Created on Thursday, 25 July 2013 Written by JEFF SCHUDEL jschudel@MorningJournal.com @jsbrownsinsider,writer
BEREA — Rob Chudzinski has been preparing for this moment since the Browns hired him as head coach on January 10 — really since his coaching began as a graduate assistant at the University of Miami in 1994.
There is only one first-ever training camp for an NFL head coach, and Chud’s begins Thursday morning with a walkthrough on the practice fields at team headquarters in Berea. The first practice open to the public begins at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Chudzinski knows what kind of crowds to expect because he was a Browns’ assistant coach in 2004 and the offensive coordinator here in 2007-08.
“There always is an excitement for every season, but this is special for me in being here with the Browns and part of this,” Chudzinski, a Toledo native, said. “I’m really excited. The thing that I missed from the spring is the fans being around. That’s the part of it that will be a big excitement for me, just being out there and being around the fans on a day-to-day basis at training camp.”
Along with the excitement comes a list of questions. Some can be answered in training camp. Some won’t be answered until the season plays out. Here are five of those questions.
Can Jordan Cameron be productive as a starting tight end?
Last year, former team president Mike Holmgren declared Cameron the most improved player from the team that finished 4-12 in 2011. Cameron did not live up to that billing. He could not beat out veteran Benjamin Watson for a starting job, though he did start six games when the Browns opened with two tight ends. Cameron caught 20 passes in the first 14 games and missed the final two with a concussion.
“I think you project,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “You look at all the different players we have — I look at Greg Little, Josh Gordon, (Davone) Bess, (Travis) Benjamin and Jordan Cameron — and I always look at what you hope they can become. Now I don’t control that. Sometimes they don’t control it, but they have a helluva lot better control of it than I do.
“We’re going to give Jordan the opportunity to be that guy. Now let’s put it in his hands. Is he capable of being that guy? That’s why you go to camp.”
Turner loves to involve tight ends in his game plan. He was head coach at San Diego from 2007-2012. Antonio Gates averaged 63 catches a season in six years under Turner, although it should be pointed out he caught 81 passes in 2004 and 89 in 2005 before Turner arrived. Former Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek caught a career best 68 passes in 1992 when Turner was the offensive coordinator in Dallas.
The Browns did not take a tight end in the 2013 draft. They let Watson and Alex Smith leave in free agency and signed free agent tight end Gary Barnidge (18 career catches/four years) and Kellen Davis (47 catches/five years). The starting job is definitely Cameron’s to lose, but he has to make use of his athletic ability.
Who will replace kicker Phil Dawson?
Chudzinski is taking two kickers to training camp — 35-year-old Shayne Graham, a veteran of 14 NFL seasons, and 24-year-old rookie Brandon Bogotay.
Fans might be surprised to learn Graham actually has made a higher percentage of field goal attempts (245 for 287, 85.4 percent) than Dawson (305 of 363, 84 percent). That doesn’t mean the Browns would be better off with Graham than their kicker of the last 14 years; Dawson was 14 of 15 from 50 yards and beyond the last two seasons. Graham is 13 of 27 from 50 yards and beyond for his career. It just means Graham is not washed up. He made 31 of 38 field goal tries and 45 of 45 PATs with Houston last year for 138 points — fifth most in the NFL.
In most circumstances, Bogotay would be regarded as an extra leg so Graham isn’t worn out in training camp, and that might prove to be what he is, but he is no slouch, either. He played his college ball at Georgia and was stuck behind Blair Walsh, a sixth-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2012. Walsh was fourth in the NFL last year with 141 points and made the NFC Pro Bowl team.
Bogotay outkicked Graham in minicamp last month. The Browns are building for the future. This is a battle that might not be decided until the preseason ends. Remember, Dawson wasn’t drafted, either.
Will Brandon Weeden play like a first-round draft pick?
Weeden turns 30 on Oct. 14. No one will care about his age if he improves as Turner expects him to. Weeden will be in the shotgun more often than not and he’ll be able to show off his strong arm in the plays Turner calls. This offense fits Weeden better than the one he struggled in as a rookie last year.
“So many people get caught up in where a guy is,” Turner said. “A lot of it depends on the situation he’s put in — the offensive line, the playmakers around him, how good a defensive football team you have… I think Brandon is fortunate. He’s had the experience of starting 15 games in this league. That’s a plus when you start working with a player who hasn’t played a lot. He’s taken to what we’re doing and I expect him to play at a high level.
“This system is really a quarterback-friendly system. I know guys look to a year and say, ‘Well, this guy in this system had this many turnovers’ or whatever, but I go all the way back to Jim Everett, guys that people forget. We had Gus Frerotte go to the Pro Bowl in ’96. Trent Green had a breakout year in ‘98, Brad Johnson took us to a playoff win and threw for 4,000 yards in ‘99. I can go on. We’ve had a lot of quarterbacks play at an awful high level, and we’ve had some guys not have great years in this system, because that’s part of this league. But I think the system’s proven, I think our players are buying into it, and I think our fans will enjoy watching what we do.”
Weeden won’t get another chance with the Browns if he comes close to duplicating last year — 5-10 as a starter, 57.4 percent completion percentage, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
CEO Joe Banner signed Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer in free agency in case Weeden stumbles. The Browns did not draft a quarterback, but that was more a statement of what they thought about the 2013 quarterback class than an endorsement of Weeden.
Who will start at right cornerback?
Cornerback was the biggest hole on either side of the ball heading into the offseason. The Browns did not do much to fill it in free agency, signing only Chris Owens from the Falcons. Owens started 12 games in four seasons and only six in the last three years.
Banner had a chance to fill the spot left open when he chose not to re-sign Sheldon Brown (Brown is still a free agent) with the sixth pick in the draft. Instead, he bypassed cornerback Dee Milliner from Alabama to use the sixth pick on defensive end Barkevious Mingo from LSU with the plan to convert Mingo to linebacker. Mingo appears to be making the transition smoothly.
The Browns did not have a second-round pick because it had already been spent on wide receiver Josh Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft. Three corners were taken in the first round after the Jets took Milliner ninth overall. Four cornerbacks were drafted in the second round while the Browns stood idly by and one Dwayne Gratz, was taken by the Jaguars before the Browns took Leon McFadden, the 10th cornerback drafted, with the sixth pick in the third round.
Owens, McFadden and Buster Skrine, a third-year player, will compete for the starting job. No one has a solid lead heading into camp.
“Right now, I have a little comfort zone in that we’ve got experienced corners that can play,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “Now, we want to be able to play more than one, because I guarantee you, teams will run three wide receivers at us, four wide receivers and I keep preaching depth, quality depth, because of injuries, because of personnel matchups, so you can’t have too many good football players.
“Leon, just like Mingo, is a young rookie. He has a growing curve, a learning curve. I would like to play them as much as they will allow me to play them. Now what is that? That’s up to them.”
One of the three that doesn’t start will be the nickel back. Skrine and Owens have both played nickel back.
Can Paul Kruger repeat last year?
This is a question that won’t be answered until the season ends.
Kruger was Banner’s signature free agent acquisition this offseason. After starting one game and posting 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons in Baltimore, Kruger started six games and had nine sacks in 2012. He started two of four playoff games and had 4.5 sacks in the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl. The Browns are paying him $40 million over five years for similar production.
Skeptics contend Kruger will falter without Terrell Suggs lining up as the right outside linebacker for the Ravens, but the Browns have two linebackers that should put pressure on quarterbacks from the other side — Mingo and Jabaal Sheard.
Kruger should benefit from the attacking style Horton wants to play. Unlike Mingo and Sheard, covering tight ends will not be new for him.