Reporters haven’t seen the Browns assembled on the field for a practice since before last season’s finale, a 41-9 loss to the Steelers. For the die-hard fans, they haven’t seen a practice since training camp closed last August.
Eric Mangini was the coach, new coach Pat Shurmur was an assistant in St. Louis and no one knew if a lockout would happen.
The Browns return to the field today for reporters to see. (Fans join the fun Sunday.) After missing the entire offseason, it probably won’t be pretty. But at least it’s football.
The roster is filled with intriguing storylines, and here are the top five players to watch as camp unfolds over the next month.
1. Colt McCoy, quarterback
McCoy spent the downtime of the offseason trying to establish himself as a team leader. He organized team workouts and hosted them in Austin, Texas, doing his best to look and act like the team’s starting quarterback.
McCoy opened plenty of eyes as a rookie in 2010, beating New Orleans and New England and looking comfortable in charge. But he finished on a sour note in closing blowouts to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, throwing six interceptions and finishing the year 2-6 as a starter. That didn’t stop the Browns hierarchy from naming him the starter for 2011.
The West Coast Offense should fit McCoy’s strengths – accuracy, quick decisions, good mobility – and give him the chance to make a long-term career in the NFL. That journey begins in training camp, as he finally gets to work with Shurmur.
2. Montario Hardesty, running back
Hardesty is expected to be back after missing his rookie season following knee surgery. The question is: Can he stay healthy and take some of the load off Peyton Hillis?
Hardesty was extremely productive at the University of Tennessee – when he was healthy. The Browns traded up to draft him in the second round and need him on the field for the move to be worth it.
Hardesty is faster than Hillis and should offer a nice complement to Hillis’ straight-ahead, run-them-over style. If Hardesty can’t stay healthy, Hillis will be worn down by December once again. Hardesty missed all of training camp last season with a different knee injury, so it’d be nice to see him taking reps in Berea in August.
3. D’Qwell Jackson, linebacker
General manager Tom Heckert thinks Jackson will thrive in the new 4-3 scheme of coordinator Dick Jauron, which is why he re-signed him before the lockout began.
Jackson was a tackle machine in the 3-4, but got beat up trying to fight through multiple offensive linemen. He is best in space and running to the ball, and the new alignment should allow him to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.
The biggest hurdle for Jackson will be staying on the field. He tore his left pectoral muscle in 2009, missing the final 10 games. He tore his right one during camp last year and never played a down.
If he can start all season, that would be a huge boost to the defense.
4. Joshua Cribbs, kick returner/receiver
Cribbs has been one of the few bright spots on the Browns since signing as an undrafted rookie in 2005. He’s been to two Pro Bowls as a special teamer/kick returner and has become a fan favorite for his all-out effort and appreciation of the city.
But Cribbs is coming off a season that didn’t meet his standards, as he slipped to a career-low 20.4 yards per kickoff return with no touchdowns. A severe foot injury contributed to the lack of production but he continued to gut it out.
Cribbs should be healthy again, so the issue then becomes where he will fit in Shurmur’s systems. Shurmur doesn’t seem like a proponent of the Wildcat – where Cribbs provided some big plays at quarterback – and the bodies are piling up at receiver. So perhaps Cribbs will spend most of his time on special teams – returning and covering kicks – with a little offense sprinkled in.
5. Sheldon Brown, cornerback
Brown has played in 144 straight games, but needed to play through a torn rotator cuff to finish last season. He had shoulder surgery in the offseason and expects to be ready for the regular season.
Cleveland’s secondary situation is unsettled, so Brown, 32, may have to move around. If the team is short on corners, he could stay there. If it remains desperate for a safety, he said he’d be willing to make that switch.
His intelligence and leadership were crucial last year and he’ll be needed on the field again to help bring along a young group of defensive backs.
• Others to watch: Hillis, defensive tackle Phil Taylor, safety Usama Young, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, receiver Greg Little, right tackle Tony Pashos, receiver Brian Robiskie.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.