Like the majority of Cleveland sports fans, I’m as eager as ever for the 2010 Cleveland Browns to open up the preseason in Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers. After all, it was a pretty unhappy sports atmosphere for the most part this summer, and the dawning of a new Browns season brings a much needed collective breath of fresh air to the city.
Snicker if you must all you naysayers, but the Brown and Orange finished strong last season in Head Coach Eric Mangini’s first year at the helm, and the organization only upgraded itself this offseason in terms of both the front office and roster.
Having said that, here’s five important subplots you should be aware of beginning tonight against the Packers and throughout the regular season:
5. The Play of second-year Wide Receiver Brian Robiskie
Coming out of Ohio St., it was Brian Robiskie that many fans were high on, not fellow rookie Mohamed Massaquoi of Georgia. Robiskie proved those fans plenty wrong as he played sparingly during his rookie campaign and finished with just 7 catches for 106 yards, while Massaquoi made 34 grabs for 624 yards and 3 TD’s.
Needless to say, Robiskie absolutely has to step up this season and become the polished, possession type wide receiver a lot of us envisioned him to be coming out of The Ohio State University.
To his credit, he’s gotten rave reviews this offseason, but we’ll begin to know more come Saturday night. I’m anxious to see if can run good routes and get open against the Packers, because I know the hands are already there.
4. Is there hope for the right side of the offensive line?
Barring an injury, the Browns have one of the league’s stronger 3/5 of an offensive line in perhaps the league’s best left tackle, Joe Thomas, an underrated veteran in guard Eric Steinbach, and an up-and-coming center in second-year player, Alex Mack.
Unfortunately, the Browns are far from settled on the right side of the line. We all know about right tackle John St. Clair, and there’s really no reason to get excited about newcomer Tony Pashos (at this point) since he seems to be rather injury prone and has missed an awful lot of practices, already. At least Floyd Womack is somewhat of a passable option at right guard, but he’s hardly enough to make me comfortable with the right side of the line.
Perhaps the only thing that will give me any hope about this side is if third round draft pick Shawn Lauvao is able to flash some potential as a rookie. He’s definitely someone who I’ll be watching closely against the Packers and as the preseason progresses.
So hope for the best from this Lauvao tonight and down the road, because the other options on the right side are far from impressive.
3. Rookie Defenders
Based on the organization’s terrible track record with draft picks, it’s only natural to be skeptical about any and all selections the Browns make in the draft. For whatever reason, though, I’m not skeptical, but actually kind of optimistic and borderline confident with the rookie defensive players drafted by new President Mike Holmgren.
Call me crazy, but I think we may have hit a trifecta with Florida cornerback, Joe Haden, Oregon safety, T.J. Ward, and South Carolina defensive end Clifton Geathers.
As far as Haden goes, what I’m really interested in is his speed, because many have put him on blast this offseason for lacking true cornerback speed. Personally, I’m very skeptical of this stance considering that he was hands down the best cornerback in the superfast SEC. Even so, this is what I’ll be looking at tonight, but I plan to take any and all negatives with a grain of salt considering that being a rookie corner, he’s doing a lot of thinking and learning at this stage of his early career – which is sure to slow him down a bit.
The same goes for Ward, who I’m probably more intrigued by than Haden. In college, Ward was just a punishing hitter at safety, and I’m anxious to see if he can become the eighth man in the box and the playmaker the Browns desperately need at the back end of their defense. I would love to see him bust a few heads in his first preseason game, but I’d be even happier if he is able to make some plays in coverage.
Finally, in regards to our massive sixth round selection out of South Carolina, I think Holmgren may have found a steal. We know Geathers has the NFL bloodlines, but I’m interested to see if the pass rushing potential is there as well. I’m not asking for a three sack performance or anything spectacular right out of the gates, but I do want some reasons to believe that this monster can be developed into a formidable 3-4 defensive end with pass rushing capabilities.
2. The Linebackers
Make no mistake about it, the spotlight is brightly on the linebackers of the defense heading into this season.
In short, they don’t have to be individually great this season for the defense to be a respectable unit, but they do have to be collectively good.
It doesn’t help that starting linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is sidelined for 3-8 weeks, but you go with what you got, and heading into the first preseason game the two starters on the inside are 32-year-old Eric Barton and the relatively green Chris Gocong, who the Browns acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I’m interested to see if Barton has anything left in the tank after suffering a career-ending type neck injury last year. Logic tells me his best days are behind him, but I’ll give him a blank slate heading into tonight’s game.
As for Gocong, I’m eager to see if he can find the ball carrier in the middle. If you remember, he was drafted by the Eagles mainly because of his pass rushing potential, so it’s kind of surprising he”s starting the year inside. Either way, he’s definitely a defensive player to keep your eye on as the season evolves.
I don’t mean to ignore or dismiss the importance of the outside linebackers, but it all starts with stopping the run. We have to be solid in the middle, or else teams are going to continue to pound the ball down our throats like they’ve done since the rebirth of the organization in 1999.
I’m not going to lie. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the prospect of starting the regular season with a tandem of Barton and Gocong in the middle, but I’ll feel a lot better in Jackson is able to come back healthy in a couple of weeks.
1. QB Play (Present and Future)
Come on, you knew it was inevitable that the play of the QB’s would be the number one subplot to focus on against the Packers and throughout the course of the season. The good news is we’re in much better shape than we were a year ago with veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace as our two options, and rookie Colt McCoy waiting in the wings.
I’m not expecting miracles from Delhomme, but I’m anxious to see if he really does have anything left in the tank, or if his career as a starter was indeed over two seasons ago when he committed six turnovers in a playoff blowout to the Arizona Cardinals. We all know Delhomme is a great guy and a respectable leader. What I want to know is if he can still be an effective game manager, and this is what I’ll be keeping in mind when I evaluate his first preseason game with the Browns.
As much as I respect Delhomme, I really want to see Wallace force himself into the starting lineup by playing well this preseason. I just think that he brings more to the table at this point than Delhomme does and I’m hoping that he’s able to make some plays with both his arm and his legs against the Packers.
And, finally, of course I’ll be intently watching rookie Colt McCoy as he gets his first taste of the NFL sometime in the second half. Just a warning, but if McCoy does anything remotely good against the Packers, I’ll probably anoint him as our QB of the future. That’s how desperate I am for a franchise QB, but whatever.