Scouting Report: Cleveland Browns

When training camp opened, the Browns had no shortage of questions. Only some of them have been answered.

The most positive development has been the consistently strong running game. Lee Suggs and William Green duked it out throughout camp and the preseason. Browns coach Butch Davis is holding off on naming a starter back as long as possible, but it's likely to be Suggs, who has shown impressive vision and speed. Green has bounced back from a disastrous second season and is running as well as he did when he led the Browns to the playoffs in 2002.

Of course, the running backs can't do it alone. The offensive line, with considerable help from new fullback Terrelle Smith, is finally pulling its weight for the first time in the new era of the Browns.

The biggest question marks on the offensive line were left tackle Ross Verba and the open left guard position. Verba is returning from a torn biceps injury suffered in last season's preseason finale. So far, so good. The left guard spot is more unsettled. Paul Zukauskas has a tenuous advantage over Enoch DeMar, but that could change.

The biggest question involving first-round pick Kellen Winslow Jr. was not his talent - that's unquestioned - but whether he'd hold out so long it would retard his development. Winslow did hold out, but it wasn't unduly acrimonious and he seems on track to be the kind of difference-maker the Browns have lacked on offense.

The biggest concern as the season approaches involves whether Jeff Garcia can make the jump to another team and another system, having spent his entire NFL career in the West Coast offense in San Francisco.

So far, the results have not been pretty. Garcia has yet to click with his receivers and has voiced concern about whether he's gotten enough work during the preseason. Garcia's knack for improvising has seldom been seen, though that may be a function of his limited playing time.

Davis said the passing game's struggles are not a concern. It will be if it's not corrected soon.

On defense, the Browns have almost the same players back. It remains to be seen whether that's good news or not. The defensive line, which includes three first-round picks, should be the team's strength. Given the team's questions at linebacker and the secondary, it better be.

Middle linebacker Andra Davis emerged as a potential star last year, but the outside linebackers are unspectacular, though Chaun Thompson has the tools to be an impact player. The secondary is iffy, with no shutdown corner and aging safeties in Robert Griffith and Earl Little.

The special teams should be solid. Phil Dawson is an established kicker, and new punter Derrick Frost has been impressive.

This is a make-or-break year for Butch Davis. Though owner Randy Lerner gave him a two-year contract extension in the off-season, Lerner made it clear that only a playoff team would satisfy him. If the Browns have anything close a repeat of last season, Davis will be gone.

The Browns have the potential to have their best team since returning to the NFL.

Among the players, there's a quiet confidence.

"The Super Bowl," defensive tackle Gerard Warren said of his goal for this season. "Nothing less. Why set the goal of making it to the playoffs or having a winning season when the ultimate goal is being in Jacksonville in February?"

The Browns - old or new - have never played in a Super Bowl. Though that's not out of the realm of the possibility, it's highly unlikely.

The Browns also could implode if Garcia continues to struggle or the players lose faith in Davis. A good start, beginning with the opener against Baltimore, is crucial. Otherwise, speculation about Davis' future could make this an unpleasant season.

PLAYER TO WATCH: RB Dee Brown -- The former Carolina Panther waited by the phone for months for a team to call. Now he could make an impact for the Browns, especially since James Jackson is trying to talk himself out of town. Brown has shown particular promise as a kickoff returner in preseason games. He could become the team's primary kick returner because Andre Davis has apparently grown tired of that role.

COACHING: Butch Davis, 4th year (21-27).
REMEMBERING: 2002 record: 5-11 (4th in AFC North).
PREDICTING: 7-9 (third in AFC Central)


Bear Report Top Stories