Season Smart Up – The Rookies
Today’s edition of the CST Season Smart Up series will feature the most interesting, yet questionable, part of this Cleveland Browns team. The rookies, along with the quarterback position, always seem to get most of the attention while heading into another football season on the shores of Lake Erie. Even while some of these guy s won’t have a chance to contribute significantly on the team for a while, they will always capture the attention of fans throughout the preseason.
This year’s class of rookies is led, in draft pick order at least, by the number 8 overall pick, Justin Gilbert. Gilbert was widely considered the best cornerback in the 2014 draft class, and with a defensive-minded coach leading the Browns, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy found home in Cleveland after the team traded down to snag him.
Gilbert has had a decent preseason thus far. He unfortunately had to sit out the preseason debut in Detroit due to a minor groin injury, but he felt healthy enough to give it a go on Monday night in the nation’s capital. Gilbert looked like a typical rookie cornerback in his preseason debut at times, but there were some obvious flashes of why he was a top 10 draft pick. His first play on the field was probably his best last night, where he capped off some tight coverage with a solid open-field tackle in front of the first down markers.
Gilbert is fighting with Buster Skrine to start Week 1’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and with Skrine undergoing surgery within the past few days, Gilbert’s chances of starting just increased sizably.
Well, where do I start?
Johnny Manziel has only been on the Cleveland Browns roster for a little over 3 months, but he has made more headlines than any other Browns player in the past 5 years. From the partying in Las Vegas, to the money-phone incident, even to Monday night’s “hand gesture” fiasco, Manziel has already made his mark in the Browns organization.
As for his performance on the field, it has been a tale of two games. Manziel, as well as his fellow QB, Brian Hoyer, looked far better in Detroit than he did against the Redskins. In his preseason debut, Johnny Football went 7/11 with 63 yards passing while running for a team-high 27 yards as well. The biggest thing to take away from this game was the level of control he showed against an NFL defense. The opposite was true against the Redskins, when he went 7/16 with 65 yards and a touchdown.
In case you have been living under a rock, Manziel is in the midst of a tight quarterback battle with Brian Hoyer, with the winner getting the starting job in Week 1’s game against the Steelers. As far as I am concerned, Manziel has no business starting a regular season game at this point in his learning process. Hoyer has led the Browns to victories already in his career, and his veteran experience gives him a noticeable edge over Manziel at this point in the process. Still, Johnny is the Browns’ QB of the future, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaching staff is quick to swap quarterbacks if the Hoyer experiment fails.
For being the player that the Browns took at the beginning of the second round instead of a wide receiver like Marquise Lee or Allen Robinson, Bitonio should be a pleasant replacement. If Bitonio figures out how to play at a solid level in the NFL, he could be a part of one of the best offensive lines in the league, anchored by Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. His college highlight tape is about as exciting as an offensive lineman’s can get, and if he can convert his size and mean attitude to the Browns, he could really be one of the staples of the Cleveland offense moving forward.
Bitonio will likely see most of his playing time this season as the starting right guard position opposite of left guard John Greco. There is also a slight chance that we see Bitonio at right tackle if Mitchell Schwartz is unable to play for any reason.
Coming out of the 2014 draft as a third-round pick out of the University of Iowa, Kirksey realizes that this coming season will mainly act as a time for getting a feel for the league. With Craig Robertson and Karlos Dansby entering the season as the clear starting middle linebackers in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 defense, Kirksey will likely be the first guy off the bench and should see some decent playing time if Robertson does not improve off of a shaky 2013 season.
Kirksey was a star at the outside linebacker position in Iowa’s 4-3 defense, so he will likely have some adjusting to do if he wants to fit in to the 3-4 scheme that Mike Pettine runs. He has good linebacker size at 6’2″, 233 lbs., and could fit into the future of the Browns defense quite nicely.
If you haven’t been impressed by anything today, check out what Terrance West did in college at Towson University. West rushed for over 1,000 yard in all three of his seasons at Towson, including a jaw-dropping 2,509 yards rushing in his final season. Combine all that distance with 84 career rushing touchdowns, and you have yourself one of the best college football careers around, no matter the division.
West went fairly late in the draft for a guy that compiled that much success in his college football career, coming off the board in the late 3rd round to the Cleveland Browns. Since that point, West has shown no signs of backing down from the challenge of being an NFL running back. While challenging Ben Tate for the starting running back job may be a bit out of his reach at this point, he could end up being an extremely effective backup throughout his rookie season. In his first two exhibition games as a Brown, West has compiled 53 yards rushing on 18 attempts, which averages out to roughly 2.9 yards per carry.
Rookie running backs rarely see much success in their first season, so it is expected that West acts as a backup for Tate, who will be the feature back in his first season with the Browns.
Coming into training camp as an undrafted rookie, Shaw’s goal for this preseason should be to simply make the team as a backup. Judging from Monday night’s performance in Washington D.C., he looks like he is determined to accomplish that goal. Shaw easily had the best night out of any Browns quarterback against the Redskins, going 8/9 for 123 yards and a Hail Mary touchdown as time expired. Coincidentally, Shaw demonstrated the best quarterback display of the night when the offense was actually throwing the ball downfield (take notes, coaching staff).
Coming off of a successful career at South Carolina, I genuinely thought that Connor Shaw would be one of the sleeper picks in this 2014 draft. Unfortunately for him, he never had his name called on the weekend of the NFL draft, but he is still the same QB that had a touchdown to interception ratio of 24:1 during his senior season, while demonstrating tremendous leadership of a strong SEC football team. I hope Shaw gets a chance on an NFL team of some kind, because he really does have the skill set to be a solid quarterback.
Johnson is coming to the Browns from Green Bay, where he was drafted in the 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft. One of the things that Johnson brings to the table is a decent frame to be an NFL wide receiver, standing at 6’2″ and 215 lbs. Johnson spent the 2013 season on the Packers’ practice squad and never saw the playing field in his first professional season, which is likely one of the reasons Johnson came to Cleveland in search of playing time.
With the huge question marks surrounding the wide receiver position as we head into the season, the Browns could end up relying on Johnson, depending on what Josh Gordon’s suspension turns out to be. While he may not of the high amount of talent of someone like Gordon, you know that Johnson will be giving his 100% effort at all times, because he fully realizes what situation he is in when it comes to playing time. All he needs is a chance.
By Jay Cannon