Cleveland Browns 2008 Preview Report

Anderson

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 2nd

2007 Record: 10-6 (2nd AFC North)

Head Coach: Romeo Crennel (3rd year)

Roster Quick View

*rookie

**new veteran

Offense

QB: Derek Anderson Surprised a lot of people last year, but his play tapered off down the stretch. Must validate his upper-level status in 2008.

RB: Jamal Lewis Power running brings a lot to this offense. Gained 1,304 yards last season, which earned him a three-year, $17 million extension.

FB: Lawrence Vickers Doesn’t have resounding pop, but reaches his spots and stones enough opponents.

WR: Braylon Edwards Set a franchise record with 16 touchdown catches in 2007. Can make the spectacular catch. Has matured into a high-character teammate.

WR: Donte’ Stallworth** Speed demon who should bring an added dimension to the offense. But why has someone this good been with four teams in four years?

TE: Kellen Winslow Coming back from more offseason knee surgery though appears to be strong heading into training camp. The best route running TE in football.

LT: Joe Thomas Only in his second season and could already be the game’s paramount left tackle.

LG: Eric Steinbach Extremely active blocker who creates a lot of creases in the run game. Pass protection is very stellar.

C: Hank Fraley Yes, he does indeed jiggle around out there. But few players are as smart as him. And he’s more adept in space than you think.

RG: Rex Hadnot Keeping the seat warm while Rex Tucker recovers from a fractured hip. Capable of starting, but best served as a utility backup.

RT: Kevin Shaffer Natural talent is iffy, but with sound technique, he always survives.

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QB: Brady Quinn And he thought sitting in the green room on Draft Day felt like forever.

RB: Jason Wright Sparingly-used change-of-pace back who can be slithery. Needs to run behind his pads more.

WR: Joshua Cribbs Kick returning genius who could see action on offense if Joe Jurevicius’s bad knee doesn’t improve.

WR: Travis Wilson Romeo Crennel praised his offseason work. Has been a non-factor his first two years but could emerge as a fourth receiver.

TE: Steve Heiden With fourth-round rookie Martin Rucker around, must quickly prove that he can rebound from offseason back surgery.

Defense

LDE: Corey Williams** An absolute monster in Green Bay; how will he hold up on a more conservative three-man line?

NT: Shaun Rogers** Simply unstoppable when he’s playing at his highest level. Browns guaranteed him $20 million–he had better stay motivated.

RDE: Robaire Smith Has quieted concerns about his motor by playing with effectiveness and energy every week.

LOLB: Willie McGinest In the final season of what has been a very fine career. Still capable of the occasional big play, though he’s obviously here for leadership.

LILB: Andra Davis

Likely his last season in Cleveland. Highly productive tackler who can hide his lack of speed in this 3-4.

RILB: D’Qwell Jackson Very fast on a straight line but has some trouble when touched by blocks. Reportedly had a wonderful offseason.

ROLB: Kamerion Wimbley Graceful athlete who has solid strength. Had 11 sacks as a rookie in ’06 but just 5 sacks last season. Needs to make more big plays.

CB: Eric Wright Showed great improvement as a first-year player in ’07. Doesn’t have elite quickness, but doesn’t give up much spacing either.

SS: Sean Jones Bigger-bodied run defender who can also make a play on the ball.

FS: Brodney Pool Tremendous athlete who has enough coverage dexterity to be a CB. Lack of girth is a minor but relevant factor.

CB: Brandon McDonald Second-year pro who was forced into the starting lineup when Daven Holly got hurt.

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DL: Shaun Smith Could start for a lot of 3-4 teams. Weighs 325 but stands only 6’2″, which means he plays with very natural leverage.

LB: Leon Williams Will likely crack the starting lineup in 2009. Browns love his athleticism and work in nickel defense. Still needs to learn the finite details of the game.

NB: Terry Cousin A well-traveled veteran who has been ably covering the slot for nearly a decade.

Key Players Acquired

CB Terry Cousin (Jax)

G Rex Hadnot (Mia)

LB Shantee Orr (Jax)

DT Shaun Rogers (Det)

WR Donte Stallworth (NE)

DT Corey Williams (GB)

Key Players Lost

C LeCharles Bentley

CB Leigh Bodden (Det)

CB Ricardo Colclough (Car)

DE Simon Fraser (Atl)

DE Orpheus Roye

LB Matt Stewart (Ari)

LB Chaun Thompson (Hou)

CB Kenny Wright

Rogers and Williams were obviously the headlining acquisitions. Both are tremendous players who have impeccable power and a frightening burst. With Rogers, the issue is whether he can keep his weight down and intensity up. If history is any indication then the answer is “no–not every week.” Losing Bodden hurts, especially considering Daven Holly is out for the year with a knee injury. Holly’s absence made the Cousin signing more important. Stallworth brings valuable speed to the offense.


