AFC North: Cleveland Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- One of the biggest takeaways from how coach Mike Pettine -- and by extension GM Ray Farmer -- want to build their roster came in how many defensive backs the Cleveland Browns kept on the roster. The magic number was 12: seven cornerbacks and five safeties.

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That’s a big number, indeed, and clearly the combination of Pettine-Farmer believes that the best way to rush the passer is to have receivers covered so the pass rush has time to reach the quarterback. It is a viable philosophy, and one Pettine has taught both in stops as the defensive coordinator for Buffalo and the New York Jets.

Asked on Monday why he kept so many defensive backs on his initial 53-man roster, Pettine said it was a combination of the best players being at a position of need.

“Well it’s probably a little bit of both,” Pettine said. “We felt that these guys are talented NFL corners that were worthy of being on the roster. The number is towards the high end, but once you get above your minimum requirements at each position, you look to keep the best players in general. You never want to keep a guy for the sake of filling out a quota, as long as you’ve met the position minimum that you can function on game day.”

Asked why the position is so important, Pettine said given the nature of spread offenses in the NFL, he believes the more versatile defensive backs you have who can match up and cover, either along the perimeter or in the middle of the field, the better.

“I think the whole trend in the league -- the spread offense -- is to match up and single guys up, and that’s a big part of what we do,” Pettine said. “We’ll play a lot of split safety, Cover 2, where corners are really essentially almost playing an outside linebacker-type position, with deep responsibility. We need guys that can match up and can run. That’s why we were fortunate that we found as many as we did and we were able to keep them.”

Extra points:
  • Cornerback Joe Haden said he is physically fine and will play Sunday in the Browns' opener at Pittsburgh.
  • The Browns announced they signed offensive lineman Karim Barton and wide receiver Charles Johnson to the practice squad on Monday, bringing their squad to nine players.
BEREA, Ohio -- It is no secret that a young quarterback’s best friend can be a reliable, productive running game (and a sure-handed tight end). If Brian Hoyer is going to have that, it will be up to Ben Tate to provide it.

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Tate
One of the more interesting roster cuts the Cleveland Browns made over the weekend was waiving running back Dion Lewis, whom they acquired in a trade with Philadelphia prior to the 2013 season. It’s not that Lewis is a game-changing back. He isn’t. A fifth-round draft pick in 2011 out of Pittsburgh, Lewis missed all of last season after breaking his left fibula in a preseason game.

But during training camp, Browns coach Mike Pettine praised Lewis for his ability to gain yards on critical third downs. It was thought that for that reason alone Lewis would likely make the team.

He didn’t, and as of Monday, the Browns are going with Tate and three rookies: Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and Glenn Winston, whom they claimed off waivers from San Francisco.

After primarily serving as Arian Foster's backup for four years in Houston, Tate signed a two-year deal for $6.1 million to be Cleveland’s primary rusher. That apparently means on third downs, too.

Asked Sunday if he is comfortable with Tate’s ability to turn third downs into first downs, Pettine said, “We are."

“He’s ahead of those guys, and I think he’s been solid in protection,” Pettine said. “I think he does a nice job catching the ball. I would think that he has the edge over those guys as far as third down. That’s not saying they won’t be there, but he’s ... probably the guy you can trust the most right now would be Ben.”

Pettine better hope so. Given the collection of unproven receivers on the roster and Hoyer’s inexperience, the Browns are going to need a solid running game that can keep the chains moving.
BEREA, Ohio -- Six undrafted rookie free agents made the Cleveland Browns' initial 53-man roster -- a roster that is constantly evolving at the bottom -- and none was more unlikely than Ray Agnew. The 5-foot-10, 247-pound fullback out of Southern Illinois has an NFL pedigree; his father, Ray Sr., played defensive end and defensive tackle for New England, the New York Giants, and St. Louis, where he won a Super Bowl.

But the younger Agnew is a fullback, an endangered species in the modern NFL. Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan actually values fullbacks in his zone-rushing scheme, and Agnew is in the mold of Washington fullback Darrel Young.

[+] EnlargeRay Agnew
Mark Duncan/AP PhotoRay Agnew, an undrafted rookie, is excited to possibly experience some regular-season playing time as a Cleveland Browns fullback.
I caught up with Agnew the day after the initial cuts to talk about his nerve-wracking weekend, his father, and playing his position.

How stressed were you on Saturday waiting to hear about the cuts?
Agnew: Oh, I was very stressed, just like everybody else, staring at my phone all day, trying to keep my mind off of it, watch TV, watch Netflix or something. But you can't help but be nervous. It's something that you really want for yourself.

