I had 30 minutes alone with Eric Mangini on Wednesday at Browns camp, and another 30 with GM George Kokinis. I also spent time with Brady Quinn, Derek Anderson, D’Quell Jackson, Joe Thomas, Jamal Lewis, Jim Brown and Paul Warfield, as well as two assistant coaches I worked with in years past.
I got a real good feel for the Browns after my visit. Here are some observations I took away:
- Mangini has been hired to turn things around in Cleveland and his plan is based on four words: communicate, focus, trust and finish. Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said Mangini welcomes communication and has his door open to talk about what is going on and what can be done better. Jackson told me Mangini challenges the players’ focus by blasting loud music during the team period of practice, forcing them not to loose concentration and execute when there is a distraction. Trust comes from both quarterbacks when they see that the competition to win the starting job is truly fair and opportunities are evenly split in every practice. Finishing can’t be determined yet but it will be a key factor when the preseason games begin. In the meantime, Mangini asks the team to finish every practice, and after interviewing a number of players they realize this is a tough camp and there are no excuses.
- I got a chance to sit down with both quarterbacks after an intense morning practice that included a red-zone team period and a team drive period without coaches on the field. According to one front office personnel man, Quinn had the early lead in camp and Anderson has been coming on in the past three days. On Wednesday, Quinn moved the team down the field with the short passing attack. Anderson used a lot more vertical passing and was just as effective. This battle is far from over.
- Cleveland had 17 sacks last year and that has to improve. There is a lot of pressure on Kamerion Wimbley to produce. After watching practice, I’m not convinced it will happen. Last year, Mangini’s Jets defense had 41 sacks and they did it from multiple players getting a few sacks each. It looks like Cleveland will blitz the inside ‘backers and stunt the front more often to create pressure. As for the outside linebackers, Alex Hall has pass-rush skills and could wind up in the third-down package. Titus Brown ran with the first group today in a few situations and David Bowens looks like he could be the guy in the first-down defenses.
- Kokinis has lots of work to do to get this roster right, but there is depth in one position group. The defensive line has enough players working right now that Corey Williams is running with the second group, Kenyon Coleman, Shaun Rogers, and Robaire Smith could be the starters and Shaun Smith is battling for a second-team spot. The Browns may have a player of interest late in August.
- Two rookies jumped out at me during my visit. Alex Mack is getting time with the first line and looks like he belongs. One of the linebackers mentioned that Mack has very strong hands and is very hard to disengage from, and that was evident during the live team period. Right now he battles Hank Fraley at center but could wind up at guard. The other rookie I liked was wide receiver Brian Robiskie, who should make a major contribution this season. He is a solid zone beater because of his route running and a good understanding of the soft spots in the coverage. Keep an eye on him to see how he does against man coverages.
- After spending half an hour in Mangini’s office to talk, I left Cleveland thinking he learned a lot as the head coach of the Jets and will be different this time around. He is still demanding and tough on his players, but as Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back said to me, “This team needs what Eric is doing right now.”
— Pat Kirwan