2008 Draft

Rd

Sel #

Player

Position

School

4

104

Beau Bell

LB

Nevada-Las Vegas

4

111

Martin Rucker

TE

Missouri

6

190

Ahtyba Rubin

DT

Iowa State

6

191

Paul Hubbard

WR

Wisconsin

7

231

Alex Hall

DE

St. Augustine’s

Cleveland traded their first-round pick to Dallas to get Brady Quinn in 2007. They dealt their second-round pick for defensive lineman Corey Williams and their third-round pick for defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. With this in mind, they had a decent draft (only “decent” because they had to give both D-linemen substantial new contracts).

Bell has a steep learning curve but will contribute immediately in a key role on special teams. Rucker should one day become the No. 2 TE. His brother is Mike Rucker, the recently retired Panthers DE. None of the late-round picks are expected to make a significant contribution.

Cleveland Browns 2008 Preview Report

They don’t know how it happened. You know:.it just sort of:did. Really fast. The Cleveland Browns fell in love. Her name is Success.

It’s hard to say exactly when the flame was ignited. A few years ago the Browns entrusted power in GM Phil Savage and then hired Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel to be their head coach. That’s when they first met Success. But the two didn’t fall in love right away. Not even close. In fact, they didn’t even like each other.

After going 6-10 in Crennel’s first season, the Browns and Success hardly spoke. When Cleveland went 4-12 in ’06, fans weren’t happy and the media was questioning Crennel’s future. Savage’s job didn’t seem all that secure either. In those times when the Browns did cross paths with Success, the interaction was cordial at best. Sometimes, the two sides were even acrimonious towards one another.

Still, friends always suspected that there might be something between the two. Different as they were, the Browns and Success both shared common interests such as tradition, fan support and, unbeknownst to many, patience. Sure enough, in 2007, they reconnected during springtime at the NFL Draft. With their No. 2 overall pick, the Browns landed what many called a “10-year left tackle” in Wisconsin’s Joe Thomas. Then, remarkably, they traded back into the first round to steal a supposed “franchise quarterback” in Brady Quinn. Many believe that that draft rekindled their confidence and made them more attractive. Who knows.

The Browns and Success dated casually in early fall last year. Around Halloween, Cleveland’s stellar offensive line started coming together, and their surprising star quarterback, Derek Anderson, caught fire (Quinn had held out in training camp and wound up enjoying a first-year “learning experience” on the bench).

Things started getting serious between the Browns and Success, and had it not been for a terrible Week 16 loss at Cincinnati–a game in which Anderson threw four interceptions–they would have reached the playoffs. It was a disappointing end to a great season, but not disappointing enough to sour the sweet taste in Cleveland’s mouth. That’s not surprising. Their rabid Middle America home fans were giddy. Six of Cleveland’s players got to go to Hawaii (Anderson, Joe Thomas, tight end Kellen Winslow, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, return specialist Joshua Cribbs and long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand). The franchise hadn’t even sent one player to Honolulu since Jamir Miller in 2001.

This past offseason, the Browns started falling hard. Burning with passion for their newfound Success, they took some aggressive steps forward. They signed Anderson to a three-year contract worth $27 million. They also extended running back Jamal Lewis–fresh off a 1,304-yard campaign–for three years at $17 million. Phil Savage got a three-year extension as well. With these signings, plus Crennel’s contract and the contracts of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, the core of the organization is in place at least until 2010. That’s commitment.

They didn’t stop there. The Browns also went out and stockpiled defensive linemen for their 3-4 scheme. They traded a second-round pick to Green Bay for wildly underrated Corey Williams. Then, they gave Williams a six-year, $38 million contract, with $16.3 million guaranteed. Next, Cleveland dealt cornerback Leigh Bodden and their third-round pick to Detroit for monstrous defensive tackle Shaun Rogers. Upon arrival, Rogers was given a six-year, $42 million deal, with $20 million in guarantees. This is an unprecedented level of dedication to a three-man defensive line. But what can you say? Savage’s team is googley-eyed.

