ON THE INSIDE: McLAIN ON THE MIDDLE MAN

<p>The retooling of the defense by the Browns has been an early surprise of the free-agency signing period, especially when considering the dire need to upgrade the offensive line. Don't think that Butch Davis is done concerning himself with the defense. <p>

The retooling of the defense by the Browns has been an early surprise of the free-agency signing period, especially when considering the dire need to upgrade the offensive line.

Don't think that Butch Davis is done concerning himself with the defense. He wasn't pleased with the way the unit wore down against the run last season. While the amount time the defense had to remain on the field because of the offense's inability to sustain drives played a factor, there were still too many weak spots for Davis' liking.

Adding a solid, run-stopping middle linebacker remains a high priority. Wali Rainer not only lacks good pursuit ability, he misses way too many tackles. His up-and-down play was one reason why the defense gave up 138 yards a game, 29th worst in the NFL.

The problem facing the Browns is finding a quality middle linebacker. The position appears very weak in the draft, and some of the better middle linebackers in free agency have signed with other teams – London Fletcher with Buffalo and Sam Cowart with the New York Jets.

That leaves Earl Holmes as the best of the remaining lot. There have been reports that the Browns are interested in interviewing Holmes, who's menaced the Browns as an inside linebacker in Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.

Holmes would be a major upgrade. Pittsburgh was first in the NFL against the run, and Holmes played a big role in the process.

Money could be an issue. The Browns have already committed a combined $32 million to Lang and strong safety Robert Griffith, and there's still the business of addressing the offensive line. Holmes reportedly has a high asking price, but that number could fall in the future.

Holmes did suffer a minor ankle injury in Pittsburgh's playoff win over Baltimore. He was forced to miss the AFC Championship Game against New England, but the injury isn't anything serious.

BEEFING UP: The addition of Ryan Tucker to the offensive line could pay big dividends. Tucker is an interesting player. He was considered a possible first-round pick coming out of TCU in 1997, but a knee injury suffered in the Senior Bowl dropped him to the fourth round.

Tucker missed much of his rookie year to rehab the knee, and a neck injury sidelined him nine games in 1998. Tucker moved into the starting lineup in 2000 and started 31 of 32 games during the last two seasons for the Rams.

Tucker, 26, might be just scratching the surface of what he's capable of doing.

GETTING THERE: The new-look deep secondary that will be in place next season will definitely include Griffith, who's penciled in at strong safety. The next decision is what to do at free safety, where Percy Ellsworth was let go and replaced by Devin Bush.

The Browns are high on Michael Jameson, a sixth-round pick last year. Before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in preseason, Jameson received high marks by the coaching staff. There's concern about his ability to hold up physically at 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, but he'll be given every opportunity to win the job.

Another player that could be in the mix is Lewis Sanders, who missed last season because of leg surgery. The plan seems to be to move Sanders from cornerback to free safety, where his outstanding speed can be utilized.

NO GO: Don't expect anything to happen on the La'Roi Glover front. While it's fascinating to think of a defensive tackle tandem of Glover and Warren, Glover would come at a steep financial cost.

Another factor that works against Glover is that he's a finesse player. That goes against the plan to bring in a physical tackle to shore up the run defense.

CHANGE OF PLANS: The addition of Griffith is somewhat surprising. Davis said recently that teams that are one or two players away from challenging to win it all could afford the luxury of signing high-priced veterans.

The Browns haven't reached that stage, yet they signed Griffith, will turn 32 before the end of next season. Griffith seemed like a perfect fit for a team that was knocking on the doorstep of the playoffs last season, not one that went 7-9.

Maybe Davis thinks the Browns are closer than any of us think to being a playoff team.


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