Running back is a position where the past two drafts there hasn't been one picked in the first round. Fullback is an even more endangered species. How do you explain being able to carve out a niche for yourself here?
Agnew: You know, I think I just did it just being the best I could be every practice, just doing what I do best, not trying to do to much, just staying within what I'm comfortable with in my wheelhouse. Just trying to really show them that, 'Hey, this is who I am, this is what I do well,' and you know if they thought it could help their team then they'll keep me around and if not then hopefully I'll land somewhere else.

Can you explain the role of FB in Kyle Shanahan's offense?
Agnew: It's obviously very important because I think his offense is one of those that uses the fullback a lot, one of the very few. And, obviously, he can spread it out, sling it but also it's important to have a fullback in this run game and his zone read because they're kind of the eyes for the running back. We're the first to see the opening. We see the opening, we run through the hole, the running back follows us.

The key for a fullback in this offense is just to not stop your feet, you know, just run. You've got to keep running. If you keep running and you have good head placement then the running back can cut off of you. The way the zone works is it doesn't tell the running back you have to run at this hole. The zone is the running back gets the ball, he looks at one hole, if it's not open he goes to the next one, goes to the next one, goes to the next one. If the fullback is lollygagging through the hole or stopping in the hole, he's going to constrict it for the running back and it's not going to be good, it's probably going to result in a negative play. That's basically what the fullback does in this offense.

Is it true you haven't gotten a carry since high school?
Agnew: That is very true. Hopefully that will change this year.

Have you been lobbying for a Ray Agnew package?
Agnew: No, not really. I'm still a rookie so I kind of keep my mouth shut and do my work. It would be nice to get a few carries.

Your Twitter handle is @Underrated_FB. Why?
Agnew: I've had that for a while. I did it on purpose, because I feel like I've been underrated my whole life, and there's nothing wrong with that. I kind of relish that, being an underrated person, being under the radar and working my way up. I'm totally fine with that. It's just something I noticed. Every time I go on my Twitter it reminds me of where I've been and that good things hopefully are ahead.

Who did you call first on Saturday after you made the Browns' roster?
Agnew: Oh, I called my dad first. He's just proud of me, happy for me. He's been there with me throughout my whole life. He's seen what I've been through in my football career. All I've ever wanted to do in my life, whether it's football or anything, was make my dad proud. To hear him say he's proud of me, that means a lot.

BEREA, Ohio – The Cleveland Browns continue to tinker with the bottom of their roster. In addition to terminating the contract of quarterback Rex Grossman, they were awarded four players via waivers, signed five others to the practice squad and waived three others.

To recap:

The headliner of the day was the jettisoning of Grossman, a 34-year-old veteran who was unlikely to play but could have served as valuable insurance in the event that Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel flopped. Clearly Browns head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer valued the roster spot over having a No. 3 quarterback who was unlikely to play in a game.

The new additions to the 53-man roster are wide receiver LaRon Byrd, offensive lineman Caylin Hauptmann, offensive lineman Ryan Seymour and running back Glenn Winston.

The practice squad additions, so far, are offensive lineman James Brown, defensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel, tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi, linebacker Keith Pough and linebacker Justin Staples. McDaniel, Ogbuehi and Staples were cut on Saturday.

BEREA, Ohio – In the not-so-fast category of Sunday transactions, the Cleveland Browns reportedly cut veteran quarterback Rex Grossman one day after keeping Grossman on the initial 53-man roster. Profootballtalk.com first reported the transaction.

Grossman
Grossman
The move means that, as of now, the Browns are comfortable going with Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel as the only quarterbacks on the roster. That, of course, could change any minute.

It is a risky proposition. Even though Grossman had not taken a meaningful snap in a regular-season game since Jan. 1, 2012, his final start for the Washington Redskins, he is a proven veteran who has started 51 career games, including four in the postseason. And Grossman played under new Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for four seasons, so he knows the type of offense Shanahan likes to run and the play calls he likes to make.

If nothing else, Grossman could have been a valued locker-room presence and sounding board for Hoyer and Manziel.

Now, the onus clearly is on Hoyer, who started three games for the Browns last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He was named the starter after a shaky preseason, and given the Browns opening schedule, he will have to play lights-out to hold on to it. Hoyer is an even-keeled, hard-working guy, but he struggled during the preseason – as did Manziel – working with inferior receivers.

The Browns don’t practice until 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Afterward, coach Mike Pettine will speak to the media and explain why he and general manager Ray Farmer decided to let Grossman go.

