After the months and months of waiting, the Rams take the field against an actual opposing NFL team Thursday in the Cleveland Browns albeit chiefly a roster-trimming exercise. Still, as we all know, it's important.
To fill me in on the Browns' depth and some things we might get a taste of from their side of the ball, I linked up with Chris Pokorny from Dawgs By Nature, SB Nation's community for fans of the Cleveland Browns.
Let's start with the obvious quarterback opponents of the Browns want to know about...Brian Hoyer! Weeden's going to be a big topic this season, but it's preseason week one. Anyone who thinks they're going to get a great sense of how Weeden adjusts to Norv Turner's management in a series or two...well, I know y'all are better than that. But let's talk about the depth. How are Browns fans reacting to a new duo behind Weeden in Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer? Any sense that Campbell could challenge Weeden for starting time? If Weeden doesn't impress in year two in the league (and year one under Norv), does he have enough string to keep the team from drafting a QB early in the 2014 NFL Draft?
I think there is somewhat of a split perception when it comes to the Browns' backup quarterback situation. On a place like Dawgs By Nature, it's not a big deal, and we think the competition between Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer for the backup quarterback role is fine. Campbell is an average quarterback who can step in during a pinch, and Hoyer has been touted as the type of guy who could be underrated.
On the other hand, when I went to training camp, I couldn't believe how many fans were still whining about the fact that we no longer have Colt McCoy. In fact, some people were still harping on the fact that he should've been our starter over Brandon Weeden. Ugh.
I don't think Campbell or Hoyer pose serious threats to Weeden's starting role in 2013. Unless Weeden is the sole reason Cleveland is losing games (i.e. he throws pick sixes or fumbles the ball every time the Browns have a fourth quarter lead), he won't be benched. On the same token, this is a big year for Weeden. He will get the full year to leave an impression on the new regime. If he doesn't make strides in 2013, then I expect Cleveland to either draft or sign a free agent quarterback in 2014.
Taking QB out of the equation, what's the soft spot on offense? T Rich solves the ball carrier issue for a few years at a minimum. Greg Little has an NFL career in the works, and Josh Gordon impressed in year one out of the supplemental draft. Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz...that's not an offensive line trio I'd want the Rams to face often. Where does the Browns' 2013 offense lack the firepower to improve the offense? And more pertinent to this game, what's the deepest position? Seeing John Greco and Chris Ogbonnaya should be one of those interesting moments of the Rams' preseason; are interior line and RB sufficiently staffed?
Offensively, the big question mark is at tight end, where we let Benjamin Watson hit the free agent market and sign with the New Orleans Saints. By default, Jordan Cameron, a former fourth-round pick who has been "waiting in the wings," is getting the opportunity to start.
Due to the hirings of Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, a lot of people are expecting this to be the perfect situation for Cameron to succeed. Chudzinski's background is as a tight end and a tight ends coach. When he got Greg Olsen in Carolina last year, Olsen thrived in that offense. Chudzinski and Turner both worked with Antonio Gates in San Diego. They will try their best to utilize Cameron.
The question mark is whether or not Cameron, a former basketball player, can actually deliver. He has battled through injuries in his young career, and isn't an exceptional blocker. He flashed in training camp last year, but has been very quiet in this year's camp and has a couple of drops too.
The deepest position offensively is probably wide receiver. Josh Gordon and Greg Little are locked in as starters, and Davone Bess is the slot receiver. Travis Benjamin, one of the fastest players in the league, is the fourth guy. We have David Nelson, a former starter in Buffalo, trying to come back from a knee injury to be the fifth receiver, and there are a few other promising candidates for that role too.
John Greco is solid at left guard -- not in the same tier as our top three linemen, but enough to be a quality starting guard for any team in the NFL. Our right guard, Shawn Lauvao, just went down with an ankle injury, so we're plugging in Jason Pinkston this week. Pinkston was our starting left guard from 2011-2012, but he missed half of last season due to a blood clot in his lung (yikes!).
Over to the defense. You guys didn't have much draft capital, but what you did you spent on the defensive side (save for the Davone Bess flip). What players in the second and third string in the front seven should Rams fans be prepared to see make plays? Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger form the 3-4 edge men; is ILB one of the better camp battles in Berea?
If the Rams are looking for their second-string offense to get a good test against a deep front seven, then Cleveland is a good team to face. Our second-string defensive line includes DE Billy Winn, NT Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, and DE John Hughes, all of whom saw significant reps (in the 4-3) last year due to injuries on the line. All three of those guys are firmly entrenched as the backups on the line.
The second-string outside linebackers will feature Barkevious Mingo and Quentin Groves. We're all interested in seeing how Mingo does, and Groves has been decimating our second- and third-string offensive linemen in training camp.
Heading into camp, I expected there to be many position battles in Cleveland, including at one of the inside linebacker positions. To everyone's surprise, Craig Robertson has been "the guy" from Day 1, and the coaching staff has repeatedly talked him up. There is no competition at inside linebacker this year among the starters. That's not to say we're great in that area, but Ray Horton is content with the guys he has there.
Again from the draft, you throw CB Leon McFadden and S Jamoris Slaughter at the back of the defense. What does McFadden need to do to allow Buster Skrine to operate in the middle of the field where he seems to have been more reliable (and if I'm wrong there, call me out)? Any concerns back there?
Fans have been surprised by the cornerback and free safety competitions so far. Before training camp, fans voted and projected that Leon McFadden would start at cornerback (with Joe Haden), and Jamoris Slaughter would start at free safety. Slaughter has been nursing a hamstring injury all of camp, and it seems like a real long shot at this point that he'll be in the mix to start.
Buster Skrine and Chris Owens have been neck-and-neck in training camp for the other starting cornerback role. Both guys have been very physical and have displayed good coverage. McFadden really hasn't stood out at all as he works with the second-string defense. I'd say the odds of McFadden starting on Day 1, if at all this season, are very slim right now.
Big picture - what kind of team are the Browns this year? What are you expecting from the first year of the Chudzinski era? What about Norval? How about the defensive side? Where do they improve this season? Is the fan base looking at a playoff berth or is that asking for too much this soon with all the changeover on the staff?
If I could describe the new coaching staff compared to the previous regime in one word, it would be "aggressive." For example, last year, defensively, I think the Browns blitzed around 15% of the time on third down. Under Ray Horton, that number is expected to jump up to around 40%. The Browns have added the speed up front; this is a change from the "bend but don't break" philosophy we've had.
Offensively, it's a similar mentality. We're going to sling the ball down the field at a much higher rate, with Brandon Weeden being in Shotgun a lot more often than he was as a rookie. Whether the aggressiveness on either side works remains to be seen, but the coaches have been clear about the style of offense and defense they want to run.
Expectations are high with the coaching staff turnover, but nobody is thinking playoffs. Although we feel the Ravens and Steelers have regressed, between those two teams and the Bengals, all three have proven to be legitimate playoff contenders over the past several years. Like the Rams are in a tough division, so is Cleveland. We'll worry about our team putting together a few wins before we start looking forward to a possible playoff scenario.
Thanks to Chris for taking the time to answer these.