By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
CHICAGO — Here are my five areas to watch for Thursday night’s preseason-finale against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field:
>>Stay healthy. It doesn’t matter that most of the starters won’t play. Besides the few starters who will be on the field, it’s equally important for the other players – many of whom will fill backup roles – to avoid getting hurt. This has been a particularly bad preseason for injuries for several NFL teams, and the Browns have not been immune with the losses of running back Dion Lewis (for the season with a broken leg), offensive guard Jason Pinkston (into the early part of the season with a sprained ankle), and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo (return unknown with a bruised lung). Still, it matters that the Browns give a credible showing, something that indicates — even in some small ways — that they’re ready for the real thing on Sept. 8 against the Dolphins. Backups need to look every bit as ready as starters.
>>Jason Campbell showing he’s a solid No. 2. For the most part, Campbell has had a solid offseason, training camp and preseason. He had a rough outing at Indianapolis Saturday night, but so did starter Brandon Weeden and third-stringer Brian Hoyer. Campbell and Hoyer faced heavy pressure from the Colts’ pass rush, and struggled to make plays. It would be nice to see Campbell to give an efficient and even effective performance, just to offer a little reassurance that the backup job is in good hands. By most accounts, it is. And compared with many other teams in the NFL, the experience of the depth the Browns have at quarterback is fairly strong.
>>Travis Benjamin showing he can be a dependable fill-in for Josh Gordon. Through the first three preseason games, the Browns have chosen to pretty much limit Benjamin’s contribution to punt returns. And, with his extraordinary speed, he wasted no time showing his game-breaking skills in that area. Benjamin is capable of having a similar impact as a wide receiver, and he should get the chance to display as much against the Bears. Gordon is among the few starters who will play, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain in the game very long. Benjamin’s time at receiver probably will be limited, too, but it would be nice to see him get some pass-catching reps to help prepare him for those first two regular-season games while Gordon is serving his suspension.
>>David Nelson’s one-game audition. After sitting out the first three preseason games and most of training camp while recovering from major knee surgery he underwent as a member of the Bills last season, the wide receiver finally gets a chance to show the Browns’ decision-makers he’s worth keeping on the roster. Generally speaking, few, if any, players can make such a statement in a single preseason game, especially when they’ve done more watching than participating in practice. But Nelson is a little bit of a special case. The Browns’ hierarchy knows he could make a significant difference as a big, athletic red-zone target that is likely to draw favorable matchups working from the slot. If Nelson can, at the very least, show the ability to move well and get open, and at the very most, make a couple of nice catches, he could very well do enough to earn a spot on the final 53-man roster.
>>Other backups making their mark. The final roster is mostly set. The Browns’ player-personnel department already has a good handle on the next round of cuts that will take the roster from 75 to 53 and is well into the process of figuring out what late additions from other teams (and corresponding subtractions) it will make by the weekend. Nevertheless, this game holds some significance for certain players to reinforce their cases to retain reserve roles. The biggest judgements will be based on special-teams performance. Shayne Graham appears to have won the place-kicking spot, but Spencer Lanning and newly acquired Colton Schmidt will apparently have a one-game punting duel. Tank Carder, James-Michael Johnson, and L.J. Fort will each look to make one last push for one of probably two backup spots at inside linebacker. And the biggest way that push will be made is through their performance on the kicking units.
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