Jordan Cameron and Miles Austin
Here are the five areas to which I will be paying the closest attention in the Cleveland Browns’ preseason finale tonight against the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium:
>First indications of how the Browns will fill the Josh Gordon gap. We won’t see much of them tonight – and we shouldn’t – but it will be interesting to watch how tight end Jordan Cameron and the Browns’ new No. 1 receiver, Miles Austin, function. Cameron suddenly finds himself as the lone difference-maker in the Browns’ offense. With Gordon playing up to the level of one of the top receivers the game has ever seen, Cameron had ample opportunities to catch enough passes to join Gordon as a first-time Pro Bowler last season. Without Gordon, Cameron has to show he can every bit as effective. It won’t be easy. And this hasn’t exactly been a stellar preseason for Cameron so far. Meanwhile, Austin has to take ownership of the No. 1 receiver role because he has the best the Browns have at the position. His talent level isn’t close to Gordon’s, but this is a chance for him to demonstrate that he can at least pick up some of the slack.
>Brian Hoyer exiting the preseason on a positive note. This is a must. The primary reason coach Mike Pettine feels the need to start his No. 1 quarterback tonight and play him in the first quarter is because Hoyer has not looked good through most of the three previous preseason games. At the very least, Hoyer and the rest of the Browns’ starting offense have shown that they need the additional work that teams tend to eschew in the final preseason game when the top priority is to simply get through the game healthy. Hoyer might get a couple of series, and it would do wonders for his and the rest of the team’s confidence to put together a couple of sustained drives … and I wouldn’t hate it if one of them ended in a touchdown.
>Better production from the running game. There are reasonably clear signs that the Browns have improved in this area since last season (which, of course, isn’t saying much), but last Saturday night’s 2.1-yards-per-carry output against the St. Louis Rams was a bit disconcerting. Here’s the reality: No Gordon means no need for opposing defenses to respect the Browns’ ability to stretch the field and they will comfortably crowd the line of scrimmage to stuff the run. The Browns have to figure out how to create openings, and Ben Tate and Terrance West have to show they can still find them and make something happen. Again, they don’t have to do a whole lot of it tonight, but it would be nice to see some promising signs.
>Johnny Manziel giving Browns’ opponents – and the Browns – something to think about. Manziel showed some progress in his second-half appearance against the Rams. As a rookie whose college experience is vastly different from what he is doing in the NFL, he should continue to benefit from every preseason snap he gets. And the read-option/pistol scheme that the Browns incorporate for Manziel, because of his tremendous running skill, should continue to be used so that opponents can see what they might need to prepare for during the regular season. It also should help enhance the confidence of the Browns’ coaches to periodically go to a package of Johnny Football plays when the games count.
>The fierce competition for secondary depth. Props to Leon McFadden for making a strong comeback from a disappointing rookie offseason and training camp last year. There was all sorts of eye-rolling from coaches and player-personnel people from the sidelines, with murmurs that the Browns had wasted the third-round draft pick they had invested in McFadden. However, he has had a solid preseason and has made a solid case to be a backup. Others in the hunt are Aaron Berry (who has helped by his history with Pettine), rookie Pierre Desir, Robert Nelson, and Isaiah Trufant (who also has history with Pettine). Veteran Jim Leonhard, yet another player with history with Pettine, seems to have secured a reserve spot at safety with his considerable smarts and savvy. >>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com. We take your questions at 216-578-0850 and via Twitter @Browns_Daily.