BEREA — Tight end Jordan Cameron’s breakthrough season could have a disappointing conclusion.
Cameron has a concussion, didn’t practice Wednesday and is unlikely to play Sunday vs. the New York Jets in New Jersey. The season finale is the following week in Pittsburgh.
Cameron missed the final two games of last season with a concussion.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said Cameron first reported symptoms Monday following a 38-31 loss to Chicago on Sunday in which he had three catches for 23 yards. He’s following the NFL’s concussion protocol, and Chudzinski didn’t know when during the game Cameron was injured.
Cameron, 25, was handed the starting job by the new regime despite a limited resume. He took the opportunity and ran with it.
He leads the team with 75 catches and is second to receiver Josh Gordon with 848 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He entered the year with 26 catches and a touchdown in 22 games over two seasons.
The former college basketball player drafted in the fourth round in 2011 is a strong candidate to make the Pro Bowl for the first time. He’s second among NFL tight ends in receptions and yards and sixth in touchdowns. The seven touchdowns trail Ozzie Newsome’s nine in 1979 for most in a season by a Browns tight end.
“I’m really pleased with how he’s jumped out and improved in such a short amount of time,” Chudzinski said. “He’s proven to be a consistent playmaker and really done a nice job catching the ball, learning the game, getting open, understanding the nuances of that position and the versatility you need at that position. He’s grown as a blocker as well.”
Cameron hasn’t been ruled out for the Jets game, but it would be a short turnaround, especially for a game with no bearing on the playoffs. If he’s done for the year, it would be an unfortunate ending after he was able to stay healthy for much of the year following nagging injuries in his first two seasons and preseason questions about his toughness.
He played 930 of 975 offensive snaps (95.4 percent) through 14 games, the highest among non-linemen. He played every snap in a recent three-game stretch and all but two over a five-game period.
He’s been the offense’s second-most potent weapon and a consistent threat to get open down the field. If he can’t play, that would be a significant blow for an offense that already struggles to score, ranking 27th with 20.6 points a game.
“It’s big,” said Gordon, who will receive even more attention from the defense. “He’s been a great playmaker for us and he’s been doing a great job this season. But we’re definitely going to bounce back from it. We’ve been dealing with things like that all year. So we’ve got guys definitely ready to step up to the challenge and step in his place.”
Those guys will be Gary Barnidge and MarQueis Gray.
Extended playing time for Gray (6-foot-4, 250 pounds) carries a lot of intrigue. He’s a rookie who spent his career at the University of Minnesota as a quarterback and receiver.
“We’re going to miss (Cameron) tremendously, his playmaking ability, but fortunately it’s my time now,” Gray said. “I have to step up and make sure I know what I’m doing. That means being in my playbook a lot more.”
Gray has two catches for 8 yards and five carries for 39 yards as a Wildcat quarterback, including back-to-back keepers for 18 and 12 yards against the Bears. He missed two games with a hamstring injury in November, and Chudzinski said last week was the first time he’s been 100 percent healthy since before the bye.
“He’s very gifted,” Barnidge said.
The transition to tight end hasn’t been easy for Gray. He was undrafted, signed by San Francisco to play tight end, then waived after the preseason. The Browns claimed him Sept. 1, and he’s spent time on special teams and at fullback.
That’s a lot of learning on the fly.
“It’s very difficult, but not as difficult as it was in college because you had class and everything,” he said. “Now this is your job. Any off time you have, you have to bring your playbook and make sure you hone in on things to help your team win.”
Gray said his best attributes are route running and catching because of his time as a wideout in college. Blocking remains a work in progress.
“That’s going to take time. I know that and the coaches know it as well,” he said. “Not too many quarterbacks go to the NFL straight as a tight end. It’s one of the things I’m going to have to work on in the offseason to make sure I get my upper body stronger.
“I felt like I came a pretty long ways from where I had been. I had never been in a three-point stance since peewees. I’d just been in the back playing quarterback my whole life.”
Gray accepted the position switch because he wanted to stick in the NFL. He likes his teammates, wants to stay and believes the next two weeks are critical to convince the Browns to keep him around. He hopes to follow the path set by Cameron, who also made a late move to tight end.
“To see the things he’s been able to do in this league is very inspiring,” Gray said.
Gray and fellow young tight ends Keavon Milton and Andre Smith rely on Barnidge for help. Barnidge, 28, is in his sixth season and the elder statesman among the five tight ends on the roster.
He’s seen a lot of time in two-tight end sets with Cameron and has been used primarily as a run blocker and pass protector. He has 11 catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
“The knock on me coming out of college was that, ‘Oh, he has to work on his blocking,’ so I really worked on it,” Barnidge said. “Now people see me more as a blocker instead of a receiver, when I can do both.”
Barnidge can also critique a movie. He’s a huge fan of the cinema and wants to be a professional critic after his playing days.
He holds movie ticket giveaways for fans — often through a trivia contest — and will wrap up the season tonight with an 8 o’clock showing of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” at Crocker Park. The first 75 to arrive will get in for free.
Barnidge’s favorite film of the year is “Ender’s Game.” His favorite of all time is “Forrest Gump.”
“It’s got everything you want in a movie,” he said. “It’s got action, it’s got suspense, drama, comedy. It’s the only movie that no matter when it’s on, I’ll sit down and watch it from the time it’s on until it ends.”
For the record, his No. 2 is “Tombstone.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.