Opposing quarterbacks should be forgiven in the season ahead if they feel like a lost sheep trying to throw passes into a Browns defensive backfield filled with hungry wolves.
One of the most entertaining battles in training camp is for the two starting jobs at cornerback. The incumbents are Daylon McCutcheon on the right side and Corey Fuller on the left. The challengers are Anthony Henry on the right and Lewis Sanders on the left.
Football has changed into such a passing game over the last couple decades that depth in the secondary is as important as strong offensive and defensive lines. Predictably, opponents will be in three and four-receiver sets often. Kordell Stewart, Vinny Testaverde, Mark Brunell, Peyton Manning and the other quarterbacks the Browns will encounter won't find many holes if the four corners play as well as expected.
"We have some very talented players at cornerback with Corey Fuller, Daylon McCutcheon, Lewis Sanders and Anthony Henry," coach Butch Davis said.
"I know you can't play with two corners. You better have three, and if you have four you have a great luxury."
Fuller set out to prove from the first day of Training Camp that he won't give up his starting job until someone rips it from his grasp. He isn't the biggest corner the Browns have, or the quickest or the fastest. He was none of those things last year, either, when Davis called him one of the best cover corners in the league.
"What will I do if I'm No. 3 or 4?" Fuller asked after practice one day last week. "I ain't going to be a nickel back. When I get ready to leave the game, I'm going to retire. I'll walk out the door and say I can't do it any more.
"I'm not worried about that right now. It's good to have competition. I'm a confident person. Forget football. I'm confident no matter what I do."
Cornerbacks come in all shapes and sizes, but one important quality all the good ones have is quick feet so they can change directions in a hurry and stay with deceptive receivers.
Henry, at 6-foot-1, is a good four inches taller than McCutcheon. Sanders is also 6-1, three inches taller than Fuller.
"We all have different qualities," Fuller said. "One might be quicker, one might be faster and one might be bigger.
"Anthony Henry is the tallest cornerback we have. He's probably the best pure catcher in the secondary. He's very good at reading routes and understanding the game. Cutch is very quick. Lewis is talented all the way around. He just has to stay healthy. Me, I'm just a wily old vet with some skills still left."
Each of the four is determined to be an important part of the season, whether as a starter or a specialty back, and each has something to prove, which makes for healthy competition. Fuller suffered a double-hit in the offseason; first he was placed on the expansion list for the Houston Texans, and when he wasn't taken he was told to take a pay cut or be cut.
"That's behind me," Fuller, 31, said. "I'm here because I think we're on the verge of something special. I love playing with my teammates. The organization has been fair to me. I'm a man of my word. I'll honor my (five-year) contract. Hopefully I'll get five in."
McCutcheon, once again, wants to prove a 5-foot-9 guy can start and hold his own against receivers six-foot and taller. It's something he has had to do since he was a freshman at Southern Cal.
Sanders just wants to prove he is not some fragile piece of china unable to take the punishment and pounding that comes with being in the National Football League. Last season those not close to the ball ignorantly questioned whether Sanders was tough enough to make football a career.
Sanders played 11 games as a rookie, missing five with injury. He missed all last season after doctors discovered a calcium deposit on his right leg. The deposit was surgically removed and now Sanders says he feels fine, although an unrelated groin injury slowed him in minicamp last month.
So far Sanders has taken his regular turn in training camp, but he has not played nearly as well as he expects to. It is not surprisingly that he is making mistakes early because he has a year of rust to shake off.
"I'm not frustrated because there's a long way to go," Sanders said. "I'm just trying to work the kinks out. The important thing is I feel fine."
The only thing Henry has to prove is that he is no one-season wonder. He intercepted 10 passes last season, most of them as the nickel back playing on the right outside after McCutcheon moved inside. He accepted that role and will again, but now he wants to start.
"I'm pretty much in the same position I was last year," Henry said. "Last year I was trying to make the team and this year I'm fighting for a starting spot. But whatever my role might be, as long as I have a job, I'll be happy.
"I don't think about a number of interceptions. I just want to make a play every time I'm on the field. I can't say if teams are going to throw away from me. Some teams like to challenge a good guy so they'll probably come at me. Some might stay away, but I'll have to be prepared for when they do come at me."
Sometimes intense battles like the ones the Browns cornerbacks are waging can boil over into a family feud, where players eye each other warily and all but cheer for the receiver to burn the rival corner deep. That has not happened in Butch's Bunch.
"The best thing about it is there's no animosity or back stabbing," McCutcheon said.
"We all work hard and push each other. It adds depth and will make us better in nickel situations. It doesn't matter who the starters are.
"A lot of teams use three and four wide receivers. We'll be able to match up with them. In our division a lot of teams run three-receiver sets. Pittsburgh comes out with four and five receivers. Baltimore uses three receivers a lot."
Davis said the Browns were in nickel defense with McCutcheon and Henry about 40 percent of the time last season.
The Browns intercepted a team-record 33 passes last year. Twenty of those picks came from cornerbacks the 10 by Henry, plus four by McCutcheon, three by Fuller and three by Ray Jackson, who is no longer with the team.
Expecting 30 or more interceptions again is a lot to ask, but if Courtney Brown stays healthy, Kenard Lang lives up to expectations and Jamir Miller comes close to another 13 sacks, the Browns should get pressure on the quarterback again. Last year they had 43 sacks, tied for 10th best in the league, and 207 quarterback pressures. A pressure is a subjective statistic and not kept league-wide.
McCutcheon could be the beneficiary of that pressure. If the opposing quarterback is under siege, he could try dumping the ball off quickly in McCutcheon's area.
"I think nickel is an exciting position because you do a lot of man coverage, a lot of zone coverage and a lot of stuff underneath," McCutcheon said. "On this defense, they bring you on blitzes, so it's a fun position."
There is one number the Browns would like to reduce. They allowed 18
touchdown passes, 11th best in the league, last year. Eight of the 10 teams that
allowed fewer made the playoffs.