Browns cut veteran WR Nate Burleson

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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Even though they are desperate for proven, reliable wide receivers, the Cleveland Browns have cut 12-year veteran Nate Burleson, a source confirmed to ESPN on Saturday morning.

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Burleson
Burleson, 33, signed with the Browns in the offseason but was plagued throughout training camp by a hamstring injury. He missed Cleveland's first three preseason games, then played Thursday night against Chicago, catching one pass for 27 yards.

It was not enough.

With Josh Gordon suspended for the season, the Browns' weakest position group on the roster is wide receiver. Burleson certainly is no Gordon, but he made 457 career receptions for 5,630 yards and 39 touchdowns while playing for Minnesota, Seattle and, most recently, Detroit.

The move begs the question of whether the Browns have interest in someone else, either via a trade or after other teams make their cuts. A team spokesman said he could not confirm that Burleson had been cut.

Asked on Friday whether Burleson had secured a roster spot for himself after playing against the Bears, Cleveland coach Mike Pettine was noncommittal.

"I'm not going to talk on individual players here," Pettine said. "We're still working through the whole evaluation with the position coaches and with the coordinators. I'm not going to comment on a specific player's status at this point."

The Browns' receiving corps, as of now, includes Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin and Willie Snead. Austin twice topped 1,000 receiving yards during his eight seasons with Dallas, but in only 11 games last season he finished with 24 catches for 244 yards. Hawkins played the previous three seasons for Cincinnati. Benjamin is in his third season in Cleveland and caught only five passes for 105 yards last season. Gabriel and Snead are rookies.

Asked on Friday if he felt confident going into Week 1 against Pittsburgh with the receivers he had on the roster, Pettine said he did.

"We'll feel confident," Pettine said. "We'll feel confident with the guys that we have and if we get a chance to improve this football team over the next two days then we will. If we don't, then we will feel very confident with the group we're taking to Pittsburgh."

Cleveland Browns' projected roster

August, 29, 2014
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Examining the Cleveland Browns' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)

Grossman secured the third spot with the way he played against Chicago.

RUNNING BACKS (3)

It's impossible to ignore the way Crowell ran against the Bears. He looked quick, strong and topped 100 yards. If the Browns released him, they'd never get him back on the practice squad. He earned a spot.

FULLBACKS (2)

Gray is about as solidly on the bubble as any player on the team. His versatility should have helped him, but he did not play tremendously well in the preseason.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6)

Not exactly a well-stocked group. Gabriel earned a spot with solid play. Snead earns it based on potential, but don't be surprised if his spot goes to someone who was cut by another team. Snead seems more like a practice squad candidate.

TIGHT ENDS (3)

The Browns are well-fortified with the three tight ends they have.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

A group that seems very settled.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7)

Another unit that seems pretty well stocked.

LINEBACKERS (7)

The Browns could keep eight here and not keep Snead or Gray, except nobody really jumped out as an active pass-rushing type. So go with these seven.

CORNERBACKS (6)

The Browns will scan the waiver wire here, and may be as active trying to strengthen this spot as they will be at receiver. Depth is needed. Badly.

SAFETIES (4)

It's a toss-up for the fourth safety spot between Poyer and Josh Aubrey. I like Aubrey, but he could be practice squad eligible. The coaches also seem to like Poyer.

SPECIALISTS (3)

No need to change anything here, as all were strong and dependable contributors.
CLEVELAND -- Mike Pettine reiterated that the Cleveland Browns did not agree with the timing on the decision to uphold the suspension of Josh Gordon, but he wasn’t ready to call it unfair.

“The rules are the rules,” Pettine said after the preseason win over the Bears. “The league has a system that they set up. It was collectively bargained. We respect it.”

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Pettine admitted that the timing on Gordon’s suspension for a positive marijuana test was “not ideal” for the team.

“But we move forward,” he said. “How it played out was not ideal circumstances for us, obviously, but that’s behind us. Our full focus now is getting this team ready. You can’t worry about guys you don’t have.”

Andrew Hawkins will get the first chance to start opposite Miles Austin, though Hawkins will move inside to the slot on third downs, with probably Nate Burleson playing outside in three-receiver sets. Pettine said the team will focus on a committee approach to replacing Gordon.

“I’ve said this all along, you don’t replace a Josh Gordon, a top-five NFL receiver, with just one player,” Pettine said. “I think you have to get creative with what you do, and roll some different guys in there, maybe change some personnel groupings and get some different matchups. That’s the challenge that we face.”

