On the Bubble

Now that the pre-season is over, some tough decision-making awaits. Browns coaches will need to cut over 20 players by Sunday evening, in order to meet the NFL-imposed roster limit of 53. Fan Commentator Joe Brownlee does what a lot of folks are scared to do as he lists who he feels are locks, who's on the bubble, and who has no chance at all...

Good day, Browns fans!

The final preseason game was just a cameo for the starters of the Cleveland Browns. But for many further down the depth chart, this game meant the difference between unemployment and making the 53-man roster. Let's take a look at each position and what to expect before final cuts are made.

Quarterback

There are no surprises here as the Browns have known pretty much from the start of camp who would make the roster, barring injury. Jeff Garcia comes out of the preseason looking shaky with the starters. Hopefully, a solid week of practice and the continuity and planning of a real game will correct things. Kelley Holcomb has seemed off in each game except the opener at Tennessee. Luke McCown became a fan favorite with late game heroics in Kansas City and against the Bears.

LOCKS Jeff Garcia
Kelly Holcomb
Luke McCown


Running Backs

It seems to be me that despite a big game last weekend by William Green, Less Suggs will remain the "starter". Both will see a lot of playing time, I'm sure, and I hope the Browns find ways to get them both on the field together.

Beyond this, things become more interesting. James Jackson has made it clear he wants to be elsewhere, but the Browns want something in return and are holding out for a third-round draft pick. I suspect a lot of this is a poker game more than anything. The Browns tried to showcase Jackson in against the Bears and it didn't go well, given his 11 carries for 20 yards and the inability to pick up first downs in two short yardage situation. On the other hand, Jackson has had a solid preseason before the final game, and he could be a valuable third-down back and role player for the Browns. A lot depends on if the Browns find any takers before the cuts come.

Dee Brown had been uninspiring on offense until the final game, but he has had a brilliant preseason returning kickoffs. He's the best player the Browns have had in that role since Randy Baldwin. That alone will earn him a spot, particularly if Jackson is sent packing. Brown helped himself with a good performance on offense. It might lead the Browns to release Jackson if no trade can be arranged.

Nick Maddox has done very well at garbage time and has potential, but there simply isn't room for him. Perhaps this will be an audition for a chance elsewhere.

LOCKS Lee Suggs
William Green
TRADE BAIT James Jackson
GOOD SHOT Dee Brown
ON THE BUBBLE Nick Maddox


Fullbacks

Terrelle Smith has looked pretty good blocking in limited chances, and has a least had a token reception and a carry. Corey McIntyre hasn't had tons of chances, but when he has, he didn't capitalize. Dropping a swing pass when he was wide open in the Bears game didn't help. The Browns are now listing Aaron Shea as a fullback, and combined with the injury to Steve Heiden and Shea's special teams play, it may be enough for him to escape The Turk. Ben Miller is already on injured reserve.

LOCKS Terrelle Smith
GOOD SHOT Aaron Shea
ON THE BUBBLE Corey McIntyre


Wide Receivers

This might be the most unsettled position on offense. The top three players will make it, and I fully expect Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis to remain the starters – for now. This could change if Dennis Northcutt continues to work well with Garcia, despite all the concerns about his durability and matchup issues.

The rest gets interesting. Frisman Jackson has done little to retain his hold on the #4 spot coming into training camp. His arm makes him interesting in terms of trick plays and Hail Mary passes, but is that enough to justify a roster spot? It's not like his career numbers are anything to get excited about. Andre King, meanwhile, just keeps hanging around and producing. He has made plays throughout the preseason, capping it with a seven-catch performance against the Bears. He plays on special teams and has good hands. True, he has very little upside and is older because of his time in baseball, but he is a valuable role player.

Of the two young players, C. J. Jones had a great preseason last year, but after the release of Kevin Johnson, I found it curious that he could not crack the roster. He's done some good things thing preseason, both on offense and special teams. Meanwhile, Richard Alston, a fellow who made one big play last preseason, has had a better preseason in my view, both on offense and special teams. These two guys are similar and both are young and have potential. Can the Browns keep both? Not unless they are willing to let go of at least one of King and Jackson.

I would not be shocked to see Jackson go. I would not be surprised to see him stay. The exhibition games haven't given these guys much of a chance to stand out. The only knock on King would be a decision based on keeping somebody younger.

