- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 28
BEREA, Ohio -- With three teams in the division coming off winning seasons, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go to climb out of the AFC North basement
That’s why Cleveland's ownership put together the high-profile pairing of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. The new front office has reshaped the roster through the draft and free agency in hopes of starting to close the gap with its rivals and improving on last year's 5-11 record.
With so many new faces, Cleveland remains a team in transition. The Browns must come together quickly in training camp to be competitive in 2010.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Will Eric Mangini win in Year 2? This is a critical year for Mangini, who begins the season on the hot seat. Holmgren, a longtime head coach, knows that it takes more than one season to implement a program and was fair in giving Mangini a second year. A four-game winning streak to end last season also helped.
But Mangini must keep that momentum going in what should be a very competitive year in the AFC North. He doesn't have the same level of talent to work with as other coaches in the division. But Mangini is optimistic about 2010.
"I feel really good about the progress we've made, the strides we've made," Mangini said. "The second year is different. Guys understand expectations. There are so many things that you don't have to cover because they get it and they become teachers to people who are new, and that helps a lot."
2. Is quarterback Jake Delhomme the answer? Despite his pedigree, the Delhomme signing has not instilled much confidence with Browns fans.
Delhomme is coming off the worst year of his career (eight TD passes, 18 interceptions) and was benched and eventually released by the Carolina Panthers.
But if Delhomme isn't the answer, the team will turn to backup Seneca Wallace, who is a longtime Holmgren protégé. Rookie third-round draft pick Colt McCoy is regarded as the quarterback of the future but isn't expected to start this season.
3. Will young players step up? When you have a rebuilding team, young players must step forward. Cleveland has a lot of first- and second-year players who are unproven but expected to be major contributors.
Players such as second-year receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and rookies Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, a free safety, and Montario Hardesty, a running back, are expected to fill major roles. These players will learn on the job as Cleveland's coaching staff tries to minimize their mistakes.
Haden, a cornerback, will have the biggest spotlight because he was taken No. 7 overall this year and is the first draft pick of the Holmgren and Heckert era. Haden struggled some in minicamp but is starting to look more comfortable. He still must get to the point where he's thinking less and relying more on his football instincts. So far, Haden has been a step late on too many plays.
"It's getting better and better every day," Haden said. "[Tuesday's] practice was better than [Monday's] practice. … now I feel like I'm about at 90 percent of knowing of exactly what's going on, so when I get that next 10, it's going to be full go."
With so much attention put on Delhomme this season, I thought the best quarterback in camp this week was Wallace. He made some very nice throws, particularly on the run, while leading the second-team offense.
But unless Wallace lights it up in the preseason, do not expect another quarterback controversy in Cleveland. The Browns are paying Delhomme $7 million this season to be the starter.
Despite being a backup, Wallace will play in another capacity as the team's Wildcat quarterback, which we will get to later.
This was supposed to be a breakthrough camp for Hardesty. Instead, his first training camp never got off the ground because of a knee injury.
Hardesty was competing with incumbent Jerome Harrison for the starting tailback job, and after a solid spring, many considered him the early favorite. But the second-round pick has missed every full-squad practice of training camp thus far and has fallen behind.
According to Mangini, Hardesty may not return until sometime next week at the earliest.
Something that jumps out right away is Cleveland's lack of team speed. The Browns look slow and not as athletic as the other two teams I watched in training camp (Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals). That could be a problem. Cleveland has plenty of thumpers, so size isn't an issue. But the Browns appear more built to win a 13-7 game in inclement weather in December than a 35-30 shootout in September.
The "Flash and Cyclone" package has been successful in training camp. Josh Cribbs and Wallace are arguably the most versatile players on the team and appear to be developing solid chemistry in Cleveland's version of the Wildcat. Both players are elusive and dangerous with the football.
I'm still not sold on Cleveland's receiving corps. Massaquoi has made some plays, but certainly not enough to be a dominant No. 1 receiver. The same goes for Robiskie, who is a projected starter. The Browns are throwing to the tight ends and running backs a lot in this camp, and a reason may be the lack of depth at receiver.
Ward is having a solid training camp. He continues to show up around the football, which is what you want from a starting safety. The rookie second-round pick still makes mistakes in pass coverage, but Ward usually shows good effort and practices hard. He is known as a big hitter.
Keep an eye on running back Peyton Hillis. He was the forgotten player in the Brady Quinn trade this offseason with the Denver Broncos. But Hillis is showing good toughness running between the tackles. He runs solid routes and has soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Hillis could be an underrated acquisition who works out well for Cleveland.
Another sleeper on this team could be second-year tight end Evan Moore. Although his run blocking needs work, Moore is probably the best receiving tight end on the roster. With starting tight end Ben Watson and Robert Royal able to do the dirty work, Moore could be a nice change of pace to give the tight-end position some big-play ability.
A weakness in Cleveland's defense could be its outside linebackers dropping in pass coverage. Matt Roth and Marcus Benard, in particular, do not look comfortable shadowing running backs. Hillis and Harrison beat Cleveland's outside linebackers repeatedly on passing routes in camp this week.
It's been difficult to get a firm read on McCoy. He has played a majority of camp with the third-team offense, which consists of many players who will not make the team. Inconsistent in camp, McCoy looks like a typical rookie quarterback. Preseason games probably will be a better gauge of where the third-round pick stands.