Joe's Camp Preview: Defense

Continuing his series from yesterday, Fan Commentator Joe Brownlee looks now towards the Browns defense. Each unit is examined in turn as Joe evaluates the team's opportunity to continue its defensive improvement under Dave Campo.

Good day, Browns fans!

This is the second of three installments looking at the Cleveland Browns heading into training camp. Part 1 looked at the offense. In this installment, we'll look at the defense. Part 3 will look at special teams and other issues. Let's dive right in!

Overview

The defense overall did some very good things in 2003. More often than not, the defense kept an anemic offense in the game. However, when there were lapses, they were huge ones. New defensive coordinator Dave Campo's scheme got better play out of the under-achieving defensive line than had been seen since The Return, and surprising levels of production from a young and inexperienced linebacker corps. The corners, considered suspect, had many fine performances against some of the best receivers in the NFL. Expected to struggle, the defense set the tone for the season by holding the high-powered Colts offense to just nine points. Unfortunately, the Browns were the only team to twice hold an opponent under 10 points and lose.

Unlike the offense, for the most part, the Browns stood pat on defense, returning every starter from the 2003 team. The team is counting on improvement of the young players with experience and time in the Campo system. The Browns also added some draft picks and free agent help.

Defensive End

Players: Courtney Brown, Kenard Lang, Ebenezer Ekuban, Mark Word, Felipe Claybrooks, Corey Jackson, Cedric Scott, Jamal Reynolds, Terrance Chapman*, Uyi Osunde*

Key Departures: Tyrone Rogers

What To Watch:
Courtney Brown was having the finest season of his career before ending yet another season with an injury. Brown consistently made plays. Kenard Lang also stepped up his level of play from 2003, when nagging injuries might have hampered him. It is unlikely either of these starters will be unseated. However, the battle for the backup spots will be heated. The Browns added veteran Ebenezer Ekuban from the Cowboys. Word, who had eight sacks in 2002, returns. Young players Felipe Claybrooks and Corey Jackson made a big splash in NFL Europe. Cedric Scott has been decent in a backup role due to injuries. The Browns are taking a flyer on former first-round pick Reynolds. Osunde is listed as a linebacker on some rosters, but was being tried as a rusher. The Browns did not retain long-time solid backup Tyrone Rogers.

Analysis:
In the Campo scheme, pressure up front is the key. Even though Brown and Lang had relatively good seasons, all too often the Browns did not get pressure, and when these players were rotated out of the game, the backups did not get pressure and were susceptible to the run. Another step up from both would help. I'm not sold on picking up Ekuban. Word has done a decent job as a backup at times, but a more consistent performer might be a good move. Claybrooks was given an opportunity on special teams early last year, and after some costly penalties, he didn't play again. Perhaps his experience in Europe will help. Corey Jackson was a standout in Europe and might be poised to capture a backup spot. Reynolds is one of those low risk, high potential reward situations, but I doubt the change of scenery will make a difference.
 

Defensive Tackle

Players: Gerard Warren, Orpheus Roye, Alvin McKinley, Michael Myers, Antonio Garay, John Nix, Amon Gordon*

Key Departures: none

What To Watch:
Once again, Warren and Roye remain the starters. Roye has been a solid and underrated performer for a while. Warren, a classic underachiever, had some good games at the end of last season. He has done this before, most notably at the end of his rookie season, but early word is that Warren is in better shape and is more serious about playing well. That will be worth watching. Beyond the starters, McKinley has been a good backup, but he missed a good deal of last season with an injury. Myers and Garay saw playing time last year. Myers made a few plays. Garay didn't get much of a chance before ending the season on injured reserve. Will Garay be healthy enough to contribute? John Nix was one of the players the Browns sent to NFL Europe. Amon Gordon was selected in the 5th round of the draft, and played a variety of positions at Stanford.

Analysis:
Will this be the year Warren finally plays up to his potential? I've been hard on Warren, who I feel hasn't given best effort. Many argue that he draws double teams. But we've seen flashes of what Warren can do and it is hard to argue that he has done it consistently. The Browns need a player with Warren's natural ability and Roye's heart. Roye gives his all play in and play out. I like McKinley, but injury wiped out much of his 2003 season. Is there more upside there? Beyond the top three, the Browns must find someone who can be a reliable part of the tackle rotation and play well against the run. Myers has some experience in the Campo system with the Cowboys. Garay has talent, but has now injured both knees. Gordon is a low round draft choice and Nix is one of those players that may or may not develop.


Middle Linebacker

Players: Andra Davis, Brant Boyer, Barry Gardner, Mason Unck, David Moretti

Key Departures: none

What To Watch:
Andra Davis grew substantially in 2003. He made mistakes, but he also made plays. How far can he go? Brant Boyer is more of an outside linebacker, but backed up the middle last season and did a decent job. Barry Gardner was the "big" free agent signing a year ago and did not play well when given a chance. Will he show anything more? Mason Unck did some nice things in the preseason last year. Watch him to see how much he picked up by playing in NFL Europe. Moretti has bounced around the practice squads of Oakland, Green Bay, and the Browns.

Analysis:
I believe that Andra Davis will improve again this year and will develop into the heart of this defense. Beyond Davis, Boyer did a capable job filling in, but he isn't a middle linebacker. Once again, someone is needed for depth that can play the run. Gardner wasn't a special teams phenom and was inadequate on defense. Frankly, I'd rather not see the Browns waste the roster spot on him. I don't see any upside there at this point in his career. Unck has potential, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of him. Moretti is unlikely to stick.


