Here are my top five Cleveland Browns players as the team prepares for its first practice of training camp Saturday:
>Josh Gordon. His uncertain future aside, the wide receiver is still a member of the Browns. And on that basis, he is on this list. And he is at the top of this list because not only is he the Browns’ most talented player, he is arguably the best receiver in the NFL. If he is available to play for any portion of the season, the Browns are going to be a better team during that stretch. They will obviously miss him while he is not playing, but the degree to which they are able to weather his absence is unknown, considering that they will have a run-oriented offense and can turn to tight end Jordan Cameron and assorted veteran receivers to help fill the void.
>Joe Haden. The Browns’ blitz-oriented, pass-rush-driven defense won’t work unless the cornerbacks consistently hold their own in man-to-man coverage. In Haden, the Browns have one of the league’s very best cover corners and he will, in fact, be a lynchpin to their entire defensive philosophy. That was reflected in the huge contract extension he received during the offseason. Whether there will be a cornerback opposite Haden who can be effective enough to allow the Browns to succeed with their high-risk/high-reward approach remains to be seen. Therefore, expect opponents to continue to do what they’ve routinely done against the Browns since Haden’s arrival: throw in the other direction.
>Alex Mack. Given the Browns’ new, outside-zone, run-blocking scheme, there will likely be greater influence on the performance of their interior linemen. And that starts with Mack, who has established himself one of the very best centers in the NFL. He will impact everything the Browns’ line does with his quickness and athleticism, along with his tremendous ability to communicate blocking assignments and adjustments to the rest of the line.
>Joe Thomas. Some might question the seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle ending up fifth on this list, but it is hardly a sign of disrespect. Thomas remains one of the very best in the game at his position, but he achieved his status primarily as a pass-blocker. The Browns’ new offense will put greater emphasis on the run, and although Thomas should have the necessary physical skills to excel in the outside-zone scheme, less is likely to be asked of him than, for instance, a year ago when the team leaned heavily on its linemen to hold their blocks as long as possible to deal with the deeper quarterback drops that go with longer-developing pass patterns.>>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.