Keeping the Weapons

Since 1999, we heard the team and assorted pundits tell us how important it was for the Cleveland Browns to get "weapons" for Tim Couch. In 2003, the Browns WR corps began to emerge as the weapons the team wanted. The question now is: can the team keep the wide receiver corp together? Lane Adkins looks at the situation and one particular receiver who may present the team's greatest challenge.

Adding weapons to the Browns offense has been a priority of the organization since its return in 1999. Now, with additional speed and skill players on the roster, the wide receiver position in general has become an area of depth and quality.

When the Browns negotiated a contract extension with wide receiver Kevin Johnson prior to the 2002 season, the Browns offered that the WR position was one of "promise". With Johnson under contract for seasons to come, the promise has become reality and the Browns may have to deal with an issue that a short time ago would have been quite a surprise.

With the emergence of Quincy Morgan, and the promising rookie campaign of Andre Davis, the players making up the Browns wide receiver corps appears to be the playmaking weapons the team has long desired.

Morgan and Davis supply the offense with speed, Kevin Johnson adds the dimension of the "possession plus" receiver and Frisman Jackson could be a diamond in the rough. Throw in the flashing and quick Dennis Northcutt and this group of Browns receivers could rival any in the AFC.

With the quality and depth improved, a speed bump in the road could be on the horizon.

Dennis Northcutt is a free agent following the 2003 season and the Browns may find retaining Northcutt to be a difficult chore. More than one team watched the situation in Cleveland unwind as the elusive receiver performed well in training camp and made the opening day roster.

"The Browns are going to have a difficult time retaining Northcutt, especially if he has a season in 2003 that compares to his 2002 campaign," a league source said. "There was talk that the Browns may attempt to trade Northcutt while his value was at its highest level... to this point in time the Browns have not seriously entertained the option. If anything, the Browns should be looking to lock him up with an extension."

"Northcutt is one of those types of players that can change the complexion of the game at any given time. In his first two seasons, injuries played a role in his below-average productivity. In 2002, the Browns were a better offensive team, they got the ball in his hands while he was on the move in the pass pattern, and he caught some breaks in the return game due to improved depth on the special teams."

Besides being a solid third receiver for the Browns in the 2002 season, Northcutt was the Browns primary punt return specialist, and became one of the best in the league.

The emergence of talent at the wide receiver position could make Northcutt expendable if his contract requirements are out of the reach of the team. The roster purge in the off-season should place the team in a solid position to retain the services of Northcutt and add additional players to the roster heading into 2004. Waiting until the end of the 2003 season, however, could be a mistake for the Browns if they want to retain Northcutt. Some grumblings suggest that the player has visions of the West Coast dancing in his head.

"Northcutt is a special player - don't take it for granted because of his slight build," the source said. "Imagine how improved Northcutt can be in the 2003 season with the success he and team experienced last season. When it was all said and done, Northcutt was one of many go-to guys on the roster, some of which can be attributed to Kelly Holcomb being inserted in the lineup when Tim Couch was injured. The familiarity between the two players was evident and it carried over to the entire structure and confidence of the offensive team. If this play continues, he will be in great demand following the season."

Northcutt's contributions to the team were a critical aspect that clearly enhanced the Browns offense. After 2003, that same play could lead Northcutt too much greener pastures and the ball won't be in the Browns court.

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