LOCKS Quincy Morgan
Andre Davis
Dennis Northcutt
GOOD SHOT Andre King
ON THE BUBBLE Frisman Jackson
C.J. Jones
Richard Alston


On The Bubble:


Tight Ends

With the injury to Heiden, what looked to be a cut and dried position might have a little intrigue. Heiden's injury is such that the Browns will likely not place him on one of the injured lists (although see Boyer, Brant). Obviously, Kellen Winslow is making the team. With Shea considered a fullback, that might make room for Darnell Sanders. Sanders has been a disappointment since being drafted. Chad Mustard, who is like a guard wearing an eligible number, has made a couple of plays, but probably not enough to crack the roster. Keith Heinrich is already on the PUP list, so he may be available later in the season.

I see two scenarios: One is that the Browns keep Heiden, Winslow, and Shea, with Shea doing double duty as a backup fullback and tight end. This would allow them to keep McIntyre or perhaps a fourth running back. Another possibility would be to keep Heiden, Winslow, and Sanders, with Shea making the team as a fullback, if at all. There is an outside chance the Browns could make an injury move with Heiden, but that seems unlikely.

LOCKS Steve Heiden
Kellen Winslow
ON THE BUBBLE Darnell Sanders
NO CHANCE Chad Mustard
IN THE WINGS Keith Heinrich


Offensive Line

The biggest question here is who might make the team that isn't currently on the roster. Four of the starters are set: Ross Verba, Jeff Faine, Kelvin Garmon, and Ryan Tucker. Garmon has been the weak link, but is unlikely to be replaced. The remaining spot, left guard is down to a competition between last year's right guard, Paul Zukauskas, and undrafted second-year man Enoch DeMar. Zukauskas looked like he might nail down that spot two weeks ago, but DeMar had a good game at Kansas City. If Zukauskas does not get the spot, will the Browns decide he's had enough chances and let him go?

The backups have very little pedigree and there are a lot of projects. I personally think draft pick Kirk Chambers has done enough to be a credible backup at tackle. He is smart, but needs seasoning. I also like Juaquin Gonzalez who has done a decent job as a backup in the past. He is currently injured, so a lot will depend on his health. Likewise, Melvin Fowler has played very little this preseason due to injury, and seemed to have dropped pretty low on the depth chart. He may be be readu to return, but if not, I would not be surprised to see him hit IR.

The rest are in a clump. Defensive line convert Chad Beasley is already on IR. Tackle Scot Osborne has made a lot of mistakes. Craig Osika has hung around for a while, but he is still a project and has not had a great camp. Chuck Klabo is another project from a small school. Lew Dawson got a lot of playing time against the Lions, but was little used against the Chiefs. I don't think center Jason Anderson ever had a real chance of making the roster.

LOCKS Rose Verba
Ryan Tucker
Jeff Faine
Kelvin Garmon
Enoch DeMar
Kirk Chambers
GOOD SHOT Paul Zukauskas
Joaquin Gonzalez
Melvin Fowler
ON THE BUBBLE Scot Osborne
Craig Osika
Lew Dawson
NO CHANCE Chuck Klabo
Jason Andersen


Defensive Line

This group will force some hard calls. Down to the bottom of the depth chart, guys have made plays this preseason. This could also be a place where there is a chance that a surprise cut nicks a veteran. Because the Browns rotate linemen, the in essence use six starters and maybe more like eight at times. Players who make the roster as "backups" are likely to see significant playing time.

I think 2004 is the last chance for high-priced underachievers Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren. Brown was having a good 2003 season until he suffered yet another freak injury. He has had some good moments so far. Gerard Warren has previously talked about actually delivering play in and play out like he could, but this time, he really seems different. Orpheus Roye is the underrated anchor of the group. Kenard Lang had a solid 2003, but might he be forced out by younger players?

Ebenezer Ekuban has been playing with the "starters" in certain situations where Brown moves to tackle. I'm not totally sold on him, but he came on in the final two games. He'll make the team. Mark Word has had a good preseason and has shown the ability to generate sacks in the past. He's even made a play or two in the running game, which has been his biggest weakness. NFL Europe star Corey Jackson has been disappointing. His injury last week might earn him a medical redshirt season. Felipe Claybrooks has hung around for a while. After a good season in Europe, he has made several plays when called upon. Question is, can he eliminate the penalties that forced him off the roster last season and produce on special teams? Cedric Scott has been around for a while as a backup, but likely will be a victim of numbers.

Tackle will also be tough. Alvin McKinley has produced in the past, but now has been diagnosed with diabetes. Will that affect his ability to play? Michael Myers was a pickup from Dallas last season who has done a solid job both last year and in the preseason. John Nix was another NFL Europe player who has been decent. I've been impressed with draft pick Amon Gordon. The Browns also have 2003 draft pick Antonio Garay on the PUP list.

