BEREA, Ohio -- Five observations on the Cleveland Browns, based on practices of Aug. 17 and videotape review:
1. Given the level of hospitality and assistance demonstrated by the good folks in the Cleveland public relations department and front office, let's start on a positive note, shall we? The Browns have skill-position people. No, make that lots of skill-position people, on the offensive side of the ball. Despite the abuse heaped on Jeff Garcia -- and we're not referring to verbal excesses of one wide receiver in Philadelphia -- the former San Francisco quarterback definitely can still play, at least if the Browns staff conjures up a way to protect him. No doubt, that's an industrial-sized if, and will be covered here in a subsequent observation. But it sure looks like Garcia, who is 34 years old despite having played just five NFL seasons, has something left in the tank, and something left to prove to the skeptics, as well. Even knowledgeable fans in Cleveland probably don't appreciate what an accomplished passer and leader the Browns are getting. Again, assuming the line can keep him perpendicular long enough for Garcia to read through his progressions, they'll find out. Garcia has averaged 3,466 yards and 25.5 touchdown passes in the last four seasons. You want to put that in perspective, Cleveland fans? Consider this: Only eight times in Browns history have quarterbacks thrown, in a single season, for more yards than Garcia averaged since 2000. And just four Cleveland quarterbacks have tossed more than 25 touchdown passes in a year. There's potential for a running game, with Lee Suggs and former first-rounder Will Green competing for the tailback spot. Even No. 3 tailback James Jackson might be able to play as the No. 2 runner for a few franchises. Last summer, we rated the Cleveland wideout corps as the NFL's deepest. We don't feel that way now, not since the Browns cut Kevin Johnson, one of the league's surest-handed receivers, last season. But there is still enough speed to form an Olympic sprint relay team. So much speed, in fact, that coach Butch Davis might be willing to part with one of his starting wideouts, André Davis or Quincy Morgan, if he could realize a big-time defender (like Miami holdout sack man Adewale Ogunleye) in return. Davis rattles people sometimes with dropped balls and he has the kind of nagging injuries that drive coaches crazy. But he may be too explosive to send packing. Here's the downside of this swift wide receiver corps: Only one player, Dennis Northcutt, who spent much of the spring griping about how he wanted to be freed from the Browns, has ever caught as many as 60 passes in a season, and he did it just once. Garcia should be able to spread the ball around, but the wideouts, and rookie right end Kellen Winslow, have to bail him out once in a while, too. Truth be told, this isn't nearly as bad a team as we had been led to believe. But for the Browns to do anything at all in 2004, it will have to be the offense that carries them. One good-natured aside to our good friend, Peter King, of Sports Illustrated: Geez, Peter, we've been reading about wide receiver Frisman Jackson, the perennial camp phee-nom, for three straight summers now. Time this guy did more than just have a catchy handle. Time he actually gets a handle on a few passes, isn't it?
2. Ah, yes, Winslow The Younger. The "Warrior." The "Promised One." The callow rookie who, on Tuesday between practices, suggested that his teammates need to match his intensity level. The guy with the physical skills of a future Hall of Fame inductee and a player who might just redefine the position, but a young man whose tongue keeps flapping while his brain is apparently in neutral. You've got to see the former University of Miami star throughout an entire practice to understand his incredibly complete skill set. Make no mistake, the kid can flat-out play, and things just come naturally too him. In one "red zone" drill during the morning practice, he worked out of the right slot, instinctively found a soft spot in the front part of the end zone, hooked up between linebacker Uyi Osunde and safety David Young, and cradled a bullet from Garcia into his chest. It takes a special knack to be able to create the natural separation Winslow is able to get from defenders, even in compact areas of the field. He has quick hands, can shove off deftly, and knows how to use his body to shield people off the ball. He is more an H-back, or flexed receiver, than a conventional tight end and the Browns coaching brain trust is wise to use him often in the slot, where he will demand "bracket" coverage. He's got soft, wide receiver-type hands, and nearly made a spectacular grab in the deep right corner of the end zone on Tuesday. Of course, he also cocked the ball back, and seemed to be contemplating throwing it at the defender who had shoved him out of bounds. It's a given, until he matures and begins to control his passion, that teams will bait Winslow into committing cheap penalties. Heck, even some of his older teammates were doing it in the Tuesday practices. After years of trying to fix the tight end position, Cleveland finally fixed it with a potential all-timer. Winslow won't fulfill his enormous potential, though, until he gets his head screwed on straight.
