Players wrapped up mini-camp on Thursday and headed back to their respective homes and favorite vacation spots for the next five weeks.
Coach Mike Pettine is enthusiastic where his team stands after completing the offseason program. There are no serious injuries to report, an already intimidating defense is adding new components and the offense, led by Josh McCown, took a huge surge forward in this three-day period.
1) *The Browns will use more four-man fronts *
From a traditional standpoint, Cleveland employs a 3-4 scheme. But that will be less of the case in the 2015 season. On Thursday, defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil hinted the Browns will use more exotic fronts, including several packages with four players in a down position on the line of scrimmage.
"I do think we'll be able roll more guys up front, and that's a good luxury because if you can keep those guys up front fresh, that will really help us in the later part of the game," O'Neil said.
Pettine took it a step further, talking specific changes. The coaching staff views 26-year-old Scott Solomon as more of a defensive end who can set the edge on early downs and force running backs to the inside. Armonty Bryant is versatile enough to stick his hand in the dirt and become a one-on-one matchup pass rusher with a left tackle. And Pettine even said the Browns will consider teaming 330-pounders Danny Shelton and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen in the middle together as defensive tackles.
These defensive revelations from mini-camp could be a significant storyline all season
2) *At 33, Karlos Dansby is still improving *
The argument can be made no player was more important to the Browns on defense last season than the 33-year-old Dansby. Even though he missed four games, Dansby's 93 tackles still ranked third on the team. A Bleacher Report article made the case Dansby's career has been as equally good as longtime 49er Patrick Willis. Dansby's play is not dropping off anytime soon.
Where Dansby becomes most valuable to Cleveland is before the snap. O'Neil and Pettine say no player on defense is as smart as Dansby in terms of gathering clues from the offensive linemen and quarterback that tip off play call tendencies. The Browns let Dansby do some freelancing, which O'Neil said worked a whopping 80 percent of the time. But now it's about knowing when to take the right chances and where help is coming from.
"Just alignment-wise and knowing where the down safety is or knowing where the free hitter or the free player is coming from can really help (Dansby) on how to attack the line of scrimmage," O'Neil said. "He had a phenomenal year for us, and that wasn't the reason we struggled in the run game – because of Karlos Dansby's alignments – but it was just one of the things that we needed to get better at."
3) *The offense is 90 percent installed *
Mini-camp was a big step forward for the offense. After some admitted bumpy periods during OTAs, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and even chatty media members noticed some noticeable strides. During a competitive red zone drill, the offense scored touchdowns on three of four plays.
"I think we have ridden the wave going upward the last three practices," DeFilippo said. "I would say in the middle of OTAs we hit a little bit of a funk for a combination of a couple things. First off, it's a credit to our defense. They are really well-coached, they have good players and they have a really good scheme. We are always one step behind because they have so many wrinkles in their defense that they come out and then you have to get it fixed.
"The last two or three practices, I think you've seen it come together. It's not where we want it to be yet, but I've liked the progress we've seen in the last three practices."
4) *DeFilippo prefers the hot hand at running back*
Fantasy football fanatics and anxious Browns fans are wondering: Will it be Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson or Terrance West carrying the torch Sept. 13 against the New York Jets? The Browns view all three as legitimate threats with the rock in their hand, but there is no clear favorite in guessing who will lead Cleveland in carries in December.
"I like to go with the guy that has the hot hand. If a guy's got the hot hand, ride it out," DeFilippo said. "You're going to have some gameplan-specific plays for certain guys like a Duke Johnson where you want to get him out on a pass route or running a certain outside zone or whatever. I'm a big believer in the best five offensive linemen up front. I'm a big believer in a guy's got a hot hand you keep riding him. That's kind of just a philosophy that I have."
5) *Travis Coons and Carey Spear are deadlocked in the kicking competition *
A number crunch forced the Browns to release a kicker earlier this offseason, and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Garrett Hartley was picked because "you kind of know what he is and who he is." General manager Ray Farmer opted to roll with Coons and Spear – both of whom have never kicked in an NFL game. The Browns view it as a possible strength. There isn't really a ceiling for either guy.
Tabor has been charting every kick from OTAs and mini-camp from his young place kickers and has a strong grasp of the competition now heading into training camp.
"It's been a very close competition," Tabor said. "They're controlling what they can control, and the tape will tell us what to do."