Much was made of the Browns rush defense or the lack of a rush defense during the 2001 season. Knowing it was imperative to become stronger up the middle, the Browns were aggressive in their approach to upgrade this critical area.
The signings of strong safety Robert Griffith and middle linebacker Earl Holmes are expected to pay immediate dividends. Griffith has had a very strong training camp and has developed a great relationship with his fellow defensive backs.
Holmes has been a somewhat different story. Being limited in practice due to arthroscopic surgery on his knee prior to training camp, the Browns are being cautious with Holmes. Presently, the Browns are only concerned with getting the veteran ready for the regular season. Holmes is expected to see some preseason action against the Green Bay Packers on August 26th.
An area of strength on this training camp roster is that of the defensive tackle position. There are no 350-pound plