Making the Case: The Browns Are Not Far Off

The year the Browns returned, Ryan Tucker was part of a Rams team that went from 4-12 to the Super Bowl. Are the Browns in a position to make a similar leap in 2002? Insider <I>David Carducci</I> takes a look at the Browns roster to see how close the team is to the "Bill Walsh model".

BEREA - Ryan Tucker has seen an also-ran turn into a champion in a short time. He was a right tackle with the St. Louis Rams when they transformed from a 4-12 team in 1998 to a Super Bowl champion in 1999.

"We were only about two guys away from when we were just terrible," said Tucker. "We added Kurt (Warner) and Marshall (Faulk) ... and Torry Holt in the draft, but after that it was pretty much the same team."

Tucker signed a free agent contract in Cleveland earlier this month with the hope that the Browns are similar to the 1999 Rams - "Just a few players away."

"I see the same things on this team," said Tucker. "You have a lot of good players, and all you need is a couple big-play guys and all of a sudden your season changes just like that."

Just how close are the Browns to doing what the Rams did in 1999? A few years ago, Bill Walsh revealed his theory for building a Super Bowl champion during a pregame show on CBS. In a nutshell, Walsh said a team needs just five players who are Pro-Bowl caliber as the base for a championship team. Those five players must then be surrounded by capable, not necessarily spectacular, players in the other 17 starting positions, sprinkled with a handful of competent veteran backups.

In Browns News/Illustrated during the 2000 season, we tried to breakdown the Browns roster to see how far they were from meeting Walsh's criteria. At that time, beyond Tim Couch and Courtney Brown, we had a hard time finding players who had the potential of being Pro Bowl caliber players - something we defined as being in the top-five at their respective position. The Browns were also sorely lacking throughout the remainder of a roster that was filled with too many journeymen and too little potential.

How close are the Browns to fitting Walsh's championship criteria now? Was last year's 7-9 improvement accomplished with smoke and mirrors, or is the talent level on this team really improving to the point where they are poised to turn a corner? Actually, if you accept Walsh's criteria for what makes a championship team, the Browns might not be far away from something special.

What players fit or could one day fit into the definition of Pro Bowl or top-five at their respective positions? Currently, only Jamir Miller fits into that standard, based on his stellar 2001 season, but there are several who could be on the verge of being top-five players. Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren could make that leap as soon as this year. I still think Tim Couch, when surrounded by the right weapons, can be a top-five quarterback. If the flashes Anthony Henry offered in his rookie year are any indication of what is to come, he could be a Pro Bowl caliber cover corner.

Under Butch Davis' leadership, the Browns have done a better job in the last year and a half of filling the roster with players who fit the competent-veteran category. These are players who may not be spectacular but who have tasted success at the NFL level. More importantly, these are players the club has not been forced to break the bank to acquire. Most are quality, second-tier free agents and draft picks.

Kevin Johnson, who is sometimes spectacular as a No. 1 receiver, was already in place when Davis came on board. Davis also inherited a competent veteran center in Dave Wohlabaugh.

On the offensive line, Davis' regime has brought in Tucker, Ross Verba and Tre Johnson - all veterans who have played on successful NFL lines in St. Louis, Green Bay and Washington, respectively. If healthy, that group can be the cornerstone of a much improved line in 2002. The Browns admit to needing two or more quality linemen. They should find at least one in the draft who can be ready to play this season. If the Browns look for a lineman in round one, they could find immediate help at pick 16 with Arizona St. tackle Levi Jones or Colorado guard Andre Gurode. If they wait until round two, the Browns could still find a rookie who is ready to play right away. Some experts believe Florida's Mike Pearson - once believed to be a top-15 pick - could fall to the middle of round two. He can start right away, as could Boston College tackle Marc Colombo.

The Browns are still entertaining the idea of adding free agent linemen like Barry Stokes and Ron Stone, both of whom visited Berea this week and could fit as capable veteran backups. At some point, however, the Browns need to develop some of their own young linemen.

Finding help on the offensive line was the top priority coming into the offseason. With the addition of Tucker, the re-signing of a (hopefully-healthy) Tre Johnson, the emergence of Shaun O'Hara, and the assumption that they will find more help on the first day of the draft, the biggest hole the Browns need to fill could be at running back.

Jamel White showed flashes that he could be a solid NFL player last year, but he will most likely have his greatest impact as a third-down, change-of-pace back. The oft-injured James Jackson and the enigmatic Benjamin Gay are major question marks. Current speculation around the league has the Browns addressing the running back position in the first round of the draft, and the name brought up most often is Michigan State bruiser T.J. Duckett. If Duckett becomes a Brown, he has the potential to develop into a Pro Bowl caliber back.

Opposite Johnson, the Browns are still looking for another quality starter. Quincy Morgan was not that player as a rookie last season, but according to some within the Browns organization, he has made noticeable offseason strides. Already an impressive physical specimen, Morgan has added an estimated 15 pounds of muscle in the Browns' new workout program. If Morgan has that same kind of dedication in the film room and in practice, learning his routes and working on his concentration, there is no question he has the physical tools to be a solid NFL starter. Beyond Johnson and Morgan, the Browns have several receivers who could develop into quality veteran backups. Andre King plays with a poise beyond his years and JaJuan Dawson, when healthy, has shown impressive instincts as a receiver in his first two seasons with the Browns.

If healthy, the Browns also have some quality veterans and depth at tight end in Rickey Dudley, Aaron Shea and Mark Campbell.

The defensive side of the football has the bulk of the talent. On the line, the Browns have Brown and Warren as potential Pro Bowl players, a former first-round pick in free-agent defensive end Kenard Lang, and capable veterans in Orpheus Roye, Mark Smith and Tyrone Rogers. Knowing Davis, the Browns will continue to upgrade the talent up front.

At linebacker, the Browns have Miller and another outside backer in Dwayne Rudd, who could be on the verge of a breakout year similar to Miller's. Rudd has the type of speed and desire Davis loves. The real hole is at middle linebacker where after three seasons Wali Rainer still comes up short of the quality veteran criteria. Rainer is still slow, both in foot speed and in his reads. Behind Rainer, the Browns have a capable backup in Brant Boyer, but an upgrade is still needed. There is no immediate help available in the draft, and while James Farrior (Jets) and Darren Hambrick (Panthers) were in Berea earlier today, it is more than likely that the Browns will go into their first minicamp next month with middle linebacker still a question.

The defensive backfield was one of the team's strengths in 2001. It should only be better this season with the addition of safety Robert Griffith and the return to health of promising cornerback Lewis Sanders.

While there are still some holes in the roster, you can see Davis working to fill areas of need  and create depth. The players who were once questionable starters are now becoming capable backups.

Davis is convincing players that he has the Browns on the verge of

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