman D’Qwell Jackson, the top pick Barkevious Mingo, the man making the position switch in Jabaal Sheard, and the free agent big catch in Paul Kruger, but it’s Robertson who’s quietly turning a lot of heads. With Chris Gocong and last regime’s pick James-Michael Johnson now gone, the undrafted second year player out of North Texas was second on the team in tackles last year (93), playing in all 16 games and showing an ability to adequately cover tight ends. In camp, he left no doubt as to who the other inside linebacker would be. We all remember how D’Qwell struggled a bit in the 3-4 defense last go-around (and that was in his prime, which he is currently exiting). What Robertson lacks in size and rush ability, he makes up for in having a nose for the ball, seldom being out of place in the defense, and having the range and speed to cover in space. For being a fundamentally sound and aware player, I’m looking to see what Ray Horton has in store for Robertson in his risk-taking defense. This “big guy that can run” really intrigues me. Chud probably said it best a few weeks ago:
“I think his versatility is what you speak of the NFL today as a guy who can play against running backs and against tight ends, can hold up in the passing game there, and in the run game. He is a tough guy that can stick his nose in there. His movement skills are outstanding. He is just really versatile player, and that’s what you need today because of so much of the variety that offenses do.”
“You hate to compare players, but if you look at what Arizona had last year, it was the same guy. It’s a classic 3-4 weak-side, inside ‘backer. You want a guy that’s smart, fast, athletic and can tackle. There are a lot of players in the league like that, but he has a special skillset of being smart, tough, fast and can change direction. He is exactly what I want.”
Tashaun Gipson – Gipson beat out Johnson Bademosi after Usama Young and Eric Hagg went by the wayside in the offseason (and we can all be thankful for that). It remains to be seen if Gipson can make the jump with a starting gig and more snaps (he was on the field for 32% of the team’s defensive snaps last year, playing in 10 games, starting 3), but I liked what we saw from him last season. Like Robertson, Gipson gave off that solid if not spectacular vibe for an undrafted rookie making an instant impact. He was overall pretty effective in pass coverage and was a constant presence in run stopping, and as Brendan Leister at DraftBrowns pointed out, he was ranked 7th among all safeties in both tackling efficiency and cover snaps per reception. I’m going to be really interested to see if the revamped pass rush makes better coverage players out of both Gipson and T.J. Ward by default. The Browns’ problems in coverage weren’t against opposing #1 receivers. Instead, they ranked 24th and 25th respectively against #2 receivers and “Other” wide receivers compared to 17th against #1 wideouts. It fits the narrative of opposing defenses repeatedly picking on Sheldon Brown, Skrine, and others (especially during the Haden suspension).
Chris Ogbonnaya – I really do believe that Trent Richardson is going to have a monster season. However, monster or not, he’s going to need to be spelled at times, because one would think his durability is going to come into play at some point. Enter Obie. He’s going to effectively be your starting fullback (We’ll see what that inevitably means in Chud’s offensive attack when the training wheels come off on Sunday. They could go double tight end or three wide enough that the starting fullback is only a token role.), but he’s also going to get plenty of time as the third down back. Ogbonnaya has two of the qualities you need in your third down back with the ability to pass block effectively and catch the ball out of the backfield. He caught 24 passes in very limited action last season, but 20 of those receptions came in a seven week span between Weeks 2 and 8. After that, Hardesty took on the supporting role to Richardson and Obie became a bit of an afterthought. It’s going to likely take some time for youngsters Bobby Rainey and Dennis Johnson to get up to speed, so Obie’s going to have an even more vital role in the first few weeks of the season.
Jordan Cameron – Ever since the Browns parted ways with Ben Watson, we knew much was going to be expected of Jordan Cameron this season. Even with the signing of Gary Barnidge, someone who Chudzinski has familiarity with, and Kellen Davis, there was almost no doubt that the starting tight end slot was locked down for Cameron. Now, the Browns have added MarQueis Gray and Keavon Milton, dropping Davis and keeping Barnidge. Still, it’s Cameron who’s going to be asked to account for nearly all of the pass-catching from the position. The team’s brought him along slowly, and we’ve seen flashes of that big play ability. Now, can he put it all together and not disappear for long stretches? Cameron has the big play ability (4 of his 20 receptions were 20+ yards last season), but he caught just half of the balls thrown his direction. The converted basketball player still has a lot of rounding out to do, but if this offense is going to get clicking on all cylinders, especially early without Gordon, they’ll need Cameron to help move the chains.
Desmond Bryant – We know how talented Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor are. They’re both guys who can draw double teams at times. That attention should allow a versatile, dynamic player like Bryant to thrive in the three-man front. With the depth the Browns boast up front, I expect everyone to move around a lot, but perhaps no one more than Bryant. He finished tied for 7th among defensive tackles with 12 QB hits last season in part time action, and he recorded a sack in each of his last four games. IF the Browns can generate some rush from that defensive front, it’s only going to allow them to be more creative with their back eight. And if Taylor and Rubin continue to tie up blockers inside, Bryant can get 1-on-1 matchups and make those big for-loss plays.
(Photo: Jon Cole)