Derry: Merriman, Browns Might Make Nice Marriage

There is a reason that University of Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman has had his photo on the front page of three times this week. As Frank Derry explains, Merriman looks like a fantastic fit for the Browns new 3-4 defense. For it to happen, though, the Browns need to find some help...

Now don't go betting the house on it, but I have a sneaky suspicion that when general manager Phil Savage announces the Browns' first-round draft choice on April 23, the player's name he calls will be Shawne Merriman.

However, there's a catch.

The only way it will be Merriman, the outstanding defensive end/outside linebacker out of the University of Maryland, is if Savage is successful in moving down in the first round from his No. 3 spot to somewhere in the 8-10 range.

That is the highest Merriman is worthy of being drafted. And even that could be a reach. But if the Browns move below the No. 11 spot, then the Dallas Cowboys, who are at No. 11, in all likelihood will grab Merriman.

The Cowboys, much like the Browns, will be switching to a 3-4 defense this year, making a "tweener" like Merriman a perfect fit.

If Savage is unable to make a trade, look for the Browns to select University of Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards, providing, of course, he is still on the board.

If Edwards goes to someone with either the first or second overall choice, which is a distinct possibility, then the Browns would be hard-pressed not to choose between quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers out of California or Alex Smith out of Utah, or running back Ronnie Brown out of Auburn, depending upon which ones are still on the board.

The question that begs to be asked is, if the Browns want Merriman so bad, why not just use the third overall choice to get him?

Because that would totally go against Savage's philosophy of taking the best player on the board regardless of position.

Edwards, Rodgers, Smith and Brown will clearly be ranked higher than Merriman. Running backs Carnell Williams and Cedric Benson and probably cornerback Antrel Rolle will also likely be ranked slightly higher than Merriman.

However, the Browns are in such desperate need of defensive linemen and outside linebackers at this point that they might have to go after Merriman even if he is slightly behind a few players on the board.

The recent trades of Gerard Warren, Michael Myers and Ebenezer Ekuban to the Denver Broncos, along with the free agency loss of Courtney Brown, also to the Broncos, definitely cut into the Browns' depth on the defensive line.

When asked who his three starting defensive linemen would be if the season were to start tomorrow, Browns head coach Romeo Crennel smiled and said Orpheus Roye at one defensive end spot and veteran free agent Jason Fisk in the middle. "Those are the guys who have NFL experience," said Crennel. "The rest of us, we are trying to find out what we can do."

One guy who seemingly has impressed Crennel is "the Clemson kid," second-year player Nick Eason.

Crennel isn't quite sure what role Kenard Lang will play. "Outside linebacker is a possibility," he said. "I told him I know that he can play end and I told him I want him to try to learn the outside linebacker spot."

Crennel said if the season started tomorrow his starting linebackers would be Matt Stewart and Chaun Thompson on the outside and Andra Davis and Ben Taylor in the middle.

Crennel, when pressed whether Thompson is even close to being ready to handle an outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 defense, said with a big grin, "You told me if we were going to line up tomorrow. I have to put somebody in there."

Crennel admits that even though Thompson's first shot will come on the outside, that doesn't mean he'll end up there. "Everyone has to start (competing for a job) somewhere. In Chaun's case, that will be on the outside and we'll go from there."

Crennel was known to rotate four or five outside linebackers during his days as the Patriots' defensive coordinator. That might not be the case with the Browns.

"I think the situation in New England was such that when you have good players, you want to use them. We were fortunate enough to have four or five good outside linebackers. If we didn't have four or five good ones, then we probably would have used just two. It depends on what you have. If we have four or five, we'll use them. If we have just two, then we'll use two. And if we don't have but one, then we'll try to get another one."

Stewart is a proven commodity, having played the role for the Falcons for whom he started 51 of 54 games the past three seasons.

If he's the "only one," that might very well mean the 6-4, 250-pound Merriman, whose stock has risen quite a bit following the 2004 season, will be coming to Cleveland. Merriman, who is coming out after his junior year, has been scrutinized quite heavily by Crennel.

"He has a tremendous first step," Crennel said. "That allows him to put pressure on the quarterback."

The area of concern is whether Merriman has the ability to drop back into pass coverage. That's not the least bit unusual for a "tweener" like Merriman and is a quality which will only come with time.

Further convincing me that the Browns will try to get Merriman are the comments of new Player Personnel Director Bill Rees, who says, "Outside linebacker is the critical position for the 3-4 defense. This where you really want to find your play-makers.

"These guys are hard to find because you are projecting defensive ends who play in a three-point stance to playing in a two-point stance."

Rees says that Merriman went from playing at about 255 during the 2004 season to about 270 at the post-season workouts, contributing to his increase draft value.  "He has great versatility, great power off the edge.," Rees said. "You obviously can play him over a tight end and he'd win most of those battles."

Rees also speaks highly of Georgia's David Pollack, Troy State's Demarcus Ware an Derrick Johnson out of Texas as potential outside linebackers capable of playing in the 3-4 defense.

But those three players would be distant second options to Merriman, who would look very good in a Browns uniform this fall.

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