With the disappointing news this past week involving the Cavaliers, and the Indians falling further and further out of contention as the All-Star break approaches, Cleveland fans still have something to look forward to: the Browns.
Training camp in Berea is set to begin on July 31, so let's take a look at the top five questions facing the Browns as they prepare their roster for the regular season.
5. Where Will The Linebackers Line Up?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly who will end up where at linebacker for the Browns this year, so the evolution of the first-team unit will be followed closely in camp. The only player who seems like a "lock" is free agent linebacker Scott Fujita. Fujita, who plays inside linebacker, will probably be looked at as the "captain" of the group.
D'Qwell Jackson used to be looked at as the "captain" of the group, but his lack of improvement over the years and the mini-holdout he staged this offseason puts his starting job into question. Last year, the Browns had a starting unit that included Kamerion Wimbley (OLB), Jackson (ILB), Eric Barton (ILB), and David Bowens (OLB). At the end of last season, when Barton was on the injured reserve, Bowens shifted to the inside and seemed to play the position better than any other member of the team.
Last year's late-season sensation Matt Roth seems like a candidate to take one of the outside linebacker jobs, but two of the other jobs are still up for grabs. Based on his performance from last year, it would seem like Bowens is a lock to start, but we don't know if that will be at inside or outside linebacker. Even free agent pickup Chris Gocong is a candidate to start at one of the positions. If someone wants to take bets as to how the starting lineup will look on opening day, this is the position where you'll see the most variety at in terms of predictions. It's not because the unit is bad; there are just so many options.
4. Position Battle: St. Clair vs. Pashos
The Browns signed Tony Pashos in the offseason, presumably to replace last year's starting right tackle, John St. Clair. That isn't a guarantee though, as the two veterans will receive the opportunity to battle it out in camp. While St. Clair did not have a very good season overall, he at least played much better during the second half of the season than he did during the first half of the season.
The right side of the offensive line is a weakness for the Browns, and while Pashos might be an upgrade, he doesn't change that fact. If the Browns hope to commit to being a power running game the entire season, eventually opponents are going to find a way to wear down the right side of the line and create difficulties in the team's backfield.
3. Can Robiskie Seize The No. 2 Role?
We already know that Mohamed Massaquoi will be one of the team's starting wide receivers, but can Brian Robiskie seize the other starting position? Massaquoi and Robiskie have the potential to be a decent starting tandem in the sense that they can compliment each other very well. Massaquoi is a deep threat who can make a big play down the field, while Robiskie is more technically sound -- he is a good route-runner and a sure-handed receiver.
Robiskie has already received a lot of praise from the media due to his efforts during the minicamp sessions, but that production still has to carry over to training camp if he hopes to improve upon his seven-catch, 106-yard season last year. Those statistics might lead you to believe that Robiskie rarely played. While his playing time was no where near the amount of playing time Massaquoi received, Robiskie was on the field a lot during the second half of the season. He never saw the ball go his way though, whether it be a lack of chemistry with the quarterbacks, or the inability to get open. Hopefully Robiskie can form that chemistry with Jake Delhomme right from the start of camp to help strengthen a position that is overall considered weak.
2. Will Rogers Move to Defensive End?
With the emergence of NT Ahtyba Rubin last year, an interesting rumor seemed to gain traction in the offseason: a shift to defensive end for Shaun Rogers.
There are two major reasons why a shift to defensive end seems to make sense for Rogers. First off, while he draws a lot of double teams, he is the type of player who prefers to penetrate into the opposing team's backfield. The nose tackle position should be occupied by someone who will stay there and accept the role of clogging the line. At defensive end, Rogers would have more flexibility in pursuing his wishes to get into the backfield.
Second, with the Browns not having a lot of depth on the defensive line, the team should be focused on getting the best two linemen on the field. Right now, the best two players might be Rubin and Rogers. Rubin can only play nose tackle, but Rogers can play both nose tackle and defensive end. If Rogers does not have any sort of "ego" problems in terms of shifting to defensive end in camp, the team's defensive line could be more impressive than it has ever been. That potential hinges on Rogers' willingness to embrace a new role though.
1. Position Battle: Hardesty vs. Harrison
Personally, I don't think Jerome Harrison will lose his starting job this season. With his late-season performance in 2009, how can you return him to a backup role to begin the season without an All-Pro running back on the roster to replace him?
Some of the members of the local media feel differently though, as they are convinced that second-round rookie running back Montario Hardesty will come in and claim the starting role. I should probably use the phrase "starting role" a little more loosely, since the general consensus is that whoever "wins" the starting role will still split significant playing time with their backup.
Hardesty was praised for his work in offseason training activities and in minicamp by head coach Eric Mangini. It's not uncommon to compliment a rookie, but quotes like this seemed to be coming quite often from the head coach's mouth:
"[Hardesty] has had a really outstanding camp," Mangini said. "For a young guy, he makes very few mistakes. His level of maturity is one of the highest that I've been around ... And that's going to give him the best chance to not only play, but to play a lot if he continues."
Harrison was originally one of the team's restricted free agents who was holding out of minicamp sessions. Coincidentally, as more praise started being awarded to Hardesty, Harrison was the first of the restricted free agents to end his holdout and participate in camp. Harrison knows he did a fantastic job at the end of last season, but he's also aware that nothing is going to be handed to him on a platter. The position should still be his to lose, but Hardesty is bound to put up one heck of a fight.