Browns camp preview: It all begins with the offensive line
Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.
See that? It really is all about the offensive line.
When the Browns drafted offensive tackle Joe Thomas and signed guard Eric Steinbach away from the Bengals, they instantly cobbled together arguably the best left side of an offensive line in the NFL. It all grew from there. Derek Anderson's blind side was rock-solid. Jamal Lewis had ample holes to run through. And the Cleveland Browns went from being the second-worst offensive team in football to the eighth-best, and narrowly missed the playoffs, going 10-6 (the franchise's first winning record since 2002).
Now it's time to search for a defense. When the Browns convene in Berea, Ohio, on July 24, all eyes will be on the defensive line. In '07, the team allowed a whopping 359.6 yards per game, third-worst in the league, struggling mightily in the pass rush (just 28 sacks, tied for sixth-worst) and against the run (129.5 yards per game, sixth-worst). Aware of this, the Browns traded for mercurial defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (giving up corner Leigh Bodden) and defensive lineman Corey Williams (for a second-round draft pick). Williams seems to be the less-risky member of this duo; he has registered seven sacks each of the past two seasons as part of Green Bay's D-line rotation. The key will be Rogers. If he's motivated, he could be the run-stuffer the Browns desperately need. If he's not, the team could be right back where it started.
On the offensive side, training camp will be mostly about fine-tuning. Anderson signed what amounts to a $10 million, one-year deal and thus enters as the heavy favorite to retain his starting job under center. Kellen Winslow needs to show he's healthy after yet another surgery, and the team will have to integrate new speedy receiving threat Donte' Stallworth. But even though guard Ryan Tucker may miss the season's start because of a fractured hip, that offensive line should continue to have the depth and talent to overwhelm.
The Browns return much of the league's eighth-best offense, and they've also added Donte' Stallworth to the mix.
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On defense, now that so much offseason energy has been spent on the line, focus will shift to the linebackers. Leon Williams, who started much of '07 at inside linebacker, could have his job threatened by rookie UNLV product Beau Bell or former starter Andra Davis. Willie McGinest is a shadow of his former self on the outside, but only oft-injured Antwan Peek appears available to threaten the veteran's job. Perhaps most importantly, starting cornerback Daven Holly blew out a knee in offseason workouts and won't see the field in '08. That makes Brandon McDonald the favorite to start on the right side, but the Browns did at least add some depth when they signed veteran Terry Cousin in May.
Fitting in: Considering Donte' Stallworth played for the league's highest-octane offense, he had a disappointing '07 campaign. He stayed healthy all season, which is nice, but he caught only 46 passes for 697 yards and three scores, and by season's end, he had lost his starting job in New England to Jabar Gaffney. As a free-agent signee in Cleveland, he won't asked to be a star; the Browns already have Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow as their leading targets. But Stallworth does give the team another field-stretching option. He probably won't be a threat for a huge season, but he could be an interesting starter in three-receiver fantasy leagues.
Corey Williams comes from Green Bay's 4-3 scheme and will be an interior pass-rusher in Cleveland's 3-4. That could lead to some frustration for his owners in individual defensive player leagues; because he'll probably have greater run-stopping responsibilities, his sacks could be limited. But Williams was an up-and-coming star with the Packers and should continue his ascension as a Brown. The bigger question mark is Shaun Rogers. He's a big name, and he's now the highest-paid defensive tackle in the league. Unfortunately, controversy follows this guy wherever he goes. He was constantly ripped in the media in Detroit for lack of effort after his last big contract, and his tackle totals have taken a huge nosedive the past three seasons. (He also was momentarily traded to the Bengals this spring, a trade which subsequently was called off.) Rogers, too, has some transition work ahead in switching to a 3-4, although his bulk will be useful in a traditional nose tackle spot. Also, he's coming off a career-high seven sacks.
On the line: Joe Thomas and Kevin Shaffer are set at offensive tackle; Thomas is an equally good run- and pass-blocker, and Shaffer is more of a run-mashing type. C Hank Fraley turns 31 in September, but he has been a very good O-line leader for much of his seven-year career. Eric Steinbach is tall and a bit svelte for an elite guard, but he made the Browns' giant free-agent offer in the '07 offseason look smart with a great campaign last year. And Rex Tucker will be the right guard once his fractured hip gets healthy; otherwise, free-agent signee Rex Hadnot (who came over from the Dolphins) is likely to start, with Seth McKinney filling in at any of the three interior-line positions. This might be the league's best offensive line, which continues to make Jamal Lewis look like a definite fantasy starter.
Unless a skill-position player gets dinged up in camp, there doesn't figure to be a ton of fantasy-related drama in Browns land. Even if Quinn completes every pass for a month, he's the backup quarterback. Even if Jamal Lewis fumbles three times in each of however many preseason games he plays, he's the starting rusher. Maybe the most interesting thing to watch will be the chemistry that develops between Anderson and Stallworth. The fleet incoming receiver does figure to be the third aerial option, but he might make some plays down the field, which could actually wind up hurting the value of Braylon Edwards and/or Kellen Winslow.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.
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