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Browns camp: Five issues to watch

The conversation on the edge of the practice putting green before the team’s charity golf outing was worth noting.

The conversation on the edge of the practice putting green before the team’s charity golf outing was worth noting.
Owner Jimmy Haslam took advantage of a minute alone with cornerback Justin Gilbert, who was drafted with the No. 8 pick only two years ago but has been written off by many after a pair of highly disappointing seasons.
“That the team’s going to need me this year and proud of the way I’ve been working, so just continue to head in the right direction,” Gilbert said last month, relaying the boss’ message.
The Browns are faced with plenty of issues with the first full-squad practice of training camp set for Friday. Whether Gilbert can salvage his career and finally take advantage of his immense physical gifts is as pressing as any.
Gilbert has made three starts in two seasons. The previous coaching staff lost trust in him due to a lack of commitment, desire and consistency.
New coach Hue Jackson wiped the slate clean when he arrived and believes Gilbert has taken advantage of the fresh start.
“I can’t talk about what has gone on here in the past,” Jackson said during the offseason program. “For him, I know it is well-documented, but that is not the young man that I have met since I got here and have talked to him and have had exchanges with.
“He’s been sensational. He has done everything that we have asked him to do, the way we have asked him to do it. I am very proud of him, and I am very proud of the things that he is doing.”
Gilbert spent much of the offseason working with the starters as Joe Haden recovered from ankle surgery. If he can stay there when Haden returns, the Browns will start to get a return on their hefty investment.
“It’s been pretty good and I want to try to continue to get those reps even when he comes back,” said Gilbert, who quickly adapted to a technique change suggested by the staff.
He has embraced the fresh start, eager to move past the tough questions about character and passion that have dogged him since he was a rookie.
“I don’t want to talk about the past at all,” he said. “The coaches have been pretty clear about starting fresh and have a brand new start and not looking in the rearview mirror and just going straight forward from here on out. It feels good.”
After trying to reach him with tough love, Gilbert’s teammates have taken a more welcoming approach. He was touched by the warm reception he received after returning from a family tragedy.
“To see him grow the way he’s grown, on and off the field, is something this team needs,” safety Jordan Poyer said. “I truly believe this team is going to need him to help us win games. He’s becoming one of the guys and he’s being more and more vocal every day on the field and it’s exciting.”
Raw reaction
The first day of training camp is always greeted with optimism, normally accompanied by raucous cheers. Friday’s session may have a far different tone for one of the Browns.
Running back Isaiah Crowell alienated many fans with his recent Instagram post of an illustration of a policeman having his throat slit.
Crowell, 23, quickly took down the post, apologized in a statement and Facebook video and attended the funeral of a slain Dallas officer. The Cleveland and Dallas police departments have said they forgive him, but plenty of fans remain angry. It will be interesting to see and hear how fans treat him when he jogs onto the field and takes a handoff.
Crowell’s talent was obvious in his first two years — 1,313 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, 3.9 average — but he was also inconsistent in practice and games. He’ll have to be mentally tough to block out the negativity and become the workhorse Jackson envisions.
Jackson was effusive in his praise of Crowell during minicamp and had big plans for a one-two running punch of Crowell and Duke Johnson. After the post the Browns said Crowell needed to do more than apologize, and he has, but their plans to stick with him could be tested if the fans aren’t so quick to forgive and forget.
Hello, Josh
The last two days have been all about receiver Josh Gordon following his reinstatement to the league. That’s likely to continue throughout training camp and beyond.
Gordon will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season, so it’s imperative for him to show a new coaching staff the talent that was obvious during his 2013 All-Pro season. Unfortunately, Gordon reported Tuesday with a quadriceps injury and won’t practice for at least the first couple of weeks.
The Browns and their fans have waited for Gordon to find his way for years, so another few weeks shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But he must get healthy, stay clean and prove he’s motivated to again make the most of his immense physical skills.
Whether he can do that after being suspended for all of last season and 27 of the last 32 games will be one of the biggest questions answered over the next six weeks.
Missing Bryant
Defensive line was probably the area of the team that could least afford a key injury, yet that’s exactly what happened when end Desmond Bryant tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights. He’s likely done for the season, leaving a significant hole at the front of the defense.
The Browns recognized this and signed veteran end Nick Hayden, who started 15 games last season for the Cowboys. He joins John Hughes, Xavier Cooper and rookie Carl Nassib as potential starters at the end spots.
This is the perfect time for Cooper to take a jump in his second season. The third-round pick has a quick first step and potential as a pass rusher but didn’t start a game as a rookie and finished with 1.5 sacks and 19 tackles in 14 games.
Regardless of the production from his replacements, the Browns likely won’t be able to fill Bryant’s steadiness and leadership. It’s a young group that will need to be shepherded by veteran assistant coach Robert Nunn.
Get healthy
The Browns aren’t deep enough or talented enough to withstand the loss of key contributors to injuries. So they need Haden, tight end Gary Barnidge and Gordon to make quick recoveries.
Haden, who had ankle surgery in March, will open camp on the physically unable to perform list. His rehab continues to progress, but he hasn’t practiced since Oct. 30, so he needs as many repetitions as he can get. The secondary is filled with question marks and needs a healthy and Pro Bowl-caliber Haden to settle the waters.
The Browns did get some good news Tuesday when Barnidge, who had sports hernia surgery in June, passed his physical and will be ready for the start of camp. And right tackle Shon Coleman, a third-round pick who missed the offseason program following knee surgery, should join the competition at right tackle.
Rookie tight end Seth DeValve, a fourth-rounder, will open on PUP, putting him further behind after missing parts of the offseason.
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or [email protected] Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @ScottPetrak.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.


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