LOCKS Courtney Brown
Gerard Warren
Orpheus Roye
Ebenezer Ekuban
GOOD SHOT Kenard Lang
Mark Word
Mike Myers
Amon Gordon
ON THE BUBBLE Felipe Claybrooks
John Nix
INJURY LIST> Alvin McKinley
Corey Jackson
NO CHANCE Cedric Scott
IN THE WINGS Antonio Garay


Linebackers

I'm very concerned about the linebacker position, one I thought was OK coming into camp. Sure, there are young players, but I did not expect the regression I sense from Andra Davis and Ben Taylor. Likewise, I didn't expect the fire shown by Kevin Bentley. With Brant Boyer on IR, Warrick Holdman will provide the veteran presence on the unit. Barry Gardner was a special-teamer who looked slow and lost on defense in 2003. He has looked a lot better this preseason, perhaps due to a better understanding of the Campo system.

Chaun Thompson lost most of a second training camp to injury, but might well have started otherwise. He showed flashes in the final game against Chicago. No way the Browns give up on him, and I think it is unlikely he will end up on an injury list. Eric Westmoreland has been a camp surprise and has forced people to notice him. Hopefully, the concussion he suffered against Kansas City won't have any lingering effects, but I suppose there is a chance he could hit IR. Mason Unck and Sherrod Coates are aggressive, but often lack discipline. Coates may have played himself off the team with his penalties and mistakes. Uyi Osunde is too far down the list to have a chance.

LOCKS Andra Davis
Warrick Holdman
Chaun Thompson
Kevin Bentley
Barry Gardner
GOOD SHOT Ben Taylor
Kevin Westmoreland
ON THE BUBBLE Mason Unck
Sherrod Coates
NO CHANCE Uyi Osunde


Defensive Backs

Injuries have made it hard to sort out the cornerback situation. Anthony Henry and Daylon McCutcheon will remain the starters, despite some struggles by McCutcheon. Roosevelt Williams and Michael Lehan figured to be the first two backups, but both have been hampered by injuries. Leigh Bodden, who made the team as a rookie, has had a mixed preseason.

At safety, Robert Griffith and Earl Little are still the starters on paper, but neither has done anything in the preseason to erase their problems in 2003. Michael Jameson might have been in trouble coming into camp, but has made enough plays to stick. Chris Crocker was looking good until being injured. Sean Jones was placed on the PUP list rather than IR.

Adding to the mix, Ricky Sharpe has a good season in NFL Europe and has made plays in limited action. The Browns re-signed Lewis Sanders this week, and there is talk that he may work at safety rather than corner in addition to special teams duties. The question is whether he can stay healthy. Tim Wansley has played a fair amount, but I haven't seen enough to have an informed opinion. Numbers alone make it unlikely that he sticks.

Could Robert Griffith be a surprise cut? He has not had a great preseason. I wouldn't be shocked to see Little gone as well, though I like his nose for the ball. A roster pickup here as other teams cut down would not be a shock.

LOCKS Daylon McCutcheon
Anthony Henry
Chris Crocker
Michael Lehan
GOOD SHOT Robert Griffith
Earl Little
Michael Jameson
Roosevelt Williams
Lewis Sanders
ON THE BUBBLE Leigh Bodden
Ricky Sharpe
NO CHANCE Tim Wansley
IN THE WINGS Sean Jones


Special Teams

The kicking game is set. Veteran Phil Dawson is the placekicker, even though he missed two of four field goal attempts in the preseason, with Derrick Frost winning the punting job. Ryan Pointbriand returns as the long snapper.

Dennis Northcutt will once again return punts, though C. J. Jones and Richard Alston both had good moments here as well. Dee Brown looks likely to take over on kickoffs. Lewis Sanders seems likely to be the gunner on punts. Mason Unck and Chris Crocker have had chances at the upman on punts, replacing the injured Boyer.

LOCKS Phil Dawson
Derrick Frost
Ryan Pontbriand


Summary

I don't envy this staff. The Browns will have to let go of some solid talent. Someone valuable will probably not make the team at running back, wide receiver, and on the defensive line. Meanwhile, the team still has some serious holes on the offensive line and at safety.


Next Up

The cut to 53 must be made by Sunday. Watch for possible trades and/or waiver wire claims in the days following.

The season is short. Bark hard!


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