Nothing breeds optimism in Cleveland quite like training camp and the preseason opener.
Friday night could be the ultimate reality check, or confidence booster for the Cleveland Browns and their fans.
New head coach Hue Jackson declined to discuss how much playing time he’ll give the starters against the Green Bay Packers but they should see at least 1 quarter of action. Jackson, who has brought energy and enthusiasm back to the organization, has run one of the most physical training camps we’ve seen in years. Of the 11 practices held to date, including 2 scrimmages, 8 of them have been in pads with contact.
The defense has questions at every level from the defensive line through the secondary that will take pretty much the entire season to answer. And not just who will play, but who can play? There is a legitimate chance they could be historically bad, or they could show marked improvement from a year ago that saw them rank in the bottom 5 in just about every statistical category. But no one has any idea until there is competition against someone other than themselves.
They won’t get to face Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who threw it 19 times in last year’s preseason opener against the Patriots. Instead they’ll face the third-string signal caller Joe Callahan.
Offensively for the Browns, Robert Griffin III comes in as the anointed starter, so there’s no need to worry about impressing anyone in his unofficial debut because the job is his. Now we will begin find out just how much improvement he has really made, or has he improved simply because he’s been working against a sub-par defensive unit?
Certainly all eyes will be on him but RG3 won’t be the only player worth watching. He won’t have 2 of his primary receivers with rookie Corey Coleman and veteran Andrew Hawkins sidelined with hamstring injuries. Terrelle Pryor may be held back too after tweaking his right calf Wednesday opening the door for rookies Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins, Jordan Payton and Ricardo Louis.
Cameron Erving, who struggled at times this week with shotgun snaps after missing 4 practices due to an elbow injury, will be at center while you can hold a rock-paper-scissors marathon to figure out the right tackle spot between Spencer Drango, Alvin Bailey and Austin Pasztor.
The second tight end spot behind Pro Bowler Gary Barnidge should be fun to watch. Connor Hamlett is having one of those infamous legendary Browns camps but can he actually make the team? E.J. Bibbs, who has seen time at fullback with Malcolm Johnson out with a concussion, as well as Randall Telfer and J.P. Holtz are in the running. Fourth round pick Seth DeValve, who will not play Friday, is also expected to work his way into the conversation.
Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor was the primary holdover from Mike Pettine’s staff and he’s got to figure out the kicker position. Veteran Patrick Murray was brought in to challenge Travis Coons, who has issues elevating the ball quickly last season, for the job. Neither has separated himself through 2 weeks of cam so let the auditions begin.
Browns Probable Starters – OFFENSE: WR Taylor Gabriel, LT Joe Thomas, LG Joel Bitonio, C Cameron Erving, RG John Greco, RT Soencer Drango, TE Gary Barnidge, WR Marlon Moore, QB Robert Griffin III, RB Isaiah Crowell, FB E.J. Bibbs
DEFENSE: DE Xavier Cooper, NT Danny Shelton, DE Nick Hayden, OLB Paul Kruger, ILB Demario Davis, ILB Christian Kirksey, OLB Nate Orchard, CB Justin Gilbert (Joe Haden), CB Tramon Williams, FS Jordan Poyer, SS Ibraheim Campbell
Injury Report – OUT: DL John Hughes (personal), WR Corey Coleman (hamstring), WR Andrew Hawkins (hamstring), WR Josh Gordon (quadriceps), FB Malcolm Johnson (concussion), DL Nile Lawrence-Stample (undisclosed), CB Trey Caldwell (hamstring); DOUBTFUL: TE Seth DeValve (hamstring); QUESTIONABLE: WR Terrelle Pryor (calf), CB Joe Haden (ankle)
Uniform – White jersey, white pants, brown socks
Kickoff – 8 p.m. Lambeau Field – Green Bay, Wisconsin
Radio/TV – 92.3 The Fan, 98.5 WNCX and the PNC Bank Cleveland Browns Radio Network; WEWS Newschannel 5