The offense ranked eighth a year ago and, in Edwards and Winslow, boasted two young receiving threats who are on the threshold of their impressive pinnacles. But still, nothing is too good for the Browns’ darling Success, which is why Cleveland ponied up $10 million in guaranteed money for speedy wideout Donte’ Stallworth.

With their new additions and host of rising stars, the Browns appear to be on the verge of tying the knot with Success sometime in the very near future. People couldn’t be happier for them. Friends and family are talking about an AFC North division title. The NFL has scheduled the Browns for five primetime games in 2008. That’s as many as the Colts and Patriots! The city of Cleveland is so hyped about their club’s chances this season that you’d think LeBron James was playing wide receiver.

Not to be a buzz-kill, but is it possible that there’s too much too soon here? The Browns’ love for Success is passionate and intense, but:well, for example, to give $20 million to a player like Rogers–who has had weight problems, character concerns and effort issues throughout his hot-cold career–is reckless. Getting Rogers feels good in the moment, but going for Success unprotected like that could come back to bite Cleveland.

And what about all the national exposure? How much experience do the Browns have with that? Do they understand the added pressure this brings?

Even Anderson is not a sure thing. Yes, he threw 29 touchdowns last year (second most in franchise history), but he also had 19 interceptions. And during the final seven games of the season–you know, after teams had some tape on him–he had just nine touchdowns versus ten interceptions. Then again, the Browns can always turn to Brady Quinn:.

Maybe there shouldn’t be too big a deal made here. After all, the Browns are young and in love. And they don’t want to be single losers forever. That would make them the Raiders of the Midwest. Perhaps the Browns are wise to just follow their heart and rearrange their life for Success. Love is what it’s all about, right? Who knows, if they love Success long enough, they just might get a ring.

Offense

Last season, Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson surprised everyone with a 29-touchdown, 3,787-yard season. Running back Jamal Lewis, supposedly washed up (as Touchdown 2007 proclaimed), rushed for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns. Receiver Braylon Edwards broke out with 80 receptions for 1,289 yards and 16 scores. Kellen Winslow set a team tight ends record with 1,106 yards on his 82 catches.

The great commonality between these skill players is that they all huddled up with an outstanding offensive line. The revamped left side featured rookie tackle Joe Thomas and blockbuster free agent Eric Steinbach. Veteran center Hank Fraley held down the middle. On the right, longtime right tackle Rex Tucker rediscovered his career after moving to guard. Kevin Shaffer remained powerful at Tucker’s old position.

With a solid front five that allowed only 19 sacks on the season (third fewest in the NFL), Rob Chudzinski’s offense became a big-play machine. The Browns registered 53 completions of 20 yards or more, which tied Indianapolis for third most in the league. Funny how that works.

Expect things to get even better this season. The 23-year-old Thomas is everything you could want in a left tackle. He’s gritty and smart. At 313 pounds, he’s strong yet nimble. Thomas has a freakishly natural drop step in pass protection, and he can change direction remarkably well. With 16 starts under his belt, he’s destined to cut down on penalties and raise his fundamentals–balance, hand placement, etc.–from good to great.

Thomas is an ideal partner for the mobile Steinbach. A sixth-year pro from Iowa, Steinbach has the pop to drive defenders, and he is crafty in his crease-creating angles. With Fraley being one of the smartest blockers in the league, the Browns are able to diversify the left side of their run-blocking schemes.

Tucker fractured his hip during the offseason, making his status for August questionable. If he’s unprepared for battle come Week 1, former Dolphin Rex Hadnot will fill in. Hadnot has 55 career starts (most of them at center) and knows the finite details of the game. He does, however, lack lower-body power. Such is not the case with Shaffer. Born with only a modest portion of natural talent, Shaffer has honed his technique during his seven-year career and evolved into a very solid starting right tackle.

No doubt Anderson benefits from excellent pass protection. Standing 6’6″ and owning a rifle of a right arm, the ex-Oregon State Beaver is a prototypical pocket passer. That’s not to say Anderson can’t make the occasional play with his legs. The Browns have made no bones about their investment in the fourth-year pro. Much like the Drew Brees-Philip Rivers situation in San Diego, they’re content to let their first-round draft choice–Brady Quinn–ride the bench while they maximize the return on their investment in Anderson.

The young hurler must prove that he’s the real deal. Many fine-tooled quarterbacks have put up great numbers in their first few starts, only to be exposed by well-schooled defenders down the stretch. Judging from Anderson’s interceptions totals–19, including 10 in the final seven games–that’s what happened last season.

