The Browns are putting on a brave face with their situation at tight end, but it is both precarious and fragile entering into the 2013 season. Jordan Cameron enters his third season after being selected as a fourth round athlete to be developed. There is some buzz about what he can be this year, but behind him is a pile of mediocrity and utility players that are held together by duct tape and hope at this point. The Browns could not address everything in the draft this past season but it was a stunning development when they did not take a tight end, so there is a large amount of pressure on these guys to hold it together for a year without being a huge problem.
Cameron was selected by Tom Heckert as a developing player that had not really done much on the football field for USC. He also had experience as a basketball player, so there was an interesting amount of athleticism and potential at a reasonable price. His rookie season was more or less a red shirt year that was to be expected. He played in eight games and caught six passes. There was some excitement to see what Cameron could be last year but it never really materialized as he had 20 catches and a touchdown. This year was always the scheduled time for Cameron to be really see what he could do and the Browns and quarterback Brandon Weeden are already talking him up as training camp approaches. Rob Chudzinski loves the tight end position and has a ton of experience with tight ends from Antonio Gates to Kellen Winslow and Steve Heiden in his time with the Browns, which is what made it all the more stunning they did not draft one. His history suggests that Cameron could be in for a breakout year but it is worth pointing out that there were many of these types of expectations with Evan Moore a few years ago that never materialized. Hopefully, Cameron will be different this year. If he can prove to be a weapon, the position is extremely fragile and should he get injured, the Browns could be screwed at the position for the entire year.
And speaking of Evan Moore, he would be a welcome sight considering what is behind Cameron. Gary Barnidge was labeled as a utility player when he was signed by Chudzinski, which suggests he is a special teams guy and a blocking tight end. Both of these roles are important but there is little to suggest that Barnidge is going to be much of a receiving threat after catching six passes last year, his fifth in the league. He has a total of 18 for his career. Barnidge is a player that is nice to have on the roster but he is more of a third tight end ideally.
The Browns also signed Kellen Davis as a free agent who certainly looks the part at 6’7” 265lbs. He is another journeyman that has been unable to really find a home or a role. Davis is not a consistent pass catcher and will have some drops but he had about as much production as Cameron did last year. He is more of a guy they hope can do the job, but this is a one year deal and could easily be a one and done situation.
Dan Gronkowski, the brother of Rob Gronkowski was a flyer pick by the Detroit Lions in the seventh round. He has nine catches in three years and is trying to hang on in the league. He stands out as the first guy who will be cut unless someone gets injured. It is a bad situation at the position, so there is the potential for him to outplay one of these other guys but given his skill set, that is unlikely.
Outside of Cameron, the next best guy to keep an eye on during training camp could be Travis Tannahill, the undrafted free agent from Kansas State. He is coming from a system that ran the ball first, second and sometimes third rather than having Collin Klein try to make plays with his arm, so Tannahill is accustomed to blocking. Nevertheless, he still caught 23 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown, so he has made plays in the passing game. He might be able to surprise and take someone’s roster spot in camp, which might say more about them than it does Tannahill.
Lastly, the wild card in the mix is Brad Smelley. Last year’s seventh round pick was picked up to pair with Trent Richardson as his blocking back but also has some experience at tight end. While it is incredibly unlikely he would ever play inline, he could potentially be an H-Back. If he can prove he can do both and be a lead blocker as well as make some plays as a pass catcher, he could allow the Browns to dump a tight end and save a roster spot. Smelley will be competing with Owen Marecic for the fullback job but if he proves to have this kind of versatility, he could stick on the roster.
It would not be the slightest bit surprising if the Browns are keeping an eye on the waiver wire in case someone is released or teams try to sneak some rookies onto their respective practice squads. The only guy who appears to have any kind of future with the team based on what they have done to this point is Barnidge as he was a player Chudzinski had with him in Carolina and while they are not going to cut Cameron before the season, the rest of the group is expendable. With that, it was shocking the Browns did not draft a tight end for this year but the class this year shows a lot of promise as well, though some of it is in the form of underclassmen.
If Cameron can prove to be a good receiving threat, the Browns could want to add more of a blocking threat who can also catch the ball that can lineup inline much the same way Steve Heiden did when he was in Cleveland. Two names stick out in that capacity right now; Austin Seferian-Jenkins from Washington and C.J. Fiedorowicz of Iowa. Jenkins is an underclassman but he might be the most talented in the class at 6’6” 250lbs who is a developing blocker and a terrific receiving threat. Fiedorowicz is a giant at 6’7” 265lbs that looks like an offensive lineman with no neck but is an underrated receiving threat. It remains to be seen if the Hawkeyes will be able to take advantage of all he can do this year, but he is an extension of the offensive line who can also catch the football and move the chains.
If the Browns want to opt for more of a bulked up receiver, two other players stand out and both are underclassmen. Colt Lyerla of Oregon has been criminally underused by the Ducks but he is a guy who can play inline, in the slot or as an H-back, will do a decent job blocking but can be a playmaker as a receiver. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron looks like he can legitimately play wide receiver or tight end and the Tar Heels have used him in both spots. Both of these guys are undersized for the position and blocking could be tough for them in NFL, so Cameron would need to show he can do that job. It all comes down to what type of tight end the Browns would want. The bigger guys probably make more sense right now, but the sleeker guys are extremely tempting.
The way the rules have changed along with continuing developments in sports science and physiology have truly made this the era of the tight end in the NFL. They are able to take over football games and teams are grabbing as many of them as they can. With Chudzinski’s background, it is a question of when the Browns get their stable of them going and it stands out as something they need to address in this year’s draft. Hopefully, Jordan Cameron can be the player the team envisions but even if he does, the team and fan base could be holding their breath for the next year that he stays healthy and they can get through the year without having a disaster there. Try not to think about what happens if he struggles.