Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.
Two years ago, Butch Davis revamped his defense by flushing out four veteran
starters and hiring a coordinator with whom he was comfortable. Now he has
overhauled the offense. How it fares may determine whether Davis continues
as coach beyond 2004.
The Browns have dumped the finesse, multi-receiver offense they ran for three
years and replaced it with a smashmouth, power running attack.
Terry Robiskie, elevated to offensive coordinator, restored the fullback to
the backfield and intends to use a two-back set most of the time. Free-agent
FB Terrelle Smith and ORG Kelvin Garmon were brought in expressly because of
their run blocking.
Instead of featuring wideouts, the Browns are likely to make a star out of
top draft pick Kellen Winslow Jr., a tight end who may line up anywhere to
create mismatches. And directing the show is QB Jeff Garcia, who left San
Francisco to try to turn the Browns into winners immediately.
Meanwhile, the defense that finished 15th and gave up three 200-yard
individual rushing games was barely tweaked. The Browns are hoping the
second year under coordinator Dave Campo will make a world of difference.
Quarterbacks: Garcia, 34, is the oldest player on the roster, but the
Browns are counting on his youthful legs to give them a new dimension at the
position. Garcia's mobility was a key reason the Browns gave him a $25
million, four-year contract in free agency. They also felt his energy and
competitiveness would make him a strong leader on the field. The unknown
factor is how Garcia will perform outside the West Coast offense that made
him a Pro Bowl player for three of his five years in San Francisco. The
Browns will incorporate Garcia's ability and desire to throw on the move
into their pass offense. His quick dropbacks and release will be welcome
additions to an offensive line that has struggled to keep its quarterback
healthy through 16 games. Kelly Holcomb returns as the backup after injuries
and misfortune derailed his attempt at a starting role. The fresh new face
in camp is rookie fourth-round pick Luke McCown, a prolific passer from
Louisiana Tech who will be groomed to replace Garcia in two years. Grade:
Running backs: Lee Suggs stole the starting RB job with a 186-yard, two-TD
performance in the 16th game last year. He didn't flinch when a newly
dedicated William Green pressed him for the No. 1 job in training camp.
Suggs, 6-0 and 210 pounds, has the vision and cut-back ability of a star in
the making. He hits holes aggressively and can evade tacklers with a turn of
the hips. His big-play potential was evident in the preseason. Green was on
a 1,200-yard pace last year until off-the-field problems resulted in him
missing the final eight games under suspension. At 220 pounds, he is more of
a downhill runner who can't make tacklers miss like Suggs. Green will
probably get his share of carries, particularly in short-yardage situations.
At fullback, Smith is a 255-pound bulldozer whose enthusiasm for taking out
linebackers is almost unmatched in his profession. Whichever back the Browns
keep at No. 3 on their depth chart -- James Jackson or Dee Brown -- is a solid
veteran who has started games in his career. Grade: B-plus.
Receivers: Once the strength of the Browns' offense, this position has
undergone change. The Browns will call on their wideouts to block in the
running game, so size is imperative. Quincy Morgan is 6-1 and 215 pounds,
and André Davis is 6-1 and 195. Morgan has been inconsistent in three years,
and Davis has battled assorted injuries for two years. Neither has had a
season of 60 or more catches. Slot receiver Dennis Northcutt is shifty and
fast, and few nickel backs can cover him. He is the closest thing to a
gamebreaker among the wideouts. Possession receiver Andre King and strapping
Frisman Jackson round out the WR corps. The new man in the mix is the rookie
Winslow, a 6-4, 250-pound target with the sure hands of a receiver and the
force of a fullback with the ball. Winslow's passion and energy infected the
team in training camp. He has more physical skills than his father, Hall of
Famer Kellen Winslow Sr. Grade: B-minus.
Offensive linemen: When efforts to trade up to select Robert Gallery in the
draft failed, the Browns resorted to Plan B and put Ross Verba back at left
tackle. Verba missed all of last season with a torn biceps tendon. You'd
think he was a perennial All-Pro the way the Browns' line disintegrated
without him. If he can stay healthy, Verba rounds out a solid OLT-C-ORT
trio. ORT Ryan Tucker is a horse who played every offensive snap last year.
C Jeff Faine, in his second season, is counted on to establish himself as a
dependable interior lineman. The guards are the question marks. Garmon was
added in free agency to solidify the right side of the line. At 350 pounds,
Garmon has proven to be a formidable force in the running game, but his pass
blocking has been a source of concern. The OLG spot appears to be going to
four-year veteran Paul Zukauskas after holdovers Chad Beasley and Enoch
DeMar failed auditions. The Browns will take their chances with this
starting unit. If injuries persist, the domino effect could topple the
offense once again. Grade: C.
Defensive linemen: If they chose to, the Browns could field four linemen who
are former No. 1 picks: Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Kenard Lang and
Ebenezer Ekuban. The problem is, the most productive player up front has
been a former sixth-round pick - DT Orpheus Roye. Warren, though, has shown
signs of living up to his draft billing. The third overall pick of the '01
draft has rededicated himself to being a more disruptive influence on the
field. Brown has battled numerous injuries the past three seasons. If
healthy, he could have a breakout season, too. On occasion, Brown will move
inside next to Warren to give the Browns a nickel pass rush that, at least
on paper, would seem to be formidable. Ekuban and speed rusher Mark Word are
the backup ends. The backup tackles include Alvin McKinley and former Cowboy
Mike Myers. Two other Browns draft choices, Antonio Garay and Amon Gordon,
make this the deepest position on the team. Grade: B-minus.
Linebackers:Andra Davis has the instincts and productivity you look for in a middle linebacker. He's the standout in a group from which more is expected this season. SLB Chaun Thompson eventually should earn the starting job back from Ben Taylor. Thompson missed most of the preseason with a wrist injury. Thompson has rare speed for the position, but he's raw. WLB Warrick Holdman brings a run-stuffing presence to a unit that really needed it. Kevin Bentley backs up Holdman. The Browns will miss veteran reserve Brant Boyer, who is out for the season with a foot injury. Boyer was very productive when given a chance to play last season. Grade: C-minus.
Defensive backs: A large part of the Browns' problems against the run are
rooted deep in their secondary. Failure to bring down ballcarriers resulted
in some huge rushing days for Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson. At times
in training camp, it appeared the Browns were striving for backup safeties
Chris Crocker and Michael Jameson to unseat starters Earl Little and Robert
Griffith. It did not look like it would happen by the start of the season,
but it's something to watch if the team's tackling and run defense don't
improve. The CB situation is stable with Daylon McCutcheon and Anthony Henry
at the starting spots. The 5-foot-9 McCutcheon suffers in the red zone
against big receivers but remains the team's best open-field tackler. Henry
enters his second season as a starter and is looking to regain his knack for
interceptions; he had 10 as a rookie nickel back in '01. Backups Roosevelt
Williams, Michael Lehan and Leigh Bodden will battle for the role of third
cornerback on passing downs. Grade: C.
Special teams: A major change saw punter and holder Chris Gardocki leave in
free agency and get replaced by untested Derrick Frost. The Browns prepared
for the change by signing Frost to their regular roster last December rather
than see him go elsewhere. In preseason he was adept at landing punts inside
the 20 and had no evident problems as the holder for Phil Dawson on kicks.
Dawson enters his sixth season as the kicker. All that needs to happen for
him to be considered one of the league's best is a productive offense; he's
never had more than 28 field-goal attempts in a season. Butch Davis pledged
to upgrade the team's coverage and return units. PR Northcutt and KR André
Davis are capable of scoring any time they field a kick. Grade: B-minus.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit PFW's web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com