John Crist: Derek Anderson had a breakout season a year ago and threw a bunch of touchdown passes, which put the organization in a tough spot after taking Brady Quinn from Notre Dame in the first round the previous April. Anderson was rewarded with a handsome contract, but I understand the deal was written with an opportunity for Cleveland to pull the plug relatively quickly and move on with Quinn under center. We know Anderson's the guy right now, but who do you see as the starting quarterback in 2009?
Barry McBride: The Browns are delighted with Anderson's emergence. They now consider themselves to have the rare luxury of having two young starting quarterbacks who can lead the ballclub.
I don't think that anyone can really predict Anderson's fate, because it's so tied to how he performs during 2008. Anderson has one successful season under his belt and surprised both local and national observers, but he has to show he can do it again this year and improve on his efforts. To many fans, the Browns missed the playoffs due largely to Anderson's miscues against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game that brought to mind his high rate of interceptions while a quarterback in college. He also needs to improve his accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes and lose his reputation for locking on to receivers.
Anderson has all the physical tools and a howitzer for an arm. Surprising nearly everyone not named Phil Savage, Anderson turned out to be the right fit for a team that gives the quarterback good protection and has weapons like Braylon Edwards and Donte' Stallworth who can stretch the field. In 2007, the team's strengths covered his weaknesses. If Anderson can continue the rapid improvement we saw in 2007, the Browns would be foolish to let him go. If he does not move forward and the Browns don't make the playoffs under his leadership, the team will very possibly try to deal him away, save some cap space, and move forward with Quinn as their quarterback. So if you want to know Anderson's fate at the end of the year, keep your eyes on the Browns record, his TD-to-interception ratio and how many passes he completes between 10 and 20 yards.
JC: Jamal Lewis was a lot better running the ball this past season than many of the experts projected him to be, especially when you consider the pounding he's taken throughout his career and that lengthy history of injuries. What was the key to his success, and is he capable putting together another 1,300-yard year on the ground? How much credit does Joe Thomas deserve – doubly impressive for a rookie – for almost single-handedly making Cleveland's offensive line so much better in 2007 than it was in 2006?
BM: Lewis came to camp last year not only lighter and in great shape, but with a lot of motivation: not only was he playing for his next contract, he also wanted to show the Ravens and the league that he wasn't finished. Some may have speculated that Lewis would slip back following his successful season and new deal, but that doesn't appear to be the case at all. Lewis was in the best shape of his career when he showed up to camp this July and seems to be more explosive than last season. Lewis also finally solved the Browns issue with red-zone effectiveness that had bedeviled them for years.
Despite Lewis' personal success, the team's offensive line was really the engine of the team's growth into an offensive powerhouse last season. And Thomas was the major reason for that. The Browns were exceptionally successful running to the left, where Thomas and Eric Steinbach emerged as one of the best left sides in the NFL. But Thomas also effectively protected Anderson's blind side, giving the quarterback the time he needed to allow Edwards and Kellen Winslow to get open. Anderson likes to wait until the last second to throw the ball, and Thomas' ability allowed him to do that. The importance of Thomas as the final piece in the Browns offensive line can't be underestimated, and his play allowed the Browns to move Kevin Shaffer to right tackle and Ryan Tucker to right guard, which provided upgrades at those positions as well.
JC: Edwards is one of the best receivers in the game, Winslow is finally the elite tight end we all expected him to be after a slow start to his career, and Stallworth was brought in to give the passing attack yet another weapon. However, it seems like Joe Jurevicius is such an integral part of this team offensively. What is it that makes him so valuable, and is there any hope of him making an impact this season after being placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list just the other day?
BM: Jurevicius, a local product, provided the team not only with a sure-handed possession receiver but also with veteran leadership in a young wide receiver corps. Edwards' success on the field was not only due to his being fully recovered from an ACL injury he suffered as a rookie, but also due to his focus and maturity. It's hard to say what role, if any, Jurevicius played in the emergence of the youngsters beyond what transpired on the field, but it's clear that he provided an effective option when Edwards and Winslow started getting greater attention from opposing defensive secondaries. Having three capable receivers on the field at the same time, as well as a running back like Lewis, made the Browns a tough offense to stop.
JC: The Browns didn't make a single selection in the NFL Draft until Round 4, which makes it awfully tough on a young team to load up on quality depth up and down the roster. Where did all of those draft choices go, and did they get enough in return to justify twiddling their thumbs for the first three rounds? Additionally, which member of the Cleveland rookie class looks like a keeper and might be a difference-maker right out of the gate for head coach Romeo Crennel?
BM: The Browns would say that their top three draft choices this year were Quinn, Shaun Rogers, and Corey Williams. They dealt their first pick to Dallas in 2007 to grab Quinn; their second and third picks this year nabbed the two linemen. Looked at that way, the Browns are pretty happy with the results. Quinn gives the team security at the quarterback position, and the Rogers-Williams duo is being counted on to finally give Crennel the weapons he needs to make the 3-4 defense successful in Cleveland. The most immediate pain felt from the deals will probably be the trading of cornerback Leigh Bodden to the Lions, as the injury to Daven Holly has put the team in a bind at that position.
It's tough to assess the Browns rookie class because the top two picks, linebacker Beau Bell and tight end Martin Rucker, have been lost to injury for most of training camp. Both displayed promise before being laid up. Two other draft picks, receiver Paul Hubbard and nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin, have shown the roughness and limitations one would typically expect in sixth-round picks and will need to further develop before playing any significant roles with the Browns.
A player to keep your eyes on, however, is Alex Hall, the team's seventh-round pick from tiny St. Augustine. He needs to put on muscle and get past the huge jump he's making from small-school college football to the NFL, but he has shown flashes of explosiveness during training camp. He's got the physical tools and potential to be a real find for the Browns at outside linebacker. He'll be a player to watch during the 2009 training camp as the Browns look to replace Willie McGinest at one outside linebacker spot.
JC: Speaking of Crennel, he came to Cleveland with a reputation as one of the better defensive coaches in the league, but the Browns have finished 30th and 27th in the league in total defense the last two years. Is Crennel's 3-4 scheme simply not having very much success, or are the players just not performing well enough for a supposedly proven system to work properly? And is there any reason to be optimistic that this team will be able to stop anybody in 2008?
BM: The Browns have had to rebuild their defensive unit nearly from the ground up since Crennel took over for Butch Davis. The most significant problem has been the team's defensive line, particularly the nose tackle position. Since Crennel has assumed the team's leadership, he has had to make do with Jason Fisk and the aged Ted Washington at the nose, neither of whom occupied enough blocking attention or created the level of havoc that the 3-4 requires from the center of their defensive line. Since the three linemen couldn't occupy opposing blockers, the team's linebackers weren't able to flow to the ball and cause the disruption needed for the 3-4 to be successful.
If Rogers stays healthy and plays at the level he's capable, those problems are over. Rogers is unlike any nose tackle the Browns have seen since Crennel took over– a big and athletic player who can require double and triple teams from the opposition. If that happens, young linebackers like Kamerion Wimbley, Antwan Peek, and D'Qwell Jackson can create quarterback pressure and zero in on runners. Williams replaces Orpheus Roye, as well, and helps give the Browns strong starters across the line for the first time in Crennel's tenure.
The Browns are expecting a major step forward for their defense in 2008, due largely to their acquisitions on the defensive line. If it falls together the way they hope, the Browns have a chance to not only get to the playoffs but make some noise once they get there.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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