As always, optimism ran high last week when the Browns conducted a full-squad minicamp and officially closed the offseason portion of their workouts.
Coach Butch Davis had nothing but praise for most of the players, and the players talked about a successful 2003 season. In particular, defensive players genuinely seem excited about the aggressive style of play that will be deployed by coordinator Dave Campo.
Following are a few post-minicamp observations:
Gerard Warren is actually in good shape. He also seemed to have more energy. I can remember times the last two years when he appeared exhausted as he sat in front of his locker to talk to reporters.
Talking to Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck the other day at a youth football camp, he told me that Warren was one of the best defensive tackles he ever saw on the college level. If Warren remains in good shape and recaptures the glory of his Florida days, the defense will be greatly improved.
Keep an eye on defensive tackle Alvin McKinley. According to Davis, strength coach Buddy Morris considers McKinley one of his best pupils ever. McKinley is bigger and was very active in drills. He could make the middle of the defensive line stronger.
Kelly Holcomb seemed to be throwing the ball better than Tim Couch. Look for Couch to eventually win the starting job. You just don't give up on the first overall pick in the 1999 draft at this stage of his career. Still, Holcomb will make the decision a tough one.
William Green's receiving skills will be put to the test in training camp and preseason games. Also, you could see more two-back sets, which will be a sight for sore eyes to fans that have been clamoring for more of that set.
Ben Taylor could develop into more than a special teams player. He's working with the first unit at the "sam" linebacker and teams with Andra Davis on the first-team nickel package. Taylor looks bigger in the upper body. He could be a pleasant surprise out of camp.
There still isn't a dominant pass rusher at this time. We haven't seen enough of Taylor and Kevin Bentley on the outside to gauge if the linebackers can mount much of a rush, and how much defensive end Courtney Brown will help is anyone's guess.
Rookie linebacker Chaun Thompson is a joy to watch. He's a willing learner, has a refreshing attitude and is blessed with tons of athleticism. However, don't look for Thompson to have an immediate impact on defense. He's still a raw talent, which is obvious at times. He has to learn to be more instinctive. < p>
I can't stress enough how big guard Qasim Mitchell has become. The good thing about it is that he doesn't look fat at all. While the coaches are excited about Mitchell's long-term potential, don't look for him to step in as a starter at the outset of camp. Remember, he didn't play one down last season.
All those critics of the decision to let Dave Wohlabaugh go will be silenced. Let's be honest here: Wohlabaugh was a below-average center and a liability in short-yardage situations. First-round pick Jeff Faine will be a good upgrade in the short run and a significant upgrade in the long run. Faine never stops on a play, and the nasty attitude we've been told about is clear.
Barry Gardner, who worked at middle linebacker, is an intelligent player with good speed, but he lacks great size. Gardner is with the first unit at this time, but look for Andra Davis to eventually move in. Butch Davis is probably hesitant about going too young too fast at linebacker, which is why the experienced Gardner is on top of the depth chart.
Cornerback Lewis Sanders, who had a 2002 season to forget, seemed more active and comfortable. Sanders showed excellent man coverage skills in his rookie season of 2000, but he seemed to lose something after sitting out the 2001 season because of surgery. The secondary needs Sanders to step up his game in the nickel.
Free safety Earl Little might have been be the most-confident player in camp, next to the exuberant Warren. For once, Little isn't fighting for a starting job, and he's bulked up to 205 pounds to improve his play against the run. < p>
The Browns could field one of the best groups of skilled players on offense of any team in the NFL. If Andre Davis continues to improve, the receiving corps will give whoever starts at quarterback plenty of talented, speedy receivers with which to work. If rookie running back Lee Suggs can remain healthy, the threesome of Green, Jamel White and Suggs could be dynamite.