1. Gary Barnidge explains why Cleveland, why now
Gary Barnidge didn't want to mess with his contract during the season, but he made it clear to the two most important parties involved with such a thing -- his agent and the Browns -- he didn't want to go anywhere.
On Thursday, Barnidge made his way up to the second floor at the Browns facility in Berea and put his signature on a contract that ensured he'd be back with the team that gave him a shot, seven years into his career, to thrive as a No. 1 tight end.
"I was very appreciative that the Browns gave me that opportunity to show what I could do this year," Barnidge said after Thursday's practice. "I am very thankful of that and that also went into my decision as well because they gave that opportunity. I wanted to repay them."
Barnidge -- who came to Cleveland in 2013 and played his first season under his former offensive coordinator in Carolina, Rob Chudzinski -- has more than earned his keep during the final year of his previous contract. He's third among NFL tight ends in receptions (60), receiving yards (817) and receiving touchdowns (seven). All three of those totals are more than he compiled during the previous seven seasons combined.
Reluctant to talk about his personal accolades throughout the Browns' trying, 2-10 season, Barnidge opened up just a bit Thursday before bringing the focus right back to the team and the goals he has to help turn around its fortunes in the years to come.
"You never know when you are going to get (an opportunity) and you have to take full advantage of it," Barnidge said. "You might not ever get one ever again, so if you don't take advantage of it when you get it, then you never know what is going to happen. You have to take full advantage of any opportunity that you get, and that is in life in general."
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo called Barnidge one of his favorite players he's ever coached and stressed that his age (30) is deceiving because "he doesn't have a lot of tread on the tires." Before 2015, Barnidge primarily served as the No. 2 option at tight end behind Greg Olsen in Carolina and Jordan Cameron during his first two seasons with the Browns.
Both Olsen and Cameron have made the Pro Bowl. Barnidge could be headed to his first at the end of this season.
Barnidge talked Thursday like a player who believes his NFL career is just getting started.
"Part of not having the opportunities yet is that I don't have the wear and tear on my body yet. I feel great actually," Barnidge said. "As the years have gone, everyone has shown that you can play longer and longer into the league."
2. The latest on injuries
Travis Benjamin was back on the practice field in limited fashion Thursday after sitting out Wednesday. Cleveland's leading receiver is dealing with a shoulder injury that is considered day to day.
"I will be good to go on Sunday," Benjamin said with confidence after practice.
Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who has been sidelined with a concussion since Nov. 15, was back on the practice field for the first time Thursday. The three other players sidelined with concussions -- DB Joe Haden, WR Andrew Hawkins and DB Justin Gilbert -- did not practice.
3. Evaluating Malcolm Johnson's season
Rookie fullback Malcolm Johnson's rookie season came to an official end Tuesday when the Browns placed him on injured reserve. It's unclear if Johnson, who injured his groin during last week's first quarter, will require surgery, Browns coach Mike Pettine said.
A sixth-round pick out of Mississippi State, Johnson served as the team's only true fullback. He started five games and saw the field for significant stretches in all 12 before the injury. He caught four passes for 15 yards and left a positive impression on Pettine.
"I think Malcolm, in the role that he played, was very good for us," Pettine said. "There was some question coming into it as a hybrid-type fullback as to whether or not he would be able to make some of the blocks that were required of him. He answered those questions. He got better with every game that he played.
"It's a shame he got hurt because we could see his role and that he was earning more with what he was doing … We look forward to having him back and know that we have a viable fullback moving forward."
4. 'Extra juice' for Whitner
Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil has known Donte Whitner long enough to know there's no such thing as "just another game" for the veteran safety, especially when it has the extenuating circumstances of Sunday's against the 49ers.
Sunday's game will be Whitner's first against his former team. He was a key cog on San Francisco's defense and played in a Super Bowl and NFC Championship during his three years on the West Coast.
"Whit kind of builds his fire every game. It wouldn't surprise me if this game meant a little bit more to him," O'Neil said. "Everybody always says it's just another game – but that's never the case. I'm sure Whit is going to come out of the tunnel this week with a little bit of extra juice."
O'Neil lauded the overall performance of Whitner, who is four games away from completing his 10th NFL season. With injuries dotting the Browns' secondary, he's taken on even more responsibilities than normal.
"When (Tashaun Gipson) was out, he's had to play some more deep zone stuff. He's been good in man coverage against tight ends," O'Neil said. "Donte's another guy, those two safeties are playing pretty good for us right now. Both of those guys are, they had two very good games this past week and the week before."
5. Wary of the block
After seeing the Browns have field goals blocked in consecutive games, special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said there's "no question" opponents will gear up to block their upcoming kicks.
San Francisco has blocked three on the season, Tabor said. The Browns hadn't had a kick blocked until the game-ending attempt Week 12 against the Ravens.
"High alert is probably the best way I can sum it up," Tabor said.