The Verge of Something Special?

David Carducci looks at six key questions that will define the Browns 2002 season. Look for fast daily coverage from our Insiders starting with next week's opening of training camp!

Editors Note: A previous version of the article stated that Bedell had knee surgery, which is incorrect. Bedell had shoulder surgery.

CLEVELAND - It's been a while, but the excitement and anticipation of a Cleveland Browns season is finally back.

After years of pain and frustration, the Browns appear to be on the verge of something special under Butch Davis.

It is reasonable to expect the Browns to build on last year's 7-9 turnaround by finishing the 2002 season in the race for a playoff berth. For that to happen, however, several key question marks remaining from 2001 must be answered in the next few weeks. If you are planning a trip to Berea to watch training camp, here are some key areas to watch:


1. Have the Browns solved their problems on the offensive line?

Since the team's return in 1999, offensive line has been its most glaring weakness. Every year, the Browns think they find the answer to their offensive line woes in free agency. Every year, the play up front is dreadful.

The Browns hope Ryan Tucker and Barry Stokes can be free-agent saviors this season. Neither player is even close to Pro Bowl caliber talent, but both fit the blue-collar mentality Davis wants on his offensive line. Davis has praised Tucker's nasty on-field demeanor at right tackle during off-season workouts. He has also praised Stokes for taking over as one of the team's vocal leaders.

Stokes may be vocal, but can he play? The Eastern Michigan grad has never been a full-time starter in his five NFL seasons, but he is currently penciled in as the No. 1 left guard.

The best situation for the Browns might be for either Paul Zukauskas or Brad Bedell to have a breakthrough camp and win the starting left guard job. Davis thinks Zukauskas can develop into a starting NFL guard.

Bedell has worked hard to come back from off-season shoulder surgery and says he is determined to show he can play. Both Zukauskas and Bedell were drafted by the Browns, and at some point the team has to develop its own offensive linemen rather than continue to rely on free agency. If either Zukauskas or Bedell distinguish themselves in camp, then Stokes could be a valuable reserve, capable of playing either guard or tackle position.

Davis has been pleased with the off-season work of center Dave Wohlabaugh. While Wohlabaugh appears to have kept his starting job for this season, his days in Cleveland may still be numbered. Rookie third-round pick Melvin Fowler could be ready to take over as a starter by next season. The Browns are also convinced Shaun O'Hara has a bright future at  either center of guard.

Davis thinks Ross Verba is a natural at left tackle. In fact, he has said that playing Verba at other guard last season may have been his biggest mistake as a rookie coach. Last year's other big free-agent offensive lineman, Tre' Johnson, is back after rehabbing yet another knee injury. We may find out how much gas is left in Johnson's tank during training camp.


2. Is William Green the answer to the Browns' rushing woes?

The Browns think they found their workhorse running back in first-round pick William Green. While Green is considered the most complete back in the draft, he still arrives with several question marks. Can he stay healthy? Are his off-the-field problems in the past? Does he have the work ethic to be successful? Is he fast enough to be a premier back?

Green was brought to Cleveland to be the starter, but if he struggles in his adjustment to the NFL, Davis could turn to James Jackson or Jamel White. How quickly Green picks up the system in training camp will be important. Jackson and White appear determined to challenge Green for the starting job in training camp.


3. Can the Browns stop the run?

Earl Holmes was added at middle linebacker to help against the run. While Holmes had a six years in Pittsburgh, he is coming off a season in which he struggled with injuries followed by surgery in the off-season.

The Browns could have a hole at defensive tackle next to Gerard Warren, who appears to be ready for a breakout season. Orpheus Roye is penciled in at right tackle after spending the last two years alternating between tackle and end. Roye has added weight and appears to be more confident now that he has one defined role. Mark Smith figures to be in the rotation, and could win a starting job with another strong training camp. Marcus Spriggs, who was impressive early in camp last season, needs a big preseason after missing last year to injury. The coaching staff was high on Spriggs before he went down.


4. How much have the Browns' young players improved in the off-season?

Quincy Morgan could be ready to find himself. He's bigger, faster and stronger after working hard in the off-season. He also seams to be dedicated towards eliminating the inconsistency that plagued his rookie season. With his size and natural talent, that could make Morgan a No. 1 caliber receiver. 

Another second-year player looking for a strong camp is Anthony Henry. After 10 interceptions last year, you would think Henry has nothing to prove. He needs to show, however, that last year was no fluke by pushing Daylon McCutcheon for a starting job.

James Jackson needs to play with confidence in his second training camp. Davis would love to use Jackson as a change-of-pace to Green at running back, much in the way he used Jackson as a foil to Edgerrin James at the University of Miami. Jackson has to show, however, that he can stay healthy and once again be a threat to break the big run.

Dennis Northcutt needs to show he has some value if he has any hope of making the team. With the addition of Andre Davis as a wide receiver and return specialist, Northcutt has to have a special camp to have any chance.


5. How much has the Buddy Morris helped?

The new strength and conditioning coach's innovative approach to training seems to have the players in great shape heading into camp. This should mean fewer players watching training camp while working on the stationary bikes. More importantly, it could mean fewer than 20 players on injured reserve by season's end.


6. H-Back, fullback, tight ends?

Davis has hinted several times that the Browns may have a use for a traditional fullback in the offense this season. They don't appear to have a traditional fullback on the roster, however. Former Dolphin J.J. Johnson may be given a chance to show he can play fullback, but after several injury-plagued seasons, he may not have anything left.

A favorite to see time at either H-Back, fullback or tight end should be Aaron Shea. He played fullback at Michigan. He has the hands to be affective out of the backfield. He also has above average speed for any of the positions. With the size he added in the off-season and the hard-nosed attitude he brings to the field, Shea could be an above average blocker.

The Browns may use more two tight end sets. Rickey Dudley, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, should be close to 100-percent for camp. While his hands have been a problem, his size and speed make him a player defenses must account for over the middle. Who wins the other tight end job could be one of the best battles of camp, with Shea, a healthy Mark ampbell and rookie Darnell Sanders all battling for time.


Look for David Carducci in Browns Uncensored Chat starting next week in the Bernie's Insiders Club Chat Room!


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