Outside Linebacker

Players: Warrick Holdman, Ben Taylor, Kevin Bentley, Chaun Thompson, Brant Boyer, Sherrod Coates, Josh Buhl*

Key Departures: none

What To Watch:
This looks to be the most interesting position battle on defense. The Browns added Warrick Holdman, who had a tough 2003 season for the Bears after an injury in 2002. One of the keys to the outside linebacker position is if Holdman can return to his 2001 form. If so, Holdman will bump one of the incumbent starters, Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley. Chaun Thompson was a second round pick a  year ago from a small school that saw little action after holding out. Sherrod Coates primarily made the roster as a special teams player after making some plays in the preseason. Josh Buhl is a highly regarded player signed as an undrafted free agent. Does he have the size to play linebacker in the NFL?

Analysis:
I don't really have a prediction for how this battle will go. There are too many variables. It remains to be seen if Holdman can return to form. Ben Taylor made a ton of tackles in 2003, but he was also out of position at times and has had trouble staying healthy. Kevin Bentley had an underwhelming 2003 season. He has tailed off since the middle of his rookie year. I would not be shocked to see Bentley gone. Thompson was a reach and after some big talk last year in camp, he did nothing all year. It spoke volumes to me that the Browns didn't even think enough of him to use him as a situational pass rusher. While there is talk of handing him one spot, I will be surprised if he can hold on to it. It's hard to say how much Coates will have grown from his experience last year, but he is an unknown on defense. He might make it again on special teams play alone. Boyer will probably be the first backup at all of the positions because of his experience and knack for making plays.


Cornerback

Players: Daylon McCutcheon, Anthony Henry, Michael Lehan, Roosevelt Williams, Leigh Bodden, Ricky Sharpe, Michael Grant*

Key Departures: none

What To Watch:
The starters have been in place for some time, though many continue to predict McCutcheon being displaced. He may be small on paper, but he makes up for it with toughness and good tackling. Anthony Henry had a solid year in 2003, perhaps not up to his rookie form, but better than 2002. Watch to see if he improves. McCutcheon and Henry did a nice job against some tough receivers last year, but with the lapses against the run, it that a mirage? Beyond the starters, the Browns have a number of young players with potential. Many got meaningful experience last season because of injuries to the starters. Watch Lehan and Williams in particular.

Analysis:
Call me crazy, but I believe Cutch and Henry are better than most give them credit for. Much of their success or failure will depend on the pressure the front seven can bring. All too often in 2003, there was no pressure at all. I think Lehan has a lot of potential, but can he stay healthy? Badly burned in the game at Denver, I like the way he answered questions about it and said he would use it as a learning experience. Williams had his problems, but he also made some plays, especially in the last couple of games. The Browns were high on Bodden last year, but I'm left to wonder if he can really make it as an NFL corner. Watch his improvement. Sharpe didn't show much in Cleveland last summer, but he managed to land a spot on the practice squad and played in NFL Europe. Grant came from a small school (Mars Hill), but was highly regarded. Can he make the leap to the NFL? Probably not this year.

The Browns need to identify a nickel back and sort out the pecking order among the young players. The Browns should also look at signing McCutcheon to a contract extension.


Safety

Players: Robert Griffith, Earl Little, Chris Crocker, Michael Jameson, Sean Jones*, David Gibson, David Young, Kentrell Curry*

Key Departures: none

What To Watch:
The incumbents here are also on shaky ground. Problem is, with the injury to second round pick Sean Jones, it is unlikely there is anyone to replace them. Crocker saw action last year, and other than one big special teams play against the Chiefs, he did not do much. Jameson has had several years now to contribute and hasn't been awe-inspiring, either. Originally a sixth round pick, this may be his last chance to shine. Since the Jones injury, the Browns stocked up on safeties to see if someone can help there. Gibson has been in the NFL since 2000, bouncing between to Bucs and Colts. He has made plays at times in his career, including an eleven tackle game in 2002. Young made the rounds between the Jags, Jets, and Browns last year, mostly as a practice squad player. Kentrell Curry might be the most interesting to watch. A teammate of Jones in college, his draft stock fell because of an injury. Watch Curry closely. Ricky Sharpe may also get a shot at safety.

Analysis:
While I appreciate the contributions of Earl Little, especially in the interception department, he is not great in coverage situations and highly suspect against the run. Griffith is one of those guys who goes for the big hit at the expense of making a play, and who bails out on some running plays. While the line and linebackers made hold the most blame for the dismal showings against Jamal Lewis and LaDanian Tomlinson, if a safety could have at least tripped them up, perhaps a 70-yard play becomes a 30-yard play. Bad, but not as bad. I'm one of those people who thinks Crocker was a reach. I was high on Jameson after his rookie preseason, which ended with an injury. Since then, he has done little. Perhaps between Gibson, Young, and Curry, the Browns might get lucky there. I'm guessing that Little and Griffith remain the starters. It would be nice to see someone at least push them.

This position is probably the biggest weakness on the defense.


Coaching

Dave Campo is in year two. He got the most out of Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren that anyone has, helped Kenard Lang play effectively, and turned the doom and gloom over the young linebackers into some double takes. The secondary had its problems, but once again, this is nothing some consistent pressure up front would not help. Look for improving the pass rush to be a recurring theme during camp. Campo wasn't afraid to blitz and take chances. Overall, I think Campo did a good job. Watch to see how the defense responds with a full year in this system under their belts. Also, the continuity should help. There has been very little turnover on defense from a year ago.


Summary

Many of the questions the defense faces are not new ones. How does one coax the talent out of the defensive line? Can the young linebackers step up? Is the team strong enough up the middle to stop the big backs? Is the secondary up to the challenge? Can the key players stay healthy? But even with all of these questions, remember that other than some admittedly horrendous gaffes, the defense kept the team in games and played solid football. If they can just build on the successes they had last year and learn from their mistakes, this could be a very good defense.

Next Up

A look at the rest of the 2004 Browns.

The season is short. Bark hard!


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