With the Cleveland Browns coming up on their first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, there are a number of position battles and fringe roster players to keep an eye on in game one. Though many are not talking about it with all of the focus on quarterback and running back, one of the more intriguing positions to watch this offseason will be tight end—specifically what comes of free agent acquisition, Rob Housler.
Signed to a one-year deal worth $1.76 million, Housler is an athletic specimen who never developed into the next “tight end freak” the Arizona Cardinals thought he would be. Drafted in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Housler had the measurables coaches’ dream of coming out of Florida Atlantic. He stood 6’5” and 248 pounds and posted a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, lending the Cardinals to think he could be a very special tight end.
In his three seasons with the Cardinals, Housler hauled in 105 receptions for 1,133 yards and just one touchdown. Though he was in a quarterback situation many Cleveland fans are used to, the numbers were a fry cry from the team’s expectations for him back in 2011. Because of this, the Cardinals allowed him to walk in free agency this offseason.
For the Cleveland Browns, Housler was brought in to compete as part of a platoon of sorts in order to replace former tight end Jordan Cameron, who left for the Miami Dolphins in free agency this offseason. Added to the mix with Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray (prior to the draft), many people—myself included—thought Housler had a major opportunity to make a name for himself finally here in Cleveland. Essentially playing on a one year “prove it” contract at 27-years old, Housler was supposed to come in and out work everyone at the position in camp.
Pettine: Confident Rob Housler will come around. The TE dropped three balls today and has struggled in Browns camp.
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) August 11, 2015
Instead, reviews have been quite the contrary from those at Cleveland Browns training camp. Reports of Housler dropping a number of passes and not standing out among the group have come out, but what has been more prevalent has been the emergence of Barnidge—a player who has caught 26 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns during his two seasons with the Browns. Over the course of his career, Barnidge has logged 44 receptions for 603 yards and three touchdowns between the Browns and Carolina Panthers.
With numbers like that for Barnidge, many people are probably shaking their head in regard to why we are talking about Housler as possibly being on the chopping block right about now. However, the coaching staff and beat writers in attendance have had nothing but glowing reviews of the work Barnidge has put in this offseason. Discussing the tight ends with the media, head coach Mike Pettine had a lot of good things to say about Barnidge. He said, “Gary has done a nice job. We play with multiple tight ends. Right now, if we had to put one out there, it would be Gary. Gary is the ultimate professional. He comes out and does his job, prepares well, very rarely has a mental mistake. I think he has a lot better hands than people give him credit for.”
Pettine called Gary Barnidge the lead TE right now. #Browns
— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) August 10, 2015
Barnidge has already turned a number of heads during practices in Berea, including some very athletic catches against the Browns highly touted defensive backs—including Tashaun Gipson. You can see one below as he rips the ball from Gipson, and then out works Craig Robertson for a touchdown in a goal line set.
GARY BARNIDGE. 👀 https://t.co/BN6AiVo7Ah
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 10, 2015
Both feet in. Gary Barnidge keeps making plays. https://t.co/6tRce3BU15
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 11, 2015
If Barnidge making waves during camp as a pass catcher wasn’t enough to make Housler sweat, the emergence of undrafted free agent E.J. Bibbs nipping at his heels for a roster spot should. Though undersized at 6’2” and 258 pounds out of Iowa State, Pettine had a lot of great things to say about Bibbs back in July—and has continued into training camp. Back in July Pettine stated, “The (E.J.) Bibbs kid has had a real good spring for us. He’s kind of come out of nowhere. We feel that we have some depth in the room and some future depth in that room that we’re very pleased with.”
Pettine isn’t the only one who has spoken highly of Bibbs, as his position coach Brian Angelichio has glowed about his work ethic and more. Angelichio stated, “I’m certainly pleased with his work ethic right now. (He’s) taking the approach in the classroom, working hard outside the building. A lot of that stuff will take shape as we go through training camp and more decisions will be made. We’ll get to see him in real contact, where he’s got to block people, and then the preseason games.”
With the rising stock of Barnidge and Bibbs in training camp, it was assumed by this writer that Dray could be the odd man out of this group. However, the more you look at the situation—despite being signed to a contract this offseason—it could be Housler for a couple of reasons.
If Barnidge and Bibbs are looking steady as pass catchers, the team could go with Dray as the blocking tight end who can catch passes when called upon. Bibbs is also versatile enough to line up as both a tight end and fullback—something the team loved about rookie Malcolm Johnson—which gives him added value. The team also took Randall Telfer out of USC later in the draft (currently healing from an injury), who likely will not be ready to join the team until the middle of the season at the earliest.
On top of all of this, Housler’s contract isn’t as big as many people seem to think. The Browns signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.76 million (as previously stated), but it is not all guaranteed. In fact, only the $750,000 signing bonus he received is guaranteed—as his base salary of $1 million is not guaranteed. He also is in line to receive a $10,000 workout bonus as well. So at the end of the day, if Housler has not convinced the Browns offense he should stay—it would likely cost the Browns a total of $760,000.
With all of this in mind, the preseason begins on Thursday and Housler—like all of the tight ends—will have the opportunity to prove it on the field, where it truly matters. But as preseason goes on and everyone is focusing on Josh McCown versus Johnny Manziel, do not forget to take a look at what is going on a tight end. Because when it is all said and done, it could be the best battle of camp—which could result in a surprise cut when the roster is trimmed to 53.