On The Inside: McLain On The Draft

Butch Davis' stay in Orlando this week brought out some interesting comments about the future of the Browns as he gears up for his second year on the job.

The annual winter meetings of NFL owners often do more than decide such burning issues as what to do about the tuck rule or which coach has the best short game on the golf course.

Butch Davis' stay in Orlando this week brought out some interesting comments about the future of the Browns as he gears up for his second year on the job.

If nothing else is evident, it's that Davis is determined to remain cautious in putting together the ideal roster. Quick fixes might seem nice when put on paper, but Davis prefers to not toss around large sums of money on marginal players.

As much as Davis wants to strengthen an offensive line that bordered on inept at times last season, he's content to pursue second-tier guards that come at a reasonable price instead of giving out "tackle" dollars. And while Garrison Hearst seemed like a decent fit at running back, Davis has no problem sticking with James Jackson or adding a featured back through the draft.

While the cautious approach makes financial sense, it does little to please fans that haven't enjoyed a playoff experience since 1994. If next season is about anything, it's about making a run at the playoffs, a goal team president Carmen Policy recently said is realistic.

While it's easy to buy into Davis' thinking, the lack of change on the offensive side of the ball can't be overlooked. As of today, the starting guards would likely come from the trio of Brad Bedell, Shaun O'Hara and Paul Zukauakas, a thought that is far from reassuring.

Davis believes that receiver Quincy Morgan had a decent rookie season. Morgan, however, was an offensive liability at times with less-than-dependable hands, a problem that concerned scouts that followed his career at Kansas State.

Davis expressed confidence this week in the potential of the offense. He's never hid his admiration of quarterback Tim Couch, and he indicated that help is on the way up front to make Couch's life a more enjoyable experience than it's been the last three seasons.

With the exception of finding a middle linebacker to replace Wali Rainer, the team's primary objective the remainder of the offseason has to be on offense. Davis is confident in his ability to work the draft, which is about to become the only outlet for improvement as salary-cap space dwindles to pocket change.

Look for an offensive guard to be signed in free agency. A right tackle probably will be added via the draft or free agency, allowing Ryan Tucker to move to guard.

To rely on Tucker as the answer at right tackle is dangerous. He was expected to be an upgrade for St. Louis when Fred Miller left in free agency, but Tucker, who's battled nagging injuries, never fulfilled the wishes of Rams coach Mike Martz.

Let's face it. Marshall Faulk would have had trouble gaining yards behind the Browns offensive line last season. Either William Green or T.J. Duckett would look good as a first-round pick, but neither running back will help the offense without room to run.

You have to trust Davis when he expressed confidence in the offense. But as the franchise moves into its fourth season of the building process, a case can be made that the expansion Houston Texans have a better offensive line than do the Browns at this time.

I'm convinced that Couch was the right pick a No. 1 in 1999. At the same time, you have to be concerned that some of his best years are wasting away while the offense around him is put together in piece-meal fashion.

ALL SET: The Browns wisely avoided the temptation to overspend on a defensive tackle, escaping the problem that was created when Orpheus Roye was given a huge contract in 2000. They were able to re-sign Mark Smith at a low cap figure, and Marcus Spriggs will return to further help the interior of the line.

Smith can't be counted on to play as much as he did last season, when injuries devastated the line. He's a finesse player with a bad knee. Used properly in the rotation, however, he can help ease the workload of Gerard Warren, Roye and Spriggs.

Don't write off Spriggs as a Chris Palmer choice that Davis doesn't intend to use. Spriggs, who missed last season because of an arm injury, is a 314-pounder that could be the big run-stopper defensive coordinator Foge Fazio desperately wants.

ADDING FUEL: Duckett continues to be a hot topic in draft discussions, primarily because of the impressive 40 times he had last week at Michigan State's pro day. A University of Michigan recruiter recently expressed to me his admiration of Duckett, singling out his speed.

The recruiter is convinced that Duckett will be a big-time back in the NFL.

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