Oh, the preseason. The time when every fanbase – alright not you Jets and Jaguars fans – still has some modicum of hope. For Browns fans, that feeling is much too familiar and fleeting. It usually lasts until about the end of the first quarter of the first preseason game.
But, through the first two exhibition contests, this season has been different. The Browns, especially the starters, have looked very good in victorious efforts against the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions. Brandon Weeden – he of the frequent questions about his future as the Browns starter – has been superb, going 18 of 25 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, Weeden has avoided interceptions, which were to his rookie season what drugs were to Steven Tyler in the late 1970s – that is to say they were a major weakness. In a testament to both Weeden’s improved footwork (he has received praise for quicker dropbacks thus far through training camp and the preseason) and the solid play of the offensive line, Weeden has not yet had to be helped off the turf after a sack. All of that combines to give Weeden a 139.8 passer rating thus far. It is the preseason, but that number is almost double the 72.6 he put up last season. If Weeden can retain even half of that improvement, it will go a long way towards cementing his status as the Browns’ starter for the foreseeable future.
Weeden hasn’t been the only bright spot on offense though. Tight end Jordan Cameron, who struggled through the early part of training camp, has four receptions for 72 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came against Detroit. Josh Gordon has five catches on six targets for 99 yards as he continues to develop a rapport with Weeden. He will be missed while he sits out the first two regular season games due to his suspension.
The defense, although without starting strong safety T.J. Ward to this point, has allowed only 25 points through the two games. Of those, only 13 have come in the first half. The transition to Ray Horton’s 3-4 looks successful thus far.
On special teams, Travis Benjamin has been using his own version of inception to make Browns fans forget that Josh Cribbs ever caught punts in Cleveland. He has taken a punt back in each of the first two games. Against St. Louis, the diminutive rocket took one 91 yards down the left sideline to the house. The next week against the Lions, he took another punt 84 yards for a score, but the play was negated by a Joe Haden holding call. I’m sure most opposing players can’t wait to put a lick on the 5’10”, 175 pound (and that’s what he’s listed at, so it’s probably generous) Benjamin, but first they have to catch him. He will be a great weapon on special teams this season, and don’t be surprised if Norv Turner starts using the speedster more on offense once the regular season begins.
But, alas, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for the Browns through the preseason’s first two weeks. A number of key players went down in the Detroit game, casting a dark pall over the impressive performance. Let’s look at those injuries one by one and examine how the Browns will cope with the absences.
The offseason pickup had seen a ton of reps in the early going as Montario Hardesty sat out with a knee injury (he had arthroscopic surgery last week and will miss at least a month) and the coaching staff brought Trent Richardson on slowly following a knock on the shin he picked up prior to the Rams game. Richardson did play against the Lions, picking up 33 yards on six carries, and he remains the undisputed starter. Nonetheless, Lewis had impressed Rob Chudzinski and staff, and figured to get plenty of time as both a change of pace back and the starting kickoff return man. Lewis has opted for surgery on his fractured left fibula, but the length of his absence won’t be known until after the procedure is performed. Early rumors cited the possibility of Lewis going on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, allowing him to return after Week 6, but new reports claim the possibility that he will miss the entire season.
Safety Johnson Bademosi has replaced Lewis returning kicks. While not as shifty as the running back, Bademosi does have excellent straight-line speed and should prove serviceable in that role.
At running back, Brandon Jackson now looks like a lock to secure a roster spot. Chris Ogbonnaya, who has been starting at fullback, could also see more snaps in a third-down running back role. That shuffle could save Owen Marecic’s roster spot, which would be unfortunate. The Browns signed undrafted rookie free agent Jamaine Cook, a local product from Midpark High School and Youngstown State, in the wake of Lewis’s injury. This pickup continues the Banner/Lombardi regime’s commitment to avoiding veterans, as several proven performers like Cedric Benson and former Ohio State Buckeye Chris “Beanie” Wells remain unsigned.
The tight end, who is familiar with Chudzinski from their previous time together in Carolina, was signed to serve as a blocking backup to Jordan Cameron. Kellen Davis, the other tight end signed to backup Cameron, has struggled as a blocker, which is especially problematic because he was signed to be a blocking tight end and does not offer much in the way of receiving ability. Davis’s struggles have made Barnidge indispensable. Luckily, he is not expected to be out long with the sprained shoulder he picked up against the Lions. While the injury could open a roster spot for Dan Gronkowski or Brad Smelley for the first few weeks of the regular season, this doesn’t feel like something that Browns fans should be worried about in the long-term.
This is probably the most worrisome of the injuries due to both the position and the expected duration.
Pinkston was only the starting right guard because Shawn Lauvao was out with an ankle injury for which he underwent arthroscopic surgery on August 9.
Now, Pinkston has a high ankle sprain of his own. Lauvao could be out up to six weeks following his procedure. Pinkston, who left FirstEnergy Stadium with a walking boot and crutches following the Detroit game, is expected to be out four to six weeks himself, throwing the right guard position deep into the abyss of
Rookie seventh-round pick Garrett Gilkey has been taking reps at the spot since Pinkston went down. He received high marks for his play against the Lions, but it’s unsure how he’ll hold up as we get into the regular season. Reserve tackle Oniel Cousins, who just recently returned to practice, and backup center Jarrod Shaw are two other possible in-house solutions in the short-term at right guard, but expect the Browns to add a player after first cuts are made following the third week of the preseason slate.
A bruised lung sounds scary and serious, but, in terms of football, this injury to the first-round pick does not worry me nearly as much as the ones to Pinkston (and Lauvao) or Lewis. Just as with Trent Richardson, the coaching staff will hold Mingo out until they are absolutely sure he is 100 percent healthy. With the team’s depth at outside linebacker, the expected two or three week absence for Mingo should not cause any major roster moves.
The undrafted rookie kicker suffered a minor groin injury against Detroit. He has already returned to practice. If the team only keeps one kicker, I expect (and hope) that it will be the young Bogotay. There may be some growing pains, but having a young kicker with a big leg who can be effective on both long field goals and kickoffs is much more appealing to me than watching Shayne Graham struggle to send kickoffs past the 10-yard line.
We’re halfway through the meaningless games. Thus far, we’ve seen great performances and inevitable injuries. Hopefully the final two preseason games hold more of the latter and none of the former. Week 1 is only 20 days away.