BEREA — With the Cleveland Browns opener Sept. 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals fast approaching, it looks more and more like rookie Jason Pinkston will start the season as the team’s left guard.
Starting left guard Eric Steinbach continues to have back issues and time is getting short before the opener with the Browns’ in-state rival.
“He hasn’t been out there and it’s been documented that he’s dealing with a back issue,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “We haven’t made a decision, but there will be one soon.”
If Pinkston ends up as the starter, he would be the fourth drafted rookie to crack the lineup along with Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and Owen Marecic. Shurmur said he isn’t losing sleep over the number of rookies that might end up playing.
“(The rookies) are excited,” he said. “I’ve seen steady improvement but we’re going to see pretty soon in the regular games. They tend to have fresh legs, but if I worry about all the things it would be two pages long.
“You can’t do (worry about) that. You take them through the process and get them ready as much as you can.”
Pinkston will be in a key role, replacing one of the stalwarts on the line. While Joe Thomas and Alex Mack went to the Pro Bowl last season, Steinbach played at a high level as well.
Pinkston said he has received a lot of support from the Browns two Pro-Bowl offensive linemen.
“Joe Thomas is over there saying, ‘You know what you’re doing?’” Pinkston said. “Then I’ve got Alex (Mack) to my right. They’ve been great about helping me out, I’ve got no complaints there.”
Pinkston, (6-foot-3, 317 pounds) was acquired by the Browns with a fifth-round draft choice (15oth overall). The Browns traded two draft choices (168th and 170th overall) to Minnesota in order to move up and select Pinkston.
Shawn Lauvao, who was drafted in the third-round in 2010, rarely played his rookie season after suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason. In effect, the Browns would be starting inexperienced players at both guard spots.
Pinkston said he’s up for the challenge.
“If it comes my way, I’ll be there to step up,” Pinkston said. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I’m preparing myself every day. And I’ve got the guys in the locker room helping me out, so that’s a good thing.”
The ability for Colt McCoy to have time to throw and the ability for Peyton Hillis to have room to run hangs in the balance.
“The best thing for Pinkston is that he’s got two Pro Bowlers on either side of him,” McCoy said. “That goes a long ways. Those guys will really help him and pull him along.”
Shurmur said that he feels Pinkston has come a long way since the first day of camp.
“I tell you what Jason Pinkston has made huge, huge strides in three plus weeks,” Shurmur said. “It’s one thing to be on the perimeter running routes as a rookie and doing it, but when you’re in there in the thick of it, it’s very challenging for those big guys. It really takes development and seasoning and I think he’s making huge progress.”
Shurmur isn’t ready to announce Pinkston as the starter.
“Again, we’re in the process of the fourth preseason game where he will get a bunch of reps,” he said. “In the next couple of weeks, we’ll make the decision on who finally makes the roster and who plays at that left guard spot.”
Dynamic Duo: Shurmur was asked if he expected to see RB Peyton Hillis and RB Montario Hardesty on the field together, at times.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve put in a package of plays where we can use two fullbacks, a fullback and a tailback or two tailbacks. If Peyton and Montario are both available on game day, we could use both of those guys together.”
When the Browns drafted Hardesty in 2010, they envisioned using both together as Hillis emerged during the 2010 preseason. Hillis was a fullback in college, who blocked for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
With the injury to Brandon Jackson, Hillis and Hardesty are being counted upon to carry the load, especially in the early going.
Shurmur said he is not worried that Hillis’ physical style could affect his durability.
“(Hillis) is a physical player and that’s what makes him unique,” Shurmur said. “He doesn’t shy away from a straight-on blow. I don’t know (what long-term affect) about his durability.”
Mo and Mitchell Back: WR Mohamed Massaquoi and WR Carlton Mitchell both returned to the practice field after missing most of the training camp. It is unclear if either player will play against the Bears in the final preseason game.
Masaquoi hopes to be ready for the season opener.
“I can’t put a timetable on it,” he said. “I just know that whenever I step on the field, I’m going to work as hard as I can to make up for the lost time. The timing (of the injury) was terrible.”
Injury Update: OL Eric Steinbach (back), DB T.J. Ward (hamstring), DB Usama Young (hamstring), DB Eric Hagg (foot) and LB Titus Brown (ankle) were not expected to practice on Monday.
Shurmur said he is expecting Ward back soon.
“He is increasing his workload,” he said. “We anticipate (Ward) and Usama out there soon.”
Shurmur said that rookie DB Eric Hagg is ‘a fast healer’.
Watson Out: TE Ben Watson was not practicing after injuring his hamstring Sunday. Also, not on the field were RB Brandon Jackson (toe), LB Titus Brown (ankle) and OL Eric Steinbach (back). Watson’s injury was not addressed when Pat Shurmur met with the media prior to practice. LB Chris Gocong (neck) and DL Travis Ivey (undisclosed) were on the bikes and doing some running.
On a positive note, WR Josh Cribbs (hamstring), DB T.J. Ward (hamstring) and Usama Young (hamstring) were back in full pads, but were limited. WR Carlton Mitchell (finger) and WR Mohamed Massaquoi (foot) were in full pads.
Cover Boy: RB Peyton Hillis received an advance copy of the Madden ’12 that features him on the cover. The game goes on sale on Tuesday, but Hillis gave out advance copies to his teammates, including Shurmur over the weekend.
“I did (receive it),” Shurmur said. “I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve never played the game. My son is considered somewhat of an expert.”
Shurmur said his son has taken over possession.
“I think he’s interested to see what I look like in the game.”