Browns coach Mike Pettine
Here are assorted observations as the Cleveland Browns wrap up offseason workouts with this week's mandatory minicamp:
Generally speaking, the Browns are in a much better place than they were at the end of last season. They have better talent and depth across the board. They have reduced some of the major question marks that lingered after their 4-12 finish in 2013. And there is reason to believe that the systems put in place by their new coaching staff should take full advantage of the skills of their newcomers and allow for improvement from their incumbents. Yes, Josh Gordon's uncertain status will make for an uneasy rest of the offseason. No, there isn't a clear-cut sense that the quarterback position is going to be significantly better than it was last year. But it's not all that difficult to envision the Browns, with the help of a solid (and possibly dominant) defense and a solid (and possibly strong) running game, will improve to the level of a .500 team. That would be a major step in the right direction.
Mike Pettine has set a tone of strong leadership that has connected with the team in a big way. He runs tight, purposeful practices. He has set a firm agenda for how things are going to be done, and doesn't seem to care what others on the outside think. Local and national media are up in arms over the fact none of the quarterbacks – but especially Johnny Manziel – is being made available for interviews this week. They have voiced their complaints to Pettine, and in a nice way he has effectively said, "We think this is what's best for the team." And that's all that matters. Expect the tight control of Manziel's and Brian Hoyer's media interviews to continue in training camp. If Pettine felt comfortable enough to say no to the NFL's request to have the Browns serve as the subject for this year's "Hard Knocks" series on HBO, he's going to have no problem turning down anything else he sees as being counterintuitive to his efforts to build a winner.
Brian Hoyer is the clear front-runner for the starting quarterback job. He consistently makes good decisions, shows excellent accuracy, and is throwing with far greater authority, thanks in large part to his noticeably improved upper-body strength. Manziel looks like a rookie with plenty to learn about the Browns' offense and the complexities of NFL defenses. Every now and then his remarkable athleticism and play-making instincts flash, but not enough to make a compelling case that he is ready to start. Could he close the gap during training camp? Possibly, but it should also be pointed out that his improvisational style of play doesn't translate all that well to the practice field. Johnny Football is at his best when he is Johnny Ballgame.
Once thought to be the weak link of the Browns' offensive line, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz has managed to make a favorable impression on Pettine and the rest of the Browns' coaching staff. The team's previous decision-makers didn't believe he merited the second-round pick that was used to select him in 2012. The new regime has taken a much more open-minded approach and has allowed Schwartz to prove that he is worthy of remaining a starter. Schwartz is capitalizing on the opportunity by showing he has the athleticism and mobility to function well in the Browns' zone-blocking, outside running game that calls for the linemen to move laterally to create seams in the defensive front that running backs can exploit. He has steadily performed at a high level and seemingly eliminated the thought that the Browns need to do better at tackle and/or move him to guard.
Not so fast on giving up on Craig Robertson as a starter at inside linebacker after the Browns used a third-round draft pick on Chris Kirksey. Feeling the clear push, Robertson has come on strong during offseason workouts, making major strides in coverage. He has performed well enough to cause the Browns to take a look at Kirksey at outside linebacker to see what short of depth he can provide. Kirksey is still very much in strong contention to start inside, but if he doesn't, he will have a key role on special teams. And if he does, Robertson will be the one taking on more special-teams duties.
Buster Skrine is loving the chance to be the Browns' No. 1 kickoff returner, which is the role he has assumed while Travis Benjamin is recovering from a torn ACL that has not allowed him to set foot on the field this offseason. Skrine will get to show off his tremendous speed and the fearless attitude with which he plays while running back kicks, something he hasn't done since college.
Newly acquired defensive back Aaron Berry has made a strong early impression with his coverage skills. He is a superb athlete with good speed, and is able to rely on five years of NFL experience to consistently put himself in good position to make plays.
This is where things stand at wide receiver: Gordon's status (who knows?), Miles Austin (we'll see what intensive work through the rest of the offseason does to help fix his chronic hamstring problems), Andrew Hawkins (the most dynamic performer during offseason workouts, but he is not large enough to be anything but a slot receiver), Nate Burleson (easing his way back from arm surgery; the hope is that he'll be ready to do much more in training camp); Anthony Armstrong (making a case for himself to be ready to fill the No. 2 spot if it turns out that Austin or Burleson isn't able to do so if the other is forced to fill Gordon's No. 1 role).
Browns draft picks in order of the best chances of making an immediate impact: Guard Joel Bitonio (by far, the best of the group; he is ready to start and make the offensive line better. Unfortunately, his ankle injury will keep him out until the start of training camp); running back Terrance West (he looks to be the best of his position group, although Ben Tate has performed well); cornerback Justin Gilbert (he's steadily making progress; his long arms allow him to be effective at re-routing receivers off the line of scrimmage. He still has a lot to learn); Kirksey; Manziel; Pierre Desir (he looks to be struggling with the major jump from tiny Lindenwood to the NFL).
Free-agent defensive back Isaiah Trufant catches your eye, first, because of how relatively tiny he is for an NFL player: 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds. But all he does is make plays. He has the speed and change-of-direction skills to stick with receivers and makes himself look much larger when he competes for the ball. The coaches love him. There has to be a place on the team for this guy.
Three undrafted free agents who have used the offseason to make themselves noticed in a good way: Taylor Gabriel, Chandler Jones, and Willie Snead. They're fast, they run good routes, and catch the ball well.
If undrafted free agent Calvin Barnett can do in training camp what he has done through offseason workouts, he could very well end up landing a backup spot on the defensive line. And that would be saying something because it is by far the deepest area of the team.
Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray look as if they could provide decent depth behind Jordan Cameron at tight end.
If there's an area where the Browns could have a depth concern, it is at safety. Jordan Poyer is serviceable, but the team could have big problems if anything happens to Donte Whitner or Tashaun Gipson, who could wind up forming one of the better safety duos in the NFL. >>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.