Don't let the recent moves to get to the league mandated 53-player roster fool you - The Browns will be looking to add depth and quality at linebacker throughout the season.
At present, the Browns have a relatively inexperienced and bland group of starting linebackers for Romeo Crennel's debut as head coach.
Outside linebacker Chaun Thompson has been a work in progress for several years, but the progress has been slow. Converted defensive end Kenard Lang is hot on his heels and could supplant the young and athletic Thompson in short order.
Thompson isn't the only issue at the linebacker position. Andra Davis, a solid middle linebacker in the Browns old 4-3 defense, has not been a consistent force in his new role in the 3-4. While learning the defense has been ongoing process for all of the linebackers, it is Davis - also still learning - who is expected to lead the young unit.
Veteran Orlando Ruff had a solid training camp and unexpectedly put himself in contention to start. Displaying the ability to get to the ball-carrier, Ruff could be a godsend for the Browns run defense. Questions about his ability in passing situations has plagued him throughout his career, and provide the immediate reason why he is listed as a backup behind Ben Taylor. Throughout the training camp sessions, however, Ruff consistently filled the right lanes, clogged the holes and was ample in pursuit.
Speaking of Taylor, the young and heady linebacker needs to remain healthy and prove he belongs at this level. The talent is there, as he displayed on occasion during the 2004 season, but Taylor must rise to the occasion and play with greater consistency. Far too often this pre-season he was out of position, over-pursuing, or seemingly vanishing from the scheme. As an inside linebacker in this 3-4 defensive scheme, Taylor is playing a position will be counted on mightily.
The model of consistency for the other Browns linebackers is the "boring" (by his own admission) Matt Stewart. Stewart, an off-season free agent acquisition from the Atlanta Falcons should provide the team with a presence and help stabilize the defense from his left outside linebacker position.
Depth is a critical aspect of any team roster in the National Football League. From the teams which battle for the playoffs to the lower level rungs of the game, depth plays a hand in the overall scope of the season. With this Browns team, the depth on the roster is limited, youthful, and inexperienced.
This Browns coaching staff wants to get the youth at the position on the field to gain experience during this rebuilding and retooling season. Rookies David McMillan and Nick Speegle team with veteran Mason Unck, Lang, and Ruff to make up the stable of backup linebackers for the Browns. During training camp, McMillan and Speegle displayed brief moments of promise, but look far from ready for prime-time.
While Crennel's reputation as solid defensive coach prior to being named head coach of the Browns is beyond debate, one can only wonder about the thinking process behind the releases of veteran Brant Boyer and Justin Kurpeikis.
Boyer, a special teams leader and viable option at inside linebacker, seemingly did not fit into the teams plan. After not getting the reps he needed in camp, Boyer ran out of time in his attempt to return to the field following a 2004 season lost due to a foot injury. In an age where the Browns linebackers frequently are out of position, Boyer would have been a teacher on and off the field. He will be missed.
Kurpeikis is an intriguing linebacker. Those close to the team were somewhat surprised when he was released last week, as he was having a solid camp. Signed once more to the Browns practice squad, Kurpeikis could find himself back on the field at some point during the 2005 season if the linebacking corps underachieves.
The Browns linebackers progressed throughout the training camp period and could prove to be a viable group, in time.
That being said, the clock is ticking and the regular season opener against the rival Cincinnati Bengals should provide an immediate test of the progress of the linebacking corps. It could also prove to be a test of the personnel evaluation process of Crennel and company.