Left tackle Joe Thomas spoke to a group of reporters that included 92.3-The Fan in Cleveland, USA Today and the Northeast Ohio Media Group. He lamented what he called a program that doesn’t reflect “the morals of society today.”

“The problem is that now you're sitting in a situation where you have a collective bargaining agreement that lasts 10 years and in the middle of it nobody's going to want to go back to the bargaining table and try to hash out things that may be an issue as they clearly are on a number of different levels, but that are only going to affect a couple of people,” Thomas said.

“I think there's a resistance from management of the NFL and also from the Players Association to do that type of needed updating of the drug policy because obviously there's some oversights when they wrote the program and some cultural changes that have happened that I don't think the program accurately reflects the morals of society today and the NFL and pro sports in general."

Browns get some needed positives

August, 29, 2014
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CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns needed it.

The quarterbacks needed it.

The offense needed it.

Doesn’t matter who it was against, where it was and how it happened. This Browns offense and these quarterbacks finally got some positive things done in the preseason finale, a 33-13 win over the Chicago Bears' third- and fourth-team players.

Brian Hoyer had one drive and scored one touchdown. He was quick in his decisions and accurate on his throws. That was enough for coach Mike Pettine, who put Johnny Manziel in for the rest of the first half and the first drive of the second. Manziel had five drives, scored 13 points and made some nice plays.

It seemed as if both were able to exhale, understand their role and just play, and it seemed to matter. Hoyer got the reps with the starters, prepared with the starters and, unlike last week against the St. Louis Rams, was ready to play with the starters, albeit against backups.

Hoyer went 6-for-8 for 69 yards, and, though he lamented missing a touchdown throw to Jordan Cameron, he did guide the first-team offense on a touchdown drive on the game's first possession.

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"Brian was sharp," Pettine said. "He made good decisions, and he threw the ball well."

Manziel finished 6-for-17 and said he didn't throw particularly well. But he did look more comfortable in the pocket, made more decisive reads and did make plays with his feet, running for 55 yards while throwing for 83.

The best play came when he escaped the pocket, jitterbugged to avoid four or five defenders and ran right and found Nate Burleson for a short completion that Burleson turned into a 27-yard gain.

"That’s who he is," Pettine said. "Somebody said on the sideline, 'There's Johnny being Johnny.' There was one play where it was no, no, no. Yes, yes, yes. It was typical of his playmaking ability that he had a guy open early and didn’t get it to him and he ended up making a play with his feet."

The Browns didn't like the word "relief," but there seemed to be a deep exhale after this game.

"We need that," running back Ben Tate said. "We've been making so many mistakes the last couple games. … That's what it's supposed to look like."

It matters.

It matters because, had it not gone well, the Browns would have been badgered about negativity and "what’s wrong?" questions all week.

It matters that they didn't face any starters, but it matters more that the night went well.

And it matters because, heading into the season opener in Pittsburgh, they can take another deep breath and focus on preparing.

"Whether it was against their backups or whatever it is, momentum is important, and I think our guys will head into next week with a very different mindset," Pettine said. "Just looking back, if it hadn't gone our way tonight, I think it would have been a bit of a shadow cast over us."
The Cleveland Browns announced prior to Thursday night's preseason finale that Andrew Hawkins will start at the receiver spot vacated by the suspension of Josh Gordon. Hawkins joins Miles Austin in the starting lineup. When Hawkins was signed, it was projected he'd be the third receiver and usually line up in the slot to take advantage of matchups. But with Nate Burleson sidelined for so much of the preseason, Hawkins gets the start against the Chicago Bears.

Burleson will get his first preseason game action.

The Browns also announced that four cornerbacks are among those who will not play. That list includes DL Desmond Bryant (wrist), DB Pierre Desir (knee), DB Joe Haden (foot), LB Eric Martin (concussion), DB Buster Skrine (thumb) and DB Isaiah Trufant (knee).

First-round draft pick Justin Gilbert and Leon McFadden will start at cornerback.

BEREA, Ohio -- Mike Pettine listed several positions he will be watching with great interest during the preseason finale against Chicago.

Pettine’s philosophy on building a roster is not to lock himself into numbers at each position, but to go in with a minimum needed at each spot, then fill in with the best players.

“What’s the absolute minimum we have to have at this position to function?” Pettine said. “Then, I think that puts you in a position to go ahead and build from there to go ahead and take the best players. You don’t want to cut a guy just because you’re heavy at one position.”

The positions he will be watching shake out this way:

The last part of the NFL’s statement on the suspension of Josh Gordon provides a glimmer of hope that the Cleveland Browns' super-talented wide receiver might not miss the 2015 training camp.

