A week before training camp began, Browns Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner turned 30. For a guy who moved into the dorms at Ohio State as a 16-year-old and was drafted by the Bills at the ripe age of 21, Whitner is showing zero signs of aging.
"A lot of days out here I feel like I'm 22, 23," Whitner said with a slight smile. "I still enjoy camp. I still take care of my body. I feel pretty good."
In an expansive interview with the media Tuesday after training camp in Berea, here are four things Whitner is thinking about his football team.
1) *The middle of the run defense looks more sturdy *
Last season, Whitner led the Browns in tackles with a whopping 106 from the back end of the defense. Whitner's strong suit as a safety is leveling ball carriers before the first down marker. But the way things are shaking out with the defensive line, that number of tackles might drop – and that's a good thing.
"Majority of the time when you have a dominant front four, it's not as much on the defensive backs (to stop the run)," Whitner said. "You're just in cleanup mode."
The shift in talent and mentality on the defensive line might be the biggest difference about the 2015 Cleveland Browns, Whitner said.
"We have guys that actually have to truly fight for their job this year," Whitner said. "Nothing is going to be handed to them. We drafted guys all across the board and brought guys in like Randy (Starks). We have guys that won't be here and that's the true reality … That's why I think we're going to be better. Guys know if you don't get it done right now, then you won't be here."
If the run defense does show improvement early, the Browns will be able to line Whitner up in more exotic places on the field to fool offenses.
2) *Whitner: Josh McCown has surprised us *
There have been times when the 36-year-old quarterback has looked surgical with his passing, and Whitner has appreciated it from his vantage point.
"Even when we are in perfect coverage, he's putting the ball in tough spots," Whitner said. "He challenges us down field. Sometimes he's checking us and catching us off-guard. He knows what we're playing before we get out there."
It's been mentioned before, but McCown has started 49 games in his career. Going into last season, Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel combined for just three starts. McCown is mastering the offense at a faster pace and it's meant less turbulence for the entire unit. It took five days of camp before he threw his first interception in a team drill.
"And that's just playing in the National Football League so many years," Whitner said. "He has weapons around him now that he can throw the football to. I'm excited to see what he can do because he's the same guy every day."
3) *Whitner is as vocal as he's ever been*
Whitner's leadership reach was apparent last season – especially in the weight and meeting rooms. He was also the player in exit interviews who said the Browns need to bring in more players who are hungry for winning, and the club responded with the signings of McCown, Brian Hartline, Dwayne Bowe and Randy Starks.
In Whitner's mind, the winning ingredients are in the kitchen. But he wants to make sure he's the chef stirring it all up. So he'll call out a wide receiver when he drops a pass. He'll run over to congratulate backup cornerback Robert Nelson for a pass deflection.
"You want to get guys motivated on a day-to-day basis," Whitner said. "I know saying something silly sometimes will stick into a guy's head, whether he's in the weight room or out here on the football field. It might give him the added motivation that it takes to get us over the hump. That's why I do it."
4) *Whitner sees turnovers as the key to the playoffs*
"There is a direct correlation between turnovers and wins in the National Football League," Whitner said. "Usually when you are up there near the top, you make the playoffs. A few more points and maybe we're there."
Whitner isn't kidding. Here's the 2014 list of teams with the best turnover margin:
Packers ( 14, made playoffs)
Patriots ( 12, made playoffs)
Texans ( 12, 9-7 record and just missed the playoffs)
Seahawks ( 10, made playoffs)
Cardinals ( 8, made playoffs)
49ers ( 7, missed playoffs)
Lions ( 7, made playoffs)
Bills ( 7, 9-7 record and just missed playoffs)
Cowboys ( 6, made playoffs)
Browns ( 6, missed playoffs)
If Cleveland can push its turnover margin up to plus-10, combined with more consistent quarterback play, it's clearly a formula that can produce a postseason berth.