The last thing Mike Pettine wanted to discuss Monday was the offseason, and for good reason.
The Browns' AFC playoff hopes were essentially dashed in Sunday's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but there's important football to be played. Two games is an eternity in the NFL, and there's no telling what kind of impact a strong finish will have on the offseason and beyond.
"We have so few opportunities," Pettine said. "We have a lot of time when things finish up for us to look forward."
As the Browns eye Sunday's challenge with the Carolina Panthers and their season finale at Baltimore, we're focusing on five players who could make a big impact both from an individual and team standpoint.
TE Jordan Cameron
Back from a concussion that kept him off the field for five long weeks, Cameron has experienced some understandable ups and downs over the past two games. The fourth-year pro caught a team-high four passes for 41 yards against the Colts but took blame for one of Brian Hoyer's interceptions because he ran the wrong route. On Sunday, he caught one pass for 4 yards on his only target of the game. Johnny Manziel never really had a pass-catching threat at tight end during his two seasons at Texas A&M, but he'd be served well to get Cameron more involved in the passing game against the Panthers. It's a position that can provide quite the security blanket for a rookie quarterback, and Cameron's capable of picking up major yards after the catch just like a receiver.
RB Isaiah Crowell
It's unclear just how much pain the undrafted rookie has experienced over the past two games. A hip injury has limited what he's done on the practice field, and his yards-per-carry average has taken a dip in a stretch of games that have been tough for anyone to find much room to run. Still, there are a handful of milestones at Crowell's fingertips. At eight rushing touchdowns, he's tied for the league lead among rookies, is one score away from tying Jim Brown for second-most in franchise history as a rookie and three away from Trent Richardson's all-time mark. Crowell's best running has happened in some of the Browns' best offensive performances. If he can replicate how he looked against Atlanta over the final two games, Cleveland's ground game will be averaging much more than the 3.2 yards per carry it's posted over the past three games.
CB Pierre Desir
Just a few weeks ago, the fourth-round selection from Division II Lindenwood University hadn't even been active for a single game. On Sunday, in his first career action outside of special teams, he was one of the Browns' lone bright spots after holding his own for most of the second half at left cornerback against the likes of A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu. Pettine, unprompted at his Monday press conference, devoted close to a minute to praise Desir, whom many assumed would be "redshirted" during his first season with the Browns. Now, with a handful of injuries throughout the secondary, he's positioned himself to potentially receive significant snaps in the event Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden (shoulder) is limited or unable to play over the next two weeks.
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CB Justin Gilbert
The 2014 first-round selection was among the walking wounded after Sunday's loss to the Bengals, but the Browns received some good news Monday when it was discovered Gilbert did not have a concussion. The injury came at an unfortunate time for Gilbert, who had taken over for Haden after Haden injured his shoulder during the first quarter. He's one game removed from the highlight of his career to date, an interception that was not only his first in the NFL and not only against MVP candidate Andrew Luck, but also one he returned for a touchdown. Even if Haden returns for the Carolina game, opportunities remain for Gilbert, who just might be battling Desir for cornerback repetitions in practice this week. If K'Waun Williams can't play Sunday, the Browns will need one of the two to play cornerback when Buster Skrine slides into Williams' spot at nickel back.
LB Chris Kirksey
Yes, another rookie, but Kirksey certainly hasn't played like one throughout the second half of the season. Since Karlos Dansby went down with a knee injury against the Houston Texans, Kirksey has embraced the opportunity presented to him at Will linebacker, a position at which he initially split time with Craig Robertson. With Robertson filling in for Dansby at Mike, Kirksey has piled up tackles, as he picked up nine apiece against Houston and Buffalo while collecting eight against the Bengals. None was better than the one he made Sunday on Giovani Bernard early in the first quarter, as he read the screen, charged toward the speedy running back and dropped him for a 3-yard loss. Dansby's status remains day to day heading into the Browns' penultimate regular season game. No matter what, Kirksey's proved he has a role on this defense.