Gordon’s “suspension” has been viewed as a one-year ban for one calendar year. By the letter of the law, that means Gordon could not return to the Browns until Aug. 27, 2015.

Gordon
Gordon
However, the league provided a tiny shred of hope to Gordon and his future with the Browns by stating the following in its release:

"Gordon’s eligibility for reinstatement will be determined following the 2014 season."

The release also states that Gordon is being suspended “for the 2014 NFL season,” which is not a calendar year.

This would indicate quite clearly -- imagine the layers of lawyers who went over the statement's two paragraphs -- that Gordon could be reinstated before training camp next summer, and perhaps even for offseason work. His absence then would be more similar to a season-ending injury rather than one that drags into the following season.

Nothing is certain.

Asked to clarify the statement, a league spokesman said the league would not elaborate.

So ... there’s that.

But the fact that that statement is included in the release indicates the league will at least consider the fact that the decision took until just before the final preseason game, and it should not affect 2015.

Gordon’s apology and statement that he hoped the league would have used better judgment indicated he knows his hopes for playing this season are slim.

But the league’s statement gives a tiny ray of hope for 2015.


BEREA, Ohio -- Brian Hoyer insists there is not great cause for concern with the Cleveland Browns' offense.

He knows things have looked bad and there have been struggles, but he also said after watching the film that there were some good things in the 33-14 loss to St. Louis.

“If we just sucked, then I think we’d be down on ourselves,” Hoyer said Tuesday as the team looks ahead to the preseason finale Thursday against Chicago. “I think we realize what we can be.”

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Problem is, it hasn't been seen yet. The first team has one touchdown in three games, and the Browns have been outscored 70-49 in three losses.

It is preseason, but this also is a team with a new and complex offense learning on the fly -- a team that until a week ago had a quarterback competition, and a team that has lost 10 games in each of the last six seasons.

Even with preseason being about evaluating and assessing players and positions, winning should never be taken for granted when losing has been so pervasive.

Hoyer, though, said the offense is not “down on ourselves.”

“I think the most frustrating part is that we do do some things really well,” he said, “and then we shoot ourselves in the foot.”

The first-team offense has scored 16 points in its playing offense -- all on possessions with Hoyer at quarterback. Those 16 points came on 15 possessions. The only touchdown came on a late two-minute drive against the Rams.

There have been turnovers, missed throws and some serious struggles -- with only six passes that gained at least 15 yards. Hoyer said the team runs the play called no matter what the defense is doing, but clearly the Browns would like some better production.

Because they need the time, coach Mike Pettine will play the starters up to a quarter Thursday, a game normally reserved for reserves.

Hoyer, though, is not ready to say he and the starters need a positive experience from the fourth game. Just that they want one.

“I don’t think there will be any kind of hangover, whether it’s positive or negative, going into the regular season,” he said. “I think it’s a whole new ballgame when that comes around.”

That’s not a new statement from a Browns player at this point of preseason.

The hope in Cleveland would simply be that Hoyer is the guy who is finally right about it.
The Cleveland Browns trimmed their roster to 76 players on Tuesday. Teams have to get down to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Most significant move: The release of wide receiver Anthony Armstrong isn't exactly a shock, but it does show where the Browns are when it comes to the wide receiver position as they await word on the suspension of Josh Gordon. Armstrong is a veteran with knowledge of Kyle Shanahan's offense, and he stood out in shorts in the OTAs and minicamp. But in training camp he leveled off, and as time went on it was evident he was not going to be a major contributor. The development of a young player like Taylor Gabriel made this decision easy.

Running away: Running back Edwin Baker started at the end of the 2013 season, but he didn't make it past the first cuts in Cleveland. That's a sign of the way the Browns viewed the running backs of last season, and of the reality that they have added Terrance West through the draft. Baker's cup of coffee in Cleveland might, though, give him a chance with another team.

What’s next: The decision on Gordon lingers. The Browns' final two moves took the roster to 76, which indicates the team expects -- or at least hopes -- to hear something before the deadline (a few hours away as of this writing). A suspension of Gordon would take care of that last spot.

Browns moves: Waived DB Royce Adams, RB Edwin Baker, OL Randall Harris, DB T.J. Heath, DL Cam Henderson, WR Jonathan Krause, OL Ryan Lee, LB Caleb McSurdy, OL Keavon Milton, LB Keith Pough, WR Tim Smith, OL Jeremiah Warren, TE Martell Webb. Contract terminated: WR Anthony Armstrong. Placed on injured reserve: OL Michael Bowie, LB Darius Eubanks.

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