On The Inside: Carducci's Corner

Looking at the free agent possibilities with an eye focused on the draft.

PITTSBURGH - The Cleveland Browns have been busy since the NFL's free-agent signing period began March 1, but are they really getting better?

That may be debatable.

The flurry of activity and the thought of new names in brown-and-orange uniforms may have the fans excited, but in many ways some of the Browns' signings appear to be shortsighted. The rumors of Earl Holmes coming to Cleveland - possibly as soon as Tuesday night - is one example. Bringing Holmes into the fold would basically be a case of signing a player just to sign a player because you have a perceived need at a particular position.

At first glance, the casual fan might say "great, I know Earl Holmes. He was a part of a pretty good defense in Pittsburgh."

In reality, he is no more than an injury-slowed, older version of Wali Rainer.

"I like Earl Holmes, but if you watched him the last two years, he was actually a liability to the Steelers because of his speed," one scout said Tuesday afternoon.

The pluses with Holmes are basically the same as with Rainer. Both are "heart guys." Players whose desire takes them beyond their physical ability. Guys who Butch Davis likes to call "slobbernockers." They love
to hit.

But, like Rainer, Holmes is basically a two-down linebacker. He is not effective sideline-to-sideline. He was aided by the Steelers' 3-4 system that had talented linebackers around him. In the Browns' 4-3, he likely would be a downgrade to Rainer.

One alarming problem with Holmes was his poor play in space during the last two seasons. He often had trouble shedding blocks, and that was even after the Steelers upgraded the defensive line in front of him by adding defensive tackle Casey Hampton in the 2001 draft.

Holmes has also been slowed by a series of nagging injuries, making him play older than his 28 years.

The Browns would be better off going in one of three other directions:

1. Do their homework, find an inside linebacker in the draft, and give him a chance to grow in the system in the same way the Steelers did with Kendrell Bell.

2. Resist the impulse of the quick-fix attempt in Holmes and wait to see what is available June 1. Butch Davis himself said the real gems of free agency might be found in what has become a "second phase" of free
agency. In June, the Browns may find a far better option than Holmes available on the market.

3. Allow Rainer to continue his development. He's no worse an option than Holmes. He's four years younger. Three weeks ago, Davis said Rainer has as much desire to improve as anyone on the team. New strength and
conditioning coach Buddy Morris claims his training techniques can drastically improve a players speed and quickness by re-teaching them how to run. Why not see how the program impacts Rainer?

The decision to sign Steelers restricted free-agent offensive lineman Oliver Ross could be a better move, but only marginally.

The pluses with Ross: He's big (6-foot-5, 314 pounds). He is versatile, having the ability to play both guard and tackle. He also has surprisingly good technique for a four-year pro with limited playing experience.

According to one scout, Ross greatly benefited from his work with Steelers line coach Russ Grimm last season. Considering he played in just two NFL games (in 1998) prior to last season, the Steelers were
pleasantly surprised with his performance in training camp in 2001. After coming into camp with what some experts thought was a 50-50 chance of even making the final roster, Ross opened the regular season as the
Steelers' primary backup at tackle. When Rich Tylski went down late in the season, Ross moved in as the starter at right guard and played well.

The negatives with Ross: He will be 28 after the first month of the season, which is old for a man with just six NFL starts under his belt. For his size, he is not considered by scouts to be a powerful run blocker. The biggest question with Ross is if he will continue to improve or regress away from Grimm, who after just one year in Pittsburgh is already considered one of the top offensive-line coaches in the game. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have yet to develop a young offensive lineman, and free agent additions on the line have not performed well.

The Browns recent work in free agency brings to mind another question: Philosophy. With the offer sheet to Ross and the rumored negotiations with Holmes in the same week, are the Browns hoping to help themselves by hurting their AFC North rival. If so, that could be a dangerous philosophy. Just consider the Jaguars current problems.

There are some positive signs in the Browns' free-agent work. Signing Ryan Tucker and the potential of adding Ross carry the implication that the Browns will most likely look to the early rounds of the draft for more offensive line help. Tucker and Ross amount to the Browns hedging their bets. Both are serviceable pros capable of playing multiple positions, but
neither are the answer to the Browns' offensive line woes. As of now, Tucker is the starter at right tackle. According to one NFC scout, Tucker has been most effective as a guard and would be better suited
to a move inside.

My guess is that the Browns will draft a tackle in either the first or second round. They could go with Levi Jones or, if in the unusual event that he drops because of weight and knee questions, Mike Williams in round one. If the Browns go in another direction in the first round, they could take a Marc Colombo or Terrence Metcalf in round two.

If a rookie tackle comes in and plays well, Tucker can move inside. If he struggles, there is a strong precedent for young tackles developing for a year or two at guard before moving to tackle. In that case, Tucker is a serviceable stopgap at tackle for a year or two.

Should the Browns not go for a tackle in the early rounds, look for Verba and Tucker to start at tackle, and the Browns to add a young guard like Andre Gurode, Kendall Simmons or Fred Weary. Any one of those three
could step in as a starter with Ross competing for the other guard spot with incumbents Brad Bedell and Paul Zukauskas.

If the Browns bring in Chris Naeole, then Ross takes the same utility roll he had with the Steelers. Unfortunately, he would do it making starting money.

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