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Browns camp notes: Joe Thomas exits practice

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BEREA, Ohio -- Joe Thomas has been the heart and soul of the Cleveland Browns for almost a decade.

The eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle has never missed a snap and stands out as one of the most durable bookends of our time.

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That's why it was alarming to see him gingerly walking off the practice field Monday after having his leg rolled up on by rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton.

"I don't think it's anything serious," said coach Mike Pettine, adding Thomas simply went through a routine checkup from trainers, who took a close look at the blocker's right knee and ankle. The team later echoed Pettine, saying the injury "is not believed to be serious," and that Thomas won't undergo an MRI.

The Browns open their preseason at home Thursday against the Washington Redskins. With the starters likely to play no more than a series or two, sitting Thomas would make some sense -- if he'll let them. If he does take the night off, Pettine said former Seahawks lineman Michael Bowie and first-rounder Cam Erving would combine for snaps on the blind side.

Here's what else we learned from Monday's practice in Berea:

1. This year's Browns camp has a businesslike feel to it. The vibe is night and day from the circus that swirled around the franchise a year ago -- with the lights burning bright on Johnny Manziel and Josh Gordon's future hanging in the balance. Pettine told me after practice this year's team is ahead of where they were a year ago. He's more comfortable in his role, too, but said "our message as a staff, from the first day of training camp, is 'Words into Action.' We talk about it that, 'Hey, we're going to take the next step,' but that's got to show up on the field and that's got to show up on the field when it counts."

2. If that's going to happen, Shelton will play a big part. I can tell you this: He is a massive human. His super-hero calves resemble trees from the forest. His lower body is compact and powerful -- and it shows on every snap. Shelton plays with a super-charged motor and looked terrific on Monday. Browns writers told me he's done this all camp. I can't help but think back to the 2006 NFL Draft, when the Ravens sat at No. 13 overall, but jumped into Cleveland's No. 12 spot by simply sending the Browns a sixth-rounder in return. Cleveland wound up with the serviceable Kamerion Wimbley, while Baltimore secured the rights to defensive terror Haloti Ngata.

Shelton eases that pain for Browns fans. He looks the part in every way. Forget the business about him being a two-down thumper. Shelton feels like a rock-solid first-round pick for a team that finished last against the run in 2014.

3. Cornerback Justin Gilbert is no immediate threat to unseat Tramon Williams across from Pro Bowler Joe Haden. Last year's first-round pick spent part of Monday as a kick returner, which he excelled at in college. Pettine said Gilbert would continue to get work at that spot, but that isn't why they drafted him eighth overall.

4. Terrelle Pryor was the talk of camp before tweaking his hamstring. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound athletic freak was off to the side and out of pads catching footballs away from his scrimmaging teammates. Will he make the team?

On one hand, the Browns really need a big, physical pass-catcher. This is easily the smallest group of wideouts in the league. Andrew Hawkins (5-foot-7), Taylor Gabriel (5-foot-8), Shane Wynn (5-foot-6) and Travis Benjamin (5-foot-10) are all undersized and Pryor is the only receiver in Cleveland over 6-foot-2. But he remains an experiment -- and one who isn't playing. Cleveland isn't in a position to cast off plus-athletes, but Pryor has to get into game action to seal the deal.

Sidenote: Fourth-round wideout Vince Mayle has a ways to go, but he can help with the size issue. At 6-foot-2, 219 pounds, he sports a wide build and looks more like a hybrid tight end.

5. Speaking of Gabriel, he can fly. He beat Haden on a 45-yard heat-seeker down the sideline from Josh McCown in 7-on-7s. He's already made the team after a surprising rookie season that saw him finish eighth in the league in yards per catch (16.7) and fourth overall in yards after the catch per reception, according to Pro Football Focus. Another name to keep an eye on: Josh Lenz, who lit up last week's scrimmage and made plays again today.

6. On Sunday, running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said that nobody is stepping up to earn the "bell cow" role, lashing out at the group for failing to show up in "tip-top shape." On Monday, we saw Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West both take snaps with the first team, which makes sense considering that rookie Duke Johnson is still out with a tweaked hamstring. This backfield has the DNA to drive fantasy owners into a dark fever dream. Everyone's going to play. Including fullback Malcolm Johnson, who returned to action and appears slated for a similar role to what Marcel Reece played in Oakland under current Browns play-caller John DeFelippo. A Browns source told me over the summer that Malcolm is "going to play a lot of football for us," calling the sixth-rounder "versatile," with "good hands." He played a bunch on Monday -- catching passes out of the backfield -- and showing some moxie.

7. General manager Ray Farmer spent practice talking with Browns legend Jim Brown. We also spotted former Browns power back Kevin Mack, who -- in his prime -- would fit well into this run-heavy attack. Plenty has been said about the strength of the Cleveland's line, which grew deeper with the drafting of Erving. It was concerning to hear that he was being moved around too much in practice -- which happened to Greg Robinson in St. Louis last offseason -- but I was told that Erving has lined up primarily at right guard. This front five can move bodies around. If only Tim Couch had walked into this kind of situation.

8. The picture at quarterback remains unchanged. McCown threw a series of nice passes on Monday, but Manziel also worked with a rash of starters. We just need to see these two in game action. I did find it unusual to hear Drake's Manziel-inspired "Draft Day" blasting over the speakers as Johnny lined up under center.

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Manziel, as reported, comes off as more focused, which has a lot to do with the presence of McCown, DeFelippo -- who has no problem taking charge during practice -- and quarterbacks coach Kevin O'Connell, who actively spent time with all his passers. Linebacker Karlos Dansby told me the Browns are "without a doubt" better at quarterback. The underlying message is how much the veterans respect McCown, no matter where he's going -- or not going -- in fantasy drafts.

9. Final nuggets: Keep an eye on (yet another) undrafted player in tight end E.J. Bibbs out of Iowa State. He saw his share of snaps on Monday. Pettine, though, called Gary Barnidge Cleveland's No. 1 at the position, further dimming fantasy hopes for Rob Housler. ... Pettine also suggested that defensive lineman Phil Taylor will play exclusively in the A-gap and B-gap this season. ... I dig Scott Solomon, the energetic outside linebacker who seems destined for a larger role than Barkevious Mingo this season. ... Thank you to the Browns for letting Around the NFL tag along on this Monday in Cleveland.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Steve Smith's retirement news and predicts the training camp QB battles.

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