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Nine Cleveland Browns defensive players to watch during training camp

Posted Jul 23, 2014

Competition battles aren’t the only thing that will matter

Circle these names to watch and analyze when you head out to Cleveland Browns Training Camp presented by Ford.

Joe Haden – Defensive back

Age: 25

Size: 5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Last Season: 15 games, 54 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 touchdown, Pro Bowl

Strengths: A rare franchise cornerback, gravitational leadership, big part of the attitude change.

Question mark: Can Haden play at an elite level on every single snap?

Quotable:  “There’s no other place I’d rather play than Cleveland.”

Donte Whitner – Defensive back

Age: 28

Size: 5-foot-10, 208 pounds

Last Season: 16 games, 73 tackles, 2 interceptions, Pro Bowl

Strengths: Unrivaled toughness, hit stick, baits quarterbacks into throws, coach on the field, experienced winner.

Question mark: How will others respond to Whitner being the strong voice of the locker room?

Quotable: “The middle of the football field is a scary place. It’s not a place where guys should want to go. And it’s not a place where guys are going to go on this defense.”

Karlos Dansby – Linebacker

Age: 32

Size: 6’3, 251lbs

Last Season: 16 games, 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 4 interceptions for 48 yards, 2 touchdowns

Strengths: Anticipating play calls, everywhere in coverage, can effectively play through minor injuries.

Question mark: Some observers around the league whispered Dansby’s name as an NFL Defensive MVP candidate in 2013. Can he replicate that performance?

Quotable: “I can see what everyone else can’t see. This team is prime. We are ready. What is our weakness here?”

Why training camp is important for Haden, Whitner and Dansby:

If you’re at training camp this weekend, don’t glue your eyes to Haden, Whitner and Dansby. Instead, look at how their teammates watch their every move.

If Haden is jamming a receiver at the line successfully, his fellow cornerbacks will put forth more effort to mimic their leader. If Whitner is communicating pre-snap by screaming out organized chaos, watch his backup Jordan Poyer do the same. If Dansby gets in the hot tub before and after practice, expect some younger players to give it a try.

We’re nicknaming this group “The tone-setters.” Of course, training camp will get monotonous for these Browns studs. They’ve been there and done that. But their attitude towards the practices, the weight room sessions and the learning in the class room will dictate how real this culture change is in Berea.

Young players should be warned: Donte Whitner will call you out if he sees you aren’t acting professionally. Karlos Dansby isn’t just playing for the postseason. He suited up for an Arizona Cardinals team most people laughed at when they had Super Bowl expectations.  

“I can’t get the loss out of my mind,” said Dansby of the Super Bowl loss to the Steelers in 2009. “All the hard work I do now, it’s to get back there.”

Don’t get us wrong, the Browns will have fun during training camp. Coach Mike Pettine will show shades of Rex Ryan’s Hard Knocks days by keep meetings light with some humor. But Haden, Whitner and Dansby will make camp feel more business-like. And the Browns need that feel.

Craig Robertson –Linebacker

Age: 26

Size: 6-foot-1, 234 pounds

Last season: 89 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 1 INT

Strengths: Stuffing the run, solid 1-on-1 tackler, contagious energy

Question mark: Pass coverage

Quotable: “[Buffalo] made plays last year. The defense works. And we’re just being confident. We’re trying to instill that in all the guys here.”

Chris Kirksey – Linebacker

Age: 21

Size: 6-foot-2, 235 pounds

Last season: 104 tackles,

Strengths: Lengthy, agile, can cover tight ends sideline to sideline, also cross-training at outside linebacker

Question mark: Getting stuck on blocks and adjustment to the NFL game.

Quotable: “My mindset is wherever the team needs me to play, wherever the coaches need me to play, I’ll be out there just working. I’m trying to improve my game and have fun and play to the best of my ability.”

Why training camp is important for Robinson and Kirksey:

Craig Robertson will not be handed his spot at inside linebacker. Pettine confirmed this with ClevelandBrowns.com earlier this week.

Robinson, no doubt, is a solid NFL starter. But Kirksey’s skill set is virtually the opposite. It makes the Cleveland coaches want to give the Iowa rookie a real chance to earn a spot.

In fact, it almost seems as if the Browns are toying with platooning these guys at middle linebacker – possibly even using both together.

“When you have battles like this I think it allows you to really cross-train guys and get that extra depth,” said Pettine, suggesting why the Browns have been running Kirksey some with the outside linebackers.

“Then you end up with both of these guys are worthy of playing, let’s build a personnel grouping with them both out there. It also helps with the special teams when we have guys competing, especially on defense. If we’re sharing a job on defense and I’m a part time starter, then Chris Tabor will be thrilled to hear that player can be a core special teamer.”

It’s easy to see a situation where Robertson receives a large portion of the first and second down snaps, while Kirksey subs in on passing situations.

Barkevious Mingo –Linebacker

Age: 23

Size: 6-foot-4, 240 pounds

Last season: 15 games, 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 13 QB harassments,

Strengths: Athletic specimen,

Question mark: Consistency

Quotable: “There’s definitely a change in the building, and I like it. I’m excited to see where we are going. And I’m just psyched to play football.”

Jabaal Sheard –Linebacker

Age: 25

Size: 6’3, 264lbs

Last Season: 13 games, 27 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, 16 QB harassments

Strengths: Pettine thinks he will be a stud, beast-mode motor,

Question mark: Declining sack numbers

Quotable: “All of us can eat. All of us know how to get after the quarterback. We got so many playmakers. No matter what, guys do get tired. There’s a lot of reps out there [to be had].” 

Paul Kruger –Linebacker

Age: 28

Size: 6’4, 270lbs

Last Season: 16 games, 47 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 24 QB harassments

Strengths: Bull rushing, tackles for losses, experienced winner

Question mark: Can he boost his sack numbers?

Quotable: “Nothing great comes without adversity.”

Why training camp matters for Mingo, Sheard and Kruger:

Maybe more than any other unit, 2013 left a sour taste in the mouths of the Browns outside linebacker unit.

Mingo will be the first to admit the mental nuances of starting as a rookie were overwhelming at times. A transition to stand-up outside linebacker and a knee injury slowed down Jabaal Sheard. Kruger was expected to push the Browns defense over the top.  If you glance closer at his stats (especially 24 QB harassments), Kruger’s season was decent. But decent isn’t acceptable in Cleveland anymore.

The scary part for opponents is that the talent is overflowing at outside linebacker. If they’re feeling it, Kruger and Sheard can carry the defense in certain games if the secondary is slacking. And nobody in the building is more excited for what Mingo could morph into than Jim O’Neil.

“He has elite pass rushing skills,” said the defensive coordinator of Mingo.

Coaching will play into how much success this group has. Still, anticipating improvement from this unit is becoming the norm in Berea.

Tashaun Gipson – Defensive back

Age: 23

Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds

Last Season: 16 games, 95 tackles, 5 interceptions for 143 yards, 1 touchdown

Strengths: Eyes like a hawk, comfortable playing centerfield, excellent return skills after a turnover.

Question mark: Increased responsibility in covering more ground.

Quotable: “I went from being an afterthought, truly nobody, to teams knowing about you and scheming about your game.”

Why training camp important for Gipson

Donte Whitner has a unique playing style. He will take chances for interceptions and big hits. Gipson is the Browns last line of defense at deep free safety. Training camp will be Gipson’s breeding ground for getting a better read on his partner at safety. Because of Gipson’s strong 2013 campaign, it will be noticeable if his play drops off. He knows this. So does Whitner, who said it’s his goal to get Gipson to the Pro Bowl.

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