Braylon Edwards has proven to be a viable No. 1 receiver. Drafted third overall out of Michigan in 2005, injuries and maturity issues hindered his development early in his career. But to his credit, Edwards has persevered and come out better for it. While not fast or immune to the occasional gaffe (dropped ball, poor route, etc.), Edwards possesses momentum-changing big-play capabilities. He has an excellent ability to elevate and snag balls in traffic.

Donte’ Stallworth does two things for this offense: a) expands the field with his game-breaking speed; b) allows aging veteran Joe Jurevicius to move into his more natural slot position (assuming Jurevicius, who sat out the entire offseason after four operations to correct a staph infection in his knee, is healthy). Stallworth is being paid like a No. 2, though with route-running ace Kellen Winslow lining up or splitting out from his tight end position, the former Saint/Eagle/Patriot is clearly option numero tres.

Winslow stayed away from many of the offseason activities, perhaps in protest for a new contract (he’s a Rosenhaus guy), or perhaps to rehab from a fourth surgery on his right knee (the procedure was done after the Pro Bowl, which indicates it wasn’t severe). With reserve veteran Steve Heiden coming off back surgery, Cleveland felt compelled to draft Missouri tight end Martin Rucker in the fourth round. Rucker is rough around the edges though shows intriguing potential as a pass-catcher.

Travis Wilson and Joshua Cribbs will vie for the fourth receiving job, with second-year player Syndric Steptoe and sixth-round rookie Paul Hubbard also in the mix.

The Browns have a clearly defined power-rushing attack behind soon-to-be 29-year-old Jamal Lewis. The 245-pounder resurfaced as a punishing runner last season, convincing Phil Savage to ink him to a three-year extension and also leave the personnel behind him unchanged (little used backups Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison, both of the small but shifty ilk, remain the reserve options). This is a calculated risk considering that Lewis–who, by the way, has a great chemistry with lead-blocker Lawrence Vickers–is such a physical player with a history of getting hurt.

Defense

Slowly but surely, this unit is learning the intricacies of Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 scheme. The rankings–30th in yards, 27th against the run, 28th in sacks per play–don’t accurately portray the progress this defense made in 2007. However, the numbers were revealing enough to convince management to outlay in the defensive line. Big time. The Browns brought in Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers. Both veterans signed enormous contracts after being traded for early-round draft picks. If both men play up to their potential–Williams will, Rogers might–then the Browns will have unprecedented power on their front line.

Returning starter Robaire Smith is an above average right end who has surprisingly flourished in an anchor role. And last year’s starter, Shaun Smith, is a squatty 325-pounder who can give opposing linemen fits by playing low to the ground. Rogers–whose weight has been known to fluctuate between 340 and 400 pounds–is notorious for sucking wind on the sideline. He leads the league in down-on-one-knee photographs and water bottle lifts. Both Smiths’ contributions will be crucial in 2008.

If the Browns three-man defensive line performs to its capabilities, Cleveland will, in all seriousness, have a seven-man front that will feel like a 4-4. This lends a great possibility to an explosion from the young linebackers that the coaching staff has been meticulously grooming since 2006.

The name you’re most familiar with is Kamerion Wimbley, a pass-rushing dynamo who lines up outside on the right. Wimbley has tantalizing fluidity considering the type of power he plays with, but he needs to let his hair down and become a more habitual playmaker. The Browns believe that he was overworked last year (Wimbley was in on 99 percent of the defensive snaps, and his sack total dropped from eleven to five), so look for veterans Antwan Peek and Shantee Orr to see more action in 2008. Peek is an excellent fit for a 3-4 scheme and should increase his sack total (four) from a year ago.

The name you’ll hear most often this season is D’Qwell Jackson. A speedy straight-line player, Jackson has been serviceable as a starter over his first two seasons as a pro. He doesn’t play up to his 240-pound weight–which is to say, he doesn’t do well against blocks–but with a monstrous group in front of him, he won’t be encountering nearly as many offensive linemen as in years past. Observers were impressed with Jackson’s improved intelligence and aggressiveness in the offseason activities. The expectation is that he’ll easily surpass his team-leading 101 tackles from a year ago.

The third rising linebacker is Leon Williams. Established in his niche as a nickel defender, the Browns are tacitly hoping that Williams channels his athleticism into a fundamental skill set needed to contribute on an everydown basis. Currently, Williams is working behind beloved veteran Andra Davis. Though somewhat slow even for his inside position, Davis has been the team’s most productive player since arriving as a fifth-round pick in 2002. And his contributions to the Cleveland community have made him a hometown favorite. However, for whatever reason, the Browns seem intent on moving on without him next year. Davis’s contract was restructured over the offseason to decrease his pay from $3 million to $1.675 million and also make him a free agent in 2009.

Sagacious veteran Willie McGinest also renegotiated his deal, dropping his salary from $2.9 million to $1.9 million. McGinest, 37 in December, has declared this to be his final season in the NFL. On the roster for his leadership and wisdom in the scheme (he won three Super Bowls when Crennel was his defensive coordinator in New England), the NFL’s all-time playoff sack leader has enough gas for one last push in 2008.

The only area on this roster that makes the fawning masses uneasy is cornerback. Underrated cover corner Leigh Bodden was sent to Detroit as part of the Shaun Rogers deal, and in the spring, up-and-comer Daven Holly was lost for the season with a knee injury. Thus, second-year players Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald now make up the starting tandem.

Wright started 13 games last season and, improving on a weekly basis, justified his second-round status. He’s not the quickest defender, but he has a knack for deciphering a receiver’s route. He can cut off the underneath stuff and, at the same time, be vigilant against the deep ball. A lot of cornerbacks hit a sophomore slump. Playing in a No. 1 role where he could be matched up against guys like, oh, say, Terrell Owens in Week 1, Hines Ward in Week 2, Derrick Mason in Week 3 and Chad Johnson in Week 4, Wright has a steep hill to climb in ’08.

There’s no way the coaching staff isn’t at least somewhat uneasy about McDonald starting on the other side. He has impressed in practices and held up in limited game action, but he’s still an inexperienced fifth-round pick from a year ago. Terry Cousin is a tested veteran of 12 years, but his skills are tailor made for the slot.

Free safety Brodney Poole is very athletic and has logged time at cornerback during his previous three seasons. However, the Browns need Pool’s range in coverage–especially given their corner situation. And unless Gary Baxter’s surgically repaired knees unexpectedly regain full strength, they wouldn’t have options for replacing Pool anyway.

Sean Jones is not a star, but he seems to turn in an impressive array of numbers on an annual basis. Last season, Jones was second on the team with 96 tackles. He also broke up 10 passes and had five interceptions. The year before that, Jones had the exact same statistics, only with 15 more tackles.

Special Teams

Joshua Cribbs–a quarterback at Kent State–is a killer in the return game. He led the NFL with a 30.7 kick return average last year (aided by two touchdowns) and he finished third in punt returns, averaging 13.5 yards (with one touchdown). Cribbs’s big plays always seem to come at the most opportune moment. Opponents are wise to avoid kicking his way.

Phil Dawson set a team record with 120 points last season. He is accurate, consistent and reliable under pressure. Punter Dave Zastudil ranked near the bottom of the league with a net average of 34.6, though the Browns appear comfortable with him heading into the season. Ryan Pontbriand went to the Pro Bowl as a long-snapper.

Bottom Line

Success is indeed attractive, especially when so many people believe you’re destined for it. The Browns are the sexy pick in 2008, and if all goes well, they’ll win the AFC North division. But word to the wise: sexy picks have a tendency to bottom out. Cleveland is very thin in the run game (a Jamal Lewis injury would be a deal-breaker) and, with their questionable cornerback situation, they’re heavily reliant on a pass-rush that produced very little just one year ago. Falling in love always brings the risk of getting burned.

Myth Buster

Hank Fraley is a severely limited athlete.

Fraley can thank John Madden for this rumor. Madden–who loves offensive linemen–once highlighted how Fraley’s body jiggles when he runs. Madden used his patented telestrator and had the crew in the truck run slow-motion video of Fraley warming up. He provided this analysis on more than one occasion.

The fact of the matter is Fraley is a portly 6’2″, 315. And yes, he does jiggle. And no, he’s not particularly quick. But–as Madden would agree–he’s certainly not immobile. Not by a long shot. Fraley can get out in front and lead-block in both directions. He can also hustle to the edges on screen passes and be a presence in space.

Does he look good doing it? Of course not. But he’s been doing it for the past eight years.

Open Thought

Does anyone else look at Phil Savage and swear that the Browns GM is actually Ron Howard? The resemblance is uncanny. Thin face, pointy chin, blue eyes, rusty red hair (granted, Savage’s comes in gray these days, and Howard’s not at all). Check out Google Images on these guys sometime.


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