Several signs have made Clevelanders aware of what time of year it is. The dog days of August are amongst us thanks to scorching temperatures, bone dry front lawns, and family vacations. A special guest, new Browns owner Jim Haslam, along with his family, shook hands of the Browns players and coaches, then endured the heat to watch the Browns practice on Friday morning. Several guys wanted to make a good first impression on him under the sweltering sun. But this was not the main reason for players to be atop their game through blood, sweat, and, well, there is no crying in football.
The competition is heating up. Training camp has been going on for more than a week now, and the process of shaking off the cob webs has passed; it's time to get down to business.
This is a process, however, that the Browns have gone through plenty of times since returning in 1999. Last year's battle for the tight end spots, for example, was one of impressive proportions. The team carried four tight ends last year and all of them contributed. This year's skirmish among that same group will be just as intense.
Ben Watson, according to Coach Shurmur, is the Browns starter. He led the group in catches as well as receiving yards and was third on the team in yards with 410. Evan Moore caught four touchdown passes, which tied wideout Josh Cribbs for the team lead. Last year's fourth-round pick, Jordan Cameron out of USC, is catching not just passes from quarterback Brandon Weeden but also attention in Berea despite only having eight games under his belt in 2011. The tight end group rounds out with crafty veteran Alex Smith, who is perhaps the most versatile of the unit -- able to line up on either side, as well as in the backfield.
Teams don't normally hold four tight ends on their roster, and having that many guys at that position for a second straight year would seem quite rare -- but it is not unheard of. Shurmur likes to use double tight end packages when they fit, and likes to use them for additional blockers on the outside. The group is making the decision for Shurmur and GM Tom Heckert a tough one. But that is a good thing.
"I want there to be tough decision," Coach Shurmur said Friday in Berea. "Until we establish a team when we move forward, this good competition is what you want to see. That is part of what excites me."
Shurmur must also be excited about the stable of running backs on his depth chart. Former Green Bay Packer Brandon Jackson has taken an increased work load in practice, and has not disappointed. Not favoring a particular side of the offensive line to get behind, Jackson has hit the holes with authority and busts into the secondary quite regularly. Second-year back Montario Hardesty is also making a case to get more reps during the season. He seems to be fully recovered from his knee issues that troubled him at the University of Tennessee and with the Browns.
Those two guys have been impressive, and not to mention the Browns top draft choice -- Trent Richardson. There has been a resounding increase in ‘ohs' and ‘ahs' from the peanut gallery along the practice field sidelines when Richardson touches the ball. This Browns' backfield may be as deep as it has been in the new era.
And then there is the quarterback drama, if we can even call it that anymore. Hopefully, the fiasco that existed for the past thirteen-some-odd years has just about been put to rest with the drafting of Oklahoma State gunslinger Brandon Weeden. But the forgotten former Texas Longhorn Colt McCoy is not going to go away easily.
"He's doing great," Coach Shurmur said of his third-year man. "He's continuing to improve. I'm seeing him do things in this camp that he didn't do a year ago, getting more comfortable within our system. He is doing a good job. He has got the command in the huddle, he knows what his receivers can do, where he can put the ball. He is doing just fine."
Though Weeden has not been named the starter for opening day against the Eagles in a month, the quarterback spectacle is right where it should be. A little competition is healthy for a team, especially when the situation clearly favors one guy over another. It makes both guys better, but does not distract the team in any way. The first string guys have a good feeling who will be throwing the ball to them during the preseason games, but they need to get used to it on the fly.
It is, of course, expected that one of the three backup quarterbacks -- McCoy, veteran Seneca Wallace, or young scrambler Thaddeus Lewis -- will be cut or traded before the start of the season. But hese guys give Weeden some extra motive to improve his game. He is excited to utilize the depth the Browns have been fortunate enough to have.
"We are going to be deep across the board. Adding Josh (Gordon), and Travis (Benjamin), those are some solid additions to what we already have in Cribbs and Mo (Massaquoi)," said Weeden. "Then you throw the tight ends in there, and we are four deep there too. We have a stable of guys all around here that can make plays and step up."
"As a quarterback, I'm giddy about it. I know I will always have somewhere to go with the ball because all of those guys can play. Yes, they are young, but they are improving every day, and I'm excited about how deep we are at those positions."
And not only are the Browns deep all the way around, they have contrasting styles to their starters. Travis Benjamin, the Browns fourth-round pick out of Miami, adds some speed to the receiving corps that will give him an advantage in the slot. Defenses have to respect speed, which can be converted into a vertical threat. Gordon has great size, and could be a target in the red zone. Jackson and Hardesty add some muscle behind center that will give the Browns the chance to run the ball as often as they want.
The competitions in camp are certainly heating up, matching the temperatures out on the practice field in Berea. While winners of some seem like a foregone conclusion, the camp battles will only help to improve everyone's performance as the season draws close.