3. Here's all you need to know about the state of the Cleveland offensive line less than four weeks before the regular-season opener against a blitz-oriented Baltimore Ravens defense that led the NFL in sacks last year: Paul Zukauskas is currently starting at the left guard spot. OK, so maybe that wouldn't be so notable if the fourth-year veteran wasn't the third different left guard with the starting lineup in three weeks. We have religiously subscribed to the theory that you pay the big money to your tackles; get yourself a bright and physically tough guy to play center; and then plug in a couple of blue-collar blockers, middle- or low-round draft picks, at guard, and hope they develop. But having watched the Cleveland guards on videotape of the Browns' recent scrimmage against Buffalo, and then seeing them in person Tuesday, well, we might have to rethink the formula. Maybe the Browns will run the ball so well, which is what Butch Davis wants to do (and who can blame him, given the tailback tandem at his disposal?), that Zukauskas and much-traveled right guard Kelvin Garmon won't ever have to pass block. Here's hoping, for the sake of Garcia's well-being, that is the case. Better, perhaps, to erect a couple of speed-bumps at the guard spot on passing downs. At least that would staunch the opposition pass rushers a little bit. This is not a good line right now. And it doesn't help that tough guy Ross Verba, the left tackle, is playing right now with his broken thumb wrapped in more bandages than cover King Tut. Maybe the best blocker on the team, certainly the best offseason pickup, was former New Orleans fullback Terrelle Smith. He is a superb lead-blocker, a guard in the backfield, and the Cleveland tailbacks will benefit hugely from his presence, as did Deuce McAllister in New Orleans.
4. From one side of the line to the next. Few teams have invested as much on first-round defensive linemen, their own and some castoffs from other rosters, and reaped so little a dividend. The Browns have four former first-rounders on the unit and, arguably, none has played up to his potential. Left end Courtney Brown, the first overall pick in the 2000 draft, has been a target of ours for years. Nothing personal, since Brown is one of the sharpest, nicest guys you'll ever meet. The locals contend the former Penn State star has been more productive in recent seasons but the Browns didn't pay him all that money to just stop the run. And let's be honest, don't you think Cleveland officials, five seasons after taking Brown over linebacker LaVar Arrington, realize they opted for the wrong Penn State defender in 2000? The numbers don't lie. Brown has averaged more games missed in four seasons (4.7) than he has averaged sacks (4.25). He has, indeed, played the run pretty well, with 24 careers games of five or more tackles. But he has notched at least a half-sack in just 11 of 45 appearances. If he could play the Steelers every week, against whom he has registered eight of his 17 sacks, Brown might be the All-Pro that many felt he would be. The third overall choice in the '01 draft, Gerard Warren, has played better but not yet been the dominant interior playmaker into which most predicted that he would develop. Unlike with the dispassionate Brown, though, you at least get the feeling Warren likes the game and wants to play up to his press clippings. The other two first-rounders, Kenard Lang and Ebenezer Ekuban, were signed as free agents, the former for pretty big money, the latter for a pittance this summer. Lang does have 14 sacks in two seasons with the Browns, but the former Redskins top-round pick (1997) has never been a consistent force. Arguably the best player on the defensive front is Orpheus Roye, signed by Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent in 2000. A former sixth-round pick of the Steelers, he isn't a special player. Then again, you don't have to be special to be the pick of this Dawg Pound litter. It's quite a collection and you wonder just how much longer Cleveland officials will keep Brown around.
5. The Browns have some depth at linebacker but little speed and, combined with a lack of quickness at safety, that could be a problem. Last year, Cleveland started a trio of picks from the 2002 draft, Coach Davis insisting the trio had been chosen together in that spring's lottery to eventually advance to the starting lineup together. But had it not been for a wrist injury to Chaun Thompson, it's likely that only middle linebacker Andra Davis would have been starting from the threesome that also includes Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley. Davis is a solid, two-down tackling machine who plays pretty well tackle to tackle, but isn't very flashy. Former Bears starter Warrick Holdman has moved into the No. 1 spot on the strong side, but seems to have lost something to injuries. The safeties, Robert Griffith (strong) and Earl Little (free), are not playmakers. Little will make some plays in the passing game but is a poor tackler. Griffith was once one of the game's best unsung safeties, but his best days are behind him. The way the game is played now, you've got to have at least one safety with quasi-cornerback cover skills and Cleveland doesn't have that guy.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.