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Fighting for the final roster spots

Posted Aug 27, 2014

Undrafted rookies Connor Shaw and Calvin Barnett both making cases to stay

It was late in the fourth quarter in week two of the preseason against the Redskins. Cleveland Browns quarterback Connor Shaw strapped on his helmet. He stretched his arm behind his head and fired warmup passes on the sideline. He was about to take an NFL field for the first time.

During the long ESPN commercial break before Shaw would enter the game, Rex Grossman slowly walked towards the undrafted rookie, grabbing onto his teammate’s helmet.

“Just play fast,” said Grossman to Shaw. “And things will happen.”

Shaw turned Grossman’s advice into tangible results. The South Carolina alum completed 8-of-9 passes, including a wild 45-yard Hail Mary for a touchdown as time expired, giving the Browns a chance to win the game on a two-point conversion. But on a rollout to his right, Shaw sailed the pass high for an incompletion. He boarded the plane back to Ohio kicking himself.

“I was a little sick to my stomach after that,” said Shaw of the errant throw.

The life of a quarterback competing for the third spot isn’t swanky. Over the course of three preseason games, that lone drive against Washington is the only real action Shaw has seen. If his practice repetitions reach seven plays in 11-on-11’s, it’s considered a win. The uneasiness of not knowing when he will play has become one of the few constants for Shaw.

“Of course you always want to play on game day, but it is what it is,” said Shaw. “I don’t let it affect the way I play. My mindset is whenever I get called, I’ll be ready. I trust the coaches decisions 100 percent.”

Shaw is obviously competing with Grossman for the final quarterback spot, but the two are getting along swimmingly. As a kid, Shaw was a Florida Gators fan and called Grossman, “One of my favorite college football players of all-time.”

Of course, Grossman was coached by Steve Spurrier in Gainesville. Years later, the "Ole Ball Coach" would land in South Carolina to coach Shaw. The two have swapped quite a few Spurrier stories in Grossman’s two weeks in Berea.

Browns head coach Mike Pettine hinted to reporters that the plan is to play both Grossman and Shaw in the second half against the Bears on Thursday.

“Whether I’m here, or not, practice squad or active, I’m just going to take it as is, continue to get better, and I trust the coach’s decision,” said Shaw. “I know Ray Farmer and coach Pettine will have a tough time trimming the roster. It’s a tough job. I feel like I’ve done my part and I’ve done everything I can to help this organization.”

He’s not as well-known as Shaw, but on the other side of the football defensive lineman Calvin Barnett is staking his claim for why the Browns need the 300-pounder on the 53-man roster.

On Monday, 14 of Barnett’s teammates were released during the first wave of cuts. It was one of those days where Barnett’s stomach seemed like it up was up near his throat.

“I had no idea that was coming,” said Barnett. “First off, I was surprised. Second off, I was so thankful. I’m still here.”

An undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State, Barnett stormed into OTAs and minicamp as a dark horse, excelling as a physical run stuffer. Training camp was a different story. Barnett struggled to stand out in his crowded position group, while other youngsters like Armonty Bryant took big leaps forward.

That is until the Rams game last week, when Barnett was arguably Cleveland’s best defensive player behind Chris Kirksey. Barnett racked up five tackles and practically lived in the backfield during the second half against St. Louis.

“I don’t let the preseason and all the stress that comes with making the roster effect how I play football,” said Barnett. “I’ve been treating every practice like it’s a real game. Every single day means so much.”

Barnett has one area he knows he needs to show the coaches against Chicago: improved pass rushing. Coming from the Big 12, Barnett said a lot of the teams played in the no-huddle offense. He got used to the rapid pace and it suited him. The biggest adjustment for Barnett is to slow down his thinking and focus on the play at hand, and particularly, sacking a quarterback.

Preseason game number four may not mean a ton for players like Joe Haden, Joe Thomas and Jordan Cameron. But for Shaw and Barnett, it very well could mean everything.

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