Browns center Ephraim suspended four games

Updated: August 16, 2006, 8:13 PM ET
Associated Press

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns' gaping hole at center grew wider, and their training camp more bizarre.

Browns: Who starts at center?
Cleveland Browns
With the suspension of Alonzo Ephraim, the sudden retirement of Bob Hallen and the season-ending injury to LeCharles Bentley, the Browns have a huge hole on their offensive line at the center spot.

General manager Phil Savage said that Cleveland will look at Ross Tucker, whom the club acquired in a trade with New England, as the center in the Browns' next preseason game, Friday against Detroit.

There's irony in the Browns' mess at center. After signing Bentley in March, the club traded Jeff Faine, a former first-round draft pick and three-year starter, to New Orleans. Faine is listed as the Saints' starter on their current depth chart, a spot he'll likely have when the club opens in Cleveland next month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alonzo Ephraim, an emergency signing after LeCharles Bentley went down with a season-ending knee injury, was suspended Wednesday for the first four regular-season games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

The league said Ephraim may continue to participate in all preseason games and practices until his suspension begins Sept. 2. He will be eligible to rejoin the Browns' active roster Oct. 2.

"It's unfortunately that he has the situation," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. "I have to look at it like, he's in the [substance abuse] program and he's getting better. He did whatever he did to be suspended. You try to help the player the best you can and then see how it plays out after the suspension is over."

Ephraim's suspension comes on the heels of Bentley's injury and the sudden retirement of backup center Bob Hallen, who walked out on the Browns last week saying he had a back problem the Browns said they didn't know about.

Ephraim played two seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles and started three games for the Miami Dolphins last season. For him to be suspended, this would have to be his second violation under the league's policy.

The Browns rushed to sign Ephraim as a free agent July 29, two days after Bentley tore his patellar tendon on the second day of camp. Cleveland's desperation to get a veteran center and bad timing resulted in the club not knowing about Ephraim's pending suspension, Crennel said. The signing took place on a Saturday when the league's offices were closed.

"We were in a situation where we needed a body and he was available," Crennel said. "All of the lines of communication were not open and we went ahead and made a move. As it turns out, he's suspended. It was one of those things that happened because we weren't able to communicate the way we needed to."

The 25-year-old Ephraim had little to say about his suspension.

"I'm here to help the team in any way I can," he said. "This is a team, it's not about one individual player."

Ephraim may work out and participate in activities at Browns headquarters during his suspension, but he may not practice with the team.

Last season, Browns safety Michael Jameson was notified of a league suspension during training camp, but remained with the team. He practiced with the club during his four-game ban and was released when it ended.

Ephraim started last week's preseason opener against Philadelphia, but Ross Tucker, acquired in a trade from the New England Patriots, will start Friday against the Detroit Lions.

"I feel ready to go. I feel extremely confident," said Tucker, who has made 24 career starts, including 14 for Buffalo in 2004. "This isn't my first rodeo. It's just another game for me, but I also understand the significance for me. I can't wait to go out there and show them what I can do."

The shuffling at center is only part of what has been a crazy camp for the Browns.

Bentley's injury was followed by cornerback Daylon McCutcheon and right tackle Ryan Tucker needing knee surgeries to clean up torn cartilage. Both will likely miss the rest of the preseason.

Last week, cornerback Gary Baxter, who missed 10 games in 2005 with a torn pectoral muscle, strained the same muscle on the other side and will miss at least three weeks. On Monday, the Browns traded running back Lee Suggs to the New York Jets, who then sent him back to Cleveland after he failed his physical.

Despite the apparent gloom and doom, Crennel is staying optimistic.

"There have been some issues at this camp, but I don't look at it as bizarre," he said. "Things happen. There are a lot of bizarre things that happen in football. If you've been around football for a long time, you see quite a few of them. Other things will happen before it's all said and done."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press