Reporting Daryl Ruiter
CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) - As training camp enters it’s final week, Pat Shurmur will be watching those players who are “on the bubble” very closely.
The picture should become clearer following Friday night’s game against Philadelphia.
Rosters are cut to 75 Monday Aug. 27 at 4. The final 53 is to be set Friday Aug. 31 at 9 p.m.
Unlike years past, deciding who makes the back 9 of the roster (spots 44-53) won’t be easy.
“There are some spots still there to be won or lost in my opinion,” Shurmur said. “Hopefully, we’ll get this team to where we have a lot of tough decisions every year, where there’s great competition at every spot.”
That’s the way it should be every year.
General manager Tom Heckert has been able to add quality depth to the roster this offseason which is why with the first round of cuts set to come a week from Monday, this week is so critical.
“When it comes down to just a pure 53 man roster, we have some decisions to be made,” Shurmur said. “We’ve got more players at each position than we can keep. I think that goes without saying. It’s one of those ‘Captain Obvious’ comments, but I think there are some tight little battles in there that we’ve got to get sorted out in the next three weeks.”
How many receivers will they keep? 6 or 7? And is Josh Cribbs included in that group to count against those numbers or will they classify him as a special teams player to keep an extra body?
Jordan Norwood and Josh Cooper appear to be battling for the final spot. Norwood has had a solid preseason – 3 catches for 28 yards but his biggest impact has been on special teams which is a deciding factor for many coaches when it comes to players “on the bubble.”
Cooper, who was an undrafted rookie free agent, could end up on the practice squad as a developmental player.
Carlton Mitchell, a 2010 sixth round pick, keeps missing time to various injuries and is as good as gone.
There is a similar numbers situation at running back, tight end and fullback.
Veteran Brandon Jackson, who spent last season on injured reserve due to turf toe after signing with the Browns, rookie Adonis Thomas and Chris Ogbonnaya are fighting to be the third back behind Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty.
Ogbonnaya has run for 27 yards on 8 carries in limited playing time this preseason. Shurmur already knows what he can do. In 11 games last season after being signed off of the Houston Texans practice squad, he ran for 334 yards and a touchdown on 73 carries (a 4.6 yards/carry average). He and also caught 23 passes for 165 yards.
Jackson has run for 53 yards on 20 carries while Thomas has 46 yards and a touchdown on 20 attempts in 2 preseason games.
Shurmur could easily keep 4 tight ends. Veteran Ben Watson and Jordan Cameron, who enters his second season, are both virtual locks to make the team leaving Alex Smith, Evan Moore and Dan Gronkowski battling for the final 1 or 2 spots.
“You can’t focus on these other guys are making plays,” Cameron said after missing a week with a bruised lower back. “You’ve got to go out there and focus on you. A lot of guys get caught up like, ‘He’s making plays, he’s doing that, he’s doing that, I’ve got to catch up to him.’ But if you do that, you’ll start losing the battle.
“So you’ve got to make plays on your own and just think about it each rep at a time. You can’t get caught up in someone else’s play.”
Who will block for Richardson is another question that Shurmur must answer.
Owen Marecic has improved this offseason at fullback but rookie Brad Smelley provides more flexibility and versatility – also a key determining factor for Shurmur.
“He can play on the line of scrimmage, he can play on the backfield,” Shurmur said of Smelley. “That helps him, if he can be efficient doing it.”
Defensively, injuries are forcing Shurmur’s hand.
Phil Taylor is out for at least the first half of the season. Rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn have played well up front.
With Emmanuel Stephens playing so well, veterans Scott Paxson, Brian Schaefering and Marcus Benard could all be competing for 1 roster spot.
Chris Gocong being lost for the season with a torn Achilles has opened up the door for rookie L.J. Fort as well as Craig Robertson, who had a pick-6 waived off due to penalty at Green Bay, at linebacker.
Both have caught Shurmur’s eye in camp and this preseason.
At corner, Dimitri Patterson is down with an ankle injury and if or when he’ll return is unclear. Joe Haden has a potential 4-game suspension hanging over his head which has opened another door for a rookie.
Trevin Wade has stepped up and received reps with the one’s during camp and been impressive at nickel.
“It’s a really big role to fill, some big shoes to fill, but I’m up to the challenge,” Wade said. “That’s why I like the NFL. It’s a big challenge and I’m ready to just do my part and do all I can.
“I’m just trying to show the coaches and prove to the team that they can put their faith in me.”
While at times agonizing for a head coach, this is a good problem to have.
It’s one that good football teams have every year.