July 23, 2016

Partly sunny

QB or not QB: New regime, but quarterback battle remains top issue

Players, and fans, won’t need long to recognize the difference of an Eric Mangini-run training camp.

Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn

Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn?

There’s a good chance that when camp opens Saturday morning at 8:45 the first significant drill will be a full-contact tackling test. Two players will line up 20 yards apart, run at each other full speed and see what happens. (It’s hard to imagine Braylon Edwards embracing the idea.)

With Romeo Crennel and his player-friendly camps a thing of the past, everyone should expect longer, tougher practices. They are sure to be more organized, and hopefully more productive.

Louder, too. Mangini likes to crank the tunes so his players learn to deal with distractions.

The adjustment of the players to Mangini will be an early focus of camp, then the attention will shift to any improvement the Browns will make in his first season.

With that goal in mind, here are five stories to watch during the next month.

No. 1: Duel in the Sun

Another season, another quarterback competition in Berea.

For the umpteenth time in the last decade, the Browns enter August without knowing the identity of their starting quarterback. (The same can’t be said in Indianapolis, New England, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.)
This time, it’s Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson.

Anderson has a better arm, more experience and plenty of baggage. Quinn is the fan favorite, a No. 1 draft choice and has the reputation of making better decisions and being a better leader. But his NFL resume consists of 97 passes.

Quinn is expected to win the job, but it’s not a done deal. Throughout the offseason workouts, he led the team in laps run, which means he had the most penalties. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the guy who prides himself on being smarter than everyone else.

Another wrinkle in the quarterback derby is the addition of Brett Ratliff from the Jets in a draft-day trade. He’s a favorite of Mangini and could earn the backup job. If that happens, Anderson could be traded during the preseason.

No matter how it plays out, the quarterbacks will once again dominate the headlines.

No. 2: Run to glory

In theory, the Browns have at least two capable candidates at quarterback. Running back may be a different deal.

Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison, James Davis and Noah Herron are the tailbacks with the best chance of contributing this season. They all have significant issues.

Lewis turns 30 on Aug. 26 and is coming off his first season without a 100-yard rushing game. He blames an ankle injury for slowing him, and the line was largely ineffective, but running backs rarely bounce back after the big 3-0.

Harrison — adored by many fans – showed flashes of brilliance last year, but was unable to sustain them. People remember that he scored the team’s final offensive touchdown on an electrifying 72-yard run in Week 11, but they forget he quickly left the game with an injury.

He will always be undersized at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, and will be unable to shoulder the primary role if Lewis proves to be out of gas.

Davis had a burst in minicamps, but is a sixth-round rookie. Herron is a journeyman better suited for situational use.
The coaches may be forced to shuffle between three backs to maximize production.

No. 3: Attack the quarterback

The defense has its own questions, and the biggest is: How will it generate a pass rush?

New coordinator Rob Ryan vows to be aggressive and diverse, and employ the attacking “46” scheme made famous by his father, Buddy. But Buddy had a handful of talented pass rushers with whom to work and threaten quarterbacks.
Rob’s options are much more limited, and limiting.

Kamerion Wimbley, the first-round pick who had 11 sacks as a rookie, is the top candidate to harass the quarterback, but he had just nine sacks the last two years. Ryan vowed to move him around and help him develop a bull rush, but Wimbley is light years from developing into the next Lawrence Taylor.

Alex Hall, who faded after a fast start as a rookie last year, has potential and could earn a starting spot. Veteran David Bowens has made a career as a situational pass rusher and should help.

But Ryan’s best hope for a pass rush could come from confusing the offense with blitzes. Of course, that just shifts the burden to a young secondary.

No. 4: In new territory

First-year coordinator Brian Daboll inherits an offense with no entrenched quarterback, a stalled running game and only one proven receiver. It also went the last six games of 2008 without a touchdown.

Daboll, who has never called plays, must install his system, help pick a starting quarterback and refine his play-calling, all while adjusting to the responsibilities of coordinator.

He vows to be flexible with his game plans, changing week to week depending on the opponents’ weaknesses. The philosophy’s solid, but it might serve a rookie coordinator better to have a style he trusts and can turn to every week.

No. 5: Money matters

Mangini and general manager George Kokinis inherited a number of players with contract issues. At the top of the list are special teamer Joshua Cribbs, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson and kicker Phil Dawson.

Cribbs has four years left on his deal, but believes he’s outperformed it. Jackson is making the league minimum in the final year of his rookie deal, despite leading the NFL in tackles in 2008. Dawson is signed through 2010 but is the longest-tenured member of the team and wants a raise after a series of stellar seasons.

The new regime has been in no hurry to extend or renegotiate, so a multitude of scenarios could play out in August. Will anyone hold out, leave camp or secure his future in Cleveland by signing an extension?

That remains to be seen, but Cribbs is most likely to leave camp, Jackson to get a new deal and Dawson to kick with a stiff upper lip.

Other stories to watch

  • Defensive ends try to bounce back: Corey Williams struggled last year with a shoulder injury and in his transition to the 3-4 scheme. Robaire Smith tore his Achilles’ tendon and missed nearly the whole season. They will be in the mix for starting spots.
  • The right side of the line: Alex Mack, Eric Steinbach and Joe Thomas seem set at center, left guard and left tackle. The right side is much less settled, as Floyd Womack, Ryan Tucker, Rex Hadnot, John St. Clair and George Foster battle for two spots. At least, depth shouldn’t be a problem.
  • On the receiving end: After Edwards, the Browns will be relying on a pair of rookies and a pair of journeymen at receiver. Second-round picks Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi will battle for a starting spot, while journeymen David Patten and Mike Furrey bring experience but have seen better days.
  • Changes at tight end: Kellen Winslow was traded in the offseason, severely reducing the talent level of the position. But the Browns believed it was addition by subtraction, as Winslow’s personality and off-the-field antics had become too much to ignore. Veteran Steve Heiden is the first choice to take over, but is coming off serious knee surgery. Robert Royal and Martin Rucker provide depth and versatility.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.