On The Inside: McLain On Running Backs

<p>In less than one week, the Browns have gone from being the most-active team in free agency to one of many teams that are spinning their wheels. Nowhere is that more evident than in the seemingly never-ending serach for a featured running back. <p>

In less than one week, the Browns have gone from being the most-active team in free agency to one of many teams that are spinning their wheels.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the seemingly never-ending serach for a featured running back. Garrison Hearst, who was in Cleveland last week, decided to return to San Francisco, leaving the cupboard pretty much bare for teams looking for backfield.

The Browns' quest seemed to be getting to the point where Jim Brown was a viable option, but it looks like he'll be out of commission for most of the year.

Seriously, the situation isn't pretty at this point. James Jackson remains the starter, but he gets injured almost everytime he steps on a playing field. Jamel White has a featured back? Nah. J.J. Johnson has a featured back? He might not be good enough to make the 53-man roster.

There was some good news this week, and it came from East Lansing. If reports of T.J. Duckett's performances at Michigan State's Pro Day are accurate, Duckett might have solidified a spot at least in the middle of the first round of next month's draft.

Word is that Duckett had a 4.36 time in the 40. If that's true, it's a phenomenal time for someone who's 6-foot-1 and weighs 252 pounds.

Forty times, however, are notoriously inaccurate. Some are wind-aided, and many a scout or coach working a stopwatch has been known to have a fast trigger finger.

If Duckett, indeed, ran anywhere close to 4.4, the Browns' interest in him undoubtedly increased. Butch Davis, one of those coaches who places a lot of emphasis on speed, was among those in attendance.

The Browns could sign free agent James Allen, but it's doubtful his arrival would change the Browns' plan to draft a running back with their first pick, if that is the plan. Right now, Duckettt seems like a strong possibility at the 16th or 17th spot (assuming the league can arrange something as simple as a coin flip between the Browns and Atlanta Falcons).

Forget about Duckett's less-than-inspiring showing at the recent combine workouts. He's convinced that he's near the top of the upcoming rookie class.

"That's all that really matters is my time," Duckett told reporters after his workout at Pro Day. "If I was a teacher, I'd give myself an A. My job was to put pressure on other people."

It seems that the Browns will take a running back or an offensive lineman with their first draft pick. Miami offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie will be long gone before the Browns pick. If Mike Williams of Texas somehow slips to the middle of the first round, he easily could be the choice.

Williams faces two issues: a weight problem and a loose knee. Despite thoese concerns by some teams, it's doubtful Williams will drop to the Browns.

All signs point to a running back, unless Davis becomes infatuated with a speed receiver. Boston College's William Green has been consistently listed ahead of Duckett on draft boards, but he's done little in the offseason to improve his status.

One of Davis' objectives is to establish a power running game. He wants a line with five starters that weigh more than 300 pounds. You can bet he wants a back like Duckett, who has plenty of size and decent speed to go with it.

WHAT'S UP?: The Browns' approach to seeking offensive line help has long seemed strange. Going back to coaching regimes during the Modell era, there has been the belief that high draft choices shouldn't be used on linemen. That might change this year, but only because most of the free agents signed in recent years haven't panned out.

Davis continues to be committed to building the best defense money can buy while taking a less-aggressive approach to the line. Bernie Kosar can tell you what happens when the line is neglected (does anyone remember Ben Jefferson, Kevin Simons and Kevin Robbins?).

It now appears that Pittsbugh will match the offer sheet signed by Oliver Ross, which will leave the Browns at square one in their attempt to strengthen the guard spots. If Ross is pulled back by the Steelers, look for contract talks with New Orleans guard Chris Naeole to pick up.

As of now, the offensive line doesn't look much stronger than it did at the end of last season. That's nothing to brag about.

STILL HOPING: As of Thursday morning, the Steelers were hoping that linebacker Earl Holmes will decide to re-sign with them. The Steelers have entertained several free agents but have signed none but their own – linebacker Jason Gildon and tight end Mark Bruener.

GETTING RESPECT: The website for the Pittsbsurgh-based newspaper "The Tribune Review" is conducting a poll to see which AFC North team fans think will be the Steelers' main threat next season. As of 11:30 a.m. Thursday, the Browns were the runaway choice with 5,137 votes (79.24 percent of all voters). Baltimore was second with 903 votes and Cincinnati trailed with 443.


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