Another year, another coach and a lot of misplaced hope which can only mean one thing, that’s training camp time. Camp kicks off in Berea at 9.30 today. There lots of new but the majority of the team that went 4-12 last year remains intact except for the noticeable absences of D’Qwell Jackson and TJ Ward who have moved onto pastures new. Some of the new faces include Karlos Dansby from the Arizona Cardinals and Ohio born Donte Whitner who arrives from 49ers along with this year’s crop of rookies (more on them later). This will also be the new regime’s first year with the hard-nosed Mike Pettine bringing in a version of Rex Ryan’s defence from Buffalo where it had 57 sacks where it was good for 2nd in the NFL. There will also be a new offensive under Kyle Shanahan who is a versatile Coordinator, having worked with a variety of QBs from Matt Schaub and Robert Griffin III.
The main things you want to see in camp are the rookies and the key battles. This year’s crop of rookies are Justin Gilbert (8th overall), Johnny Manziel (22nd overall), Joel Bitonio (35th overall), Christian Kirksey (71st overall) and Pierre Desir (127th overall) with the most notable undrafted free agents being Connor Shaw and Isaiah Crowell. Out of the rookies Justin Gilbert and Joel Bitonio are the only ones likely to be starting this year. Former Gamecock QB Connor Shaw could be a surprise inclusion to the final roster if he performs better than Tyler Thigpen while Isaiah Crowell could also make the roster ahead of Dion Lewis or Edwin Baker. All the other rookies will make the final roster but probably won’t start barring injury.
Terrance West [no. 20] is battling with Ben Tate [no.44] for the starting job
Going into camp into camp the main battles are at Running Back, Right Guard and Right Corner back. At RB Ben Tate was brought in from Houston to be the presumptive starter but a strong showing from Towson rookie Terrance West has led to HC Mike Pettine to call it “our best completion” and for him to say he “really like him [Terrance West]”. A recent failed conditioning test would be forgotten about with a strong camp performance. Behind the front two there is also a battle between Edwin Baker, Dion Lewis and Isaiah Crowell to see which two make the roster. Baker was a pickup from the Chargers practise squad last year and performed well in the last three games gaining 171 yards. Lewis had a strong camp last year and was expected to backup Trent Richardson before a broken leg in a preseason game ended his season. Crowell is a rookie who dismissed from Georgia for the field issues and dominated at a lower level at Alabama State. Crowell has plenty of talent and some reckon he could be the steal of this draft if he can focus and leave the off the field issues behind him. Although talented he will likely end up on the practise squad for this year at least, that’s if no one else decides to pick him up.
With rookie Joel Bitonio expected to slot in between All-Pros Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, there will a strong completion for the guard spot. The main contenders are John Greco and Jason Pinkston with Paul McQuinst and Garrett Gilkey having a long shot as well. It’s a tough one to call as Greco started all 16 games last year with 14 at LG and 2 at RG while Pinkston who is a better fit has battled with injuries the last two years after starting all 16 games his rookie season and only playing in three games last year due to a high ankle sprain. If Pinkston can prove he can stay healthy this is his job to lose but Greco may bend up outlasting him.
Buster Skrine [no. 22] is trying to defend his job against 1st round pick Justin Gilbert [no.21]
At RCB, it will be a battle between 1st round pick Justin Gilbert and incumbent Buster Skrine. Both are tremendous athletes with Skrine arguably the fastest player on the team while Gilbert has great hands and size for and is no slouch either with a 4.37 40 at the combine. While Skrine has repeatedly said he wants to play outside he plays better when inside in the slot with Pro Football Focus ranking him as one the best in slot coverage and this helps overcome concerns about his height as well. Gilbert meanwhile will probably start opposite All-Pro Joe Haden and will fit well in Mike Pettine’s man coverage scheme but may struggle as he will plenty of targets as the QBs try to avoid Joe Haden.
There are some smaller battles at WR and QB too with the Hoyer vs. Manziel stealing all the headlines here despite the fact that the other QB between Tyler Thigpin and Connor Shaw is much closer and interesting. Hoyer is “the guy” until Manziel or anyone else proves otherwise and most likely will be under centre entering week one in Pittsburgh with Manziel. Many reason but the main are experience, Hoyer’s connection with Cameron and the fact that he is a fan favourite being from Cleveland. With the other two battling for QB3 it’s a case of Experience vs Potential as Thigpin with several years of NFL experience faces of against rookie Connor Shaw. Thigpin is average in most areas without excelling in any while Shaw is a smart QB and is mobile enough to extend drives with his legs and only threw one INT last year at South Carolina to twenty four TDs. Shanahan did keep the experienced Rex Grossman on as third string QB during his three seasons to help rookies Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins but with Brian Hoyer around for experience he’ll probably opt for Connor Shaw.
At WR it seems the Browns are set to go, Josh Gordon or not, with Miles Austin and Nate Burleson to start outside and with Andrew Hawkins in the slot. If Gordon is available, Austin will move over to WR2 while Burleson drops to the bench.
Brownies to watch:
Garrett Gilkey, a sixth round pick out of Chadron State last year Gilkey plays with a mean streak and never stops until the whistle goes. Expect him to make an impression on coaches and to get in a few scuffles with the defence.
John Hughes and Billy Winn, the backup DEs could potentially steal a lot of playing time from Desmond Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin with Rubin in particular under pressure.
Jabaal Sheard, Sheard has seen his sack total decrease every year since his rookie year but that should change this year as he plays a hybrid DE/OLB role and won’t be asked to drop back into coverage in Mike Pettine’s.
Leon McFadden/Aaron Berry – both of these guys are interesting cases. McFadden was a third round only last year but is under pressure to justify his roster spot with two new rookies coming this year while Berry is playing for the first time in a year after missing all of last year due to an ACL tear and has prior experience playing under Mike Pettine in New York.
Travis Benjamin/Charles Johnson – Both WRs are explosive athletes when healthy but both suffered ACL tears last season which derail their seasons. Both could make the roster if the show they are as explosive as they once were.