BEREA — Six-foot-5 guys with above-average athleticism are a dime a dozen in the NBA.
They’re a diamond in the rough in the NFL.
Enter Jordan Cameron.
Browns general manager Tom Heckert spent a fourth-round pick on Cameron in 2011, despite just 16 catches and one touchdown in 23 games as a reserve at USC. Heckert saw potential and hoped he could follow in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates — college basketball forwards that developed into Pro Bowl tight ends.
Cameron, with six catches as a rookie, is a million miles away from Hawaii. But he’s been a different player in his second training camp and looks like he’ll make a contribution in the revamped Browns offense.
“I have confidence in myself. I knew I could make plays out here,” he said of his rookie season. “I didn’t have confidence in the technique that I had. It was really my first year of playing tight end, so the footsteps and the hand placements and where to put your hat, there’s a lot of different things I didn’t really know about. So I was shaky on those things.
“I still don’t know everything obviously, I have a lot to learn. But I was definitely more confident coming in this year, knowing the basic steps and the basic techniques to help me out.”
Cameron returned Friday after missing almost a week of practice with a bone bruise on his back suffered when he landed hard on the Ford Field turf after making a leaping 42-yard catch in the preseason opener in Detroit. Coach Pat Shurmur thinks Cameron will quickly regain his form and said Cameron made the biggest jump of anyone in the offseason.
“I don’t want to sound cliché, but you have to practice it and play it to improve at it,” Shurmur said. “He was a guy that didn’t play a lot of football in college, but showed us the skill and ability to be a good receiver.”
Cameron began his college career at BYU in 2006, redshirting as a forward on the basketball team. He stopped at Ventura Junior College for a year when his BYU credits didn’t transfer to USC, then played in 11 football games in his first two years at USC, but had no catches.
If Cameron develops into a big-time player, the Browns will owe a debt of gratitude to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. When Carroll was at USC, he told Cameron he could make it in the NFL.
“I was a basketball family growing up,” said Cameron, whose sister Brynn played for USC. “The reason I made the switch, and I was just talking to Coach Carroll about all this — he really thought I had a future in football and I believed that I did, too. So when he told me that, it kind of tipped me over the edge and made me want to focus on football more and it helped a lot.
“He gave me some confidence that I could actually play this game and play it at a high level. Definitely that switch was all about me wanting to get back to the game of football.”
The reasons the Browns were attracted to Cameron are the same reasons he made the switch.
“There’s a bunch of 6-6 guys that can run and jump and are way more athletic than I am,” Cameron said of his former sport.
Those are the skills that make him such an intriguing prospect. Throughout camp he’s routinely made acrobatic catches downfield and is a mismatch for most safeties and linebackers.
“Basketball really translates well to football,” Cameron said. “I think that’s the best training for you.
“You’re bending, you’re moving in space, moving laterally, you’re working on getting low and just jumping. So running routes, you’re moving in space, you’re boxing out defenders, you’re jumping up to make a catch, you’re bending low to get a pass here and you’re losing leverage. It definitely helps growing up playing basketball my whole life. Soft hands is another thing. Basketball players always have soft hands.”
No amount of time on the hardwood can prepare you for trying to move a 300-pound defensive end on an off-tackle run. If Cameron, who weighs 245 and was a receiver until his senior year at USC, is going to earn consistent playing time, he must prove he can handle that responsibility.
“You have to be able to do more than one thing for us to throw you the football,” Shurmur said. “I think that’s one of the things he’s focused on quite a bit and he’s getting better. The important thing for the tight end is to use your feet properly and right hand placement and all that. And I think he’s a good enough athlete to do that, and at that point when the defender tries to separate, then you’ve got to use your athletic ability to kind of keep you on the block. He has all those things and he’s getting better.”
Veteran Benjamin Watson is the undisputed starter, but the Browns use a lot of two-tight end sets. Cameron is competing with Evan Moore and Alex Smith for playing time — and possibly roster spots. Moore is also a converted receiver with great athleticism, but struggles as a blocker. Smith is a veteran who excels as a blocker and is well-schooled in the West Coast Offense.
If Cameron can continue his progress through the final two games of the preseason, he will threaten to take snaps away from Moore. Cameron is an inch shorter and 5 pounds lighter, but is more imposing and more willing to block. He spent the offseason getting stronger and more explosive.
“He’s definitely improved from where he was last year and he’s still improving,” said linebacker Quinton Spears, who took a shot from Cameron on Monday.
Cameron said he felt comfortable against the Lions. The game didn’t seem to move as fast and he was able to recognize coverages and read the defensive backs. He has no doubts he’ll be able to build on his strong start.
“The thing about Jordan, he’s such a good athlete,” quarterback Brandon Weeden said. “You can match him up on a linebacker, he can run double moves, he can run verticals, he can really fly, run corner routes, he can do so many different things like a receiver.
“He’s that hybrid. He’s had a great camp. He’s really come on and made a lot of plays.”
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