As the 2002 season approaches, if you are like me, you love this time of year. I look forward to evaluating the players during training camp and the preseason. The Browns have added some talented players to a team that took a big step up last year. There are other players who have been on the team that should benefit from another year of experience and the winning attitude instilled by head coach Butch Davis. So, here are some players to watch as we head into the 2002 season that will likely be keys to the fortunes of the team.
Let's start by looking at the defense. In 2001, the ball-hawking defense of the Browns either won or kept them in games, even though there were serious deficiencies against the run. I think the Browns have a chance to field a top-five defense this year, and that will take a lot of pressure off of a still developing offense. In fact, that is exactly what happened last year, but with the defense being even better on paper, the effect should be even more pronounced.
· Courtney Brown. Given all the hand wringing over whether Courtney Brown is a bust, he will be the subject of close scrutiny this season. I think Brown is poised to break out if he is healthy. In 2000, this raw rookie on a bad team had a better season than some seem to think. If you watched carefully, when Brown would sit out a series, the entire defense was noticeably worse, particularly against the run. Last year, Brown had little chance to show what he could do because of injuries, but he certainly flashed his talent in the
· Orpheus Roye. I'll be the first to agree that Roye was not worth the money he was being paid and that he had a subpar 2001 season. However, I saw Roye make a lot of good plays in 2000. For a tackle, he pursues well sideline to sideline, and never gives up on a play. I think if the Browns let him focus on playing defensive tackle this year, he will be a "surprise" player.
· Kennard Lang. I hate to say it, because I hope I'm wrong, but I just have this feeling that Lang won't be the player Keith McKenzie was rushing off the end. Granted, I do expect Lang to be an upgrade against the run. I think the pass rush sets the tone for the entire defense, though, and creates a lot of turnovers. I just don't know if Lang will be a force there. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Browns have both Tyrone Rogers and Arnold Miller coming off the bench, and both are good pass rushers. Lang's work ethic has been questionable in the past, but if anyone can motivate the guy, it is Butch Davis.
· Earl Holmes. With all due respect to the overachieving nature of Wali Rainer, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Holmes would not be an improvement at middle linebacker. However, I still think there are questions about Holmes and how he will do in a 4-3 defense. In many ways, I think Holmes is a key to how much the Browns defense will improve. I'll be watching him closely in camp and during the preseason to get a read.
· Anthony Henry. After a fantastic rookie season, you always worry about a sophomore slump (remember Joe Charbeneau?). In the case of Anthony Henry, as good as he was, I believe there is potential for improvement over 2001. My belief is based on the fact that he is so sound in his fundamentals, he rarely got beat on a play, he closes well on the ball, and he is so smart about the opposing players and their routes. I think Henry has the potential to be one of the top corners in the NFL. Look for his interception count to fall as teams throw away from him.
· Corey Fuller. Butch
· Robert Griffith. I look for
The Browns showed flashes of a decent offense at times last year. Inconsistency and injuries really made it hard to assess where things ended up. Once Aaron Shea, the last of the original tight end/H-backs, was injured at
· Tim Couch. It all starts here. Couch made progress last year, but he was careless with the ball at times and missed seeing open receivers. Now I say that realizing that he did not have tons of time to throw, he often didn't have an open receiver, he had no running game to carry some of the load, and when he did deliver the ball, it was sometimes dropped. For Couch to take the next step, he has to see the field better, and he has to develop confidence that someone other than Kevin Johnson will make a play. But Couch can improve only so much as the rest of the offense takes a step up.
· William Green. I think a lot of the success of the offense will ride on how well Green does in stepping into the feature back role. Green may not have the 40 time, but the video I've seen of him from the camps so far shows a quickness the Browns have not had since The Rebirth. Like Robert Griffith, if Green does well, I believe he will make the other backs better. A solid running game will give the offense the balance it has so desperately needed. I'm concerned about what I am hearing about Green's health and his work ethic, but I imagine Butch Davis will keep a close watch on that.
· Jamel White. White has added some bulk to make him a better inside threat. If he can keep his quickness, I think White can provide an excellent change of pace on third downs. We've seen flashes of his talent at times, and White often makes positive plays. It's time for him to step that up to the next level.
· Andre Davis. Early word is that
· Ricky Dudley. A good blocker, Dudley was starting to show some things in the passing game when he went down early last year. I am not optimistic that he will dial it up in 2002, and the type of foot fracture he sustained is a hard one from which to recover. I will not be surprised if
· Mark Campbell. An undrafted player, Campbell has done nothing but catch the ball and make plays when given a chance. If he can come back from his knee injury and show some ability as a blocker,
· Offensive Line. It's hard to single out anyone in particular here. The Browns in particular need returning starters Ross Verba and Dave Wohlabaugh to solidly anchor the line. Both are good players and should be fine barring injuries. The new signees, Ryan Tucker and Barry Stokes will be under the microscope. Draftee Melvin Fowler may be able to step in and contribute right away. Young returning players like Paul Zukauskas and Shaun O'Hara might have a chance to shine. I personally am not counting on much out of Tre Johnson because of his injury problems, so any help he provides is gravy. Look for some of the players who have been with the Browns for a while like Roger Chanoine to be unemployed come fall.
The core special teams players, Phil Dawson, Chris Gardocki, and long snapper Ryan Keuhl should all be fine. The main problem here was that the return game was often non-existent and the coverage teams were horrible. Special teams failures played a direct role in losses to
There you have it. I'm looking forward to a great summer watching these players and the entire team as fans and coaching staff alike make judgments about the 53 men who will comprise the 2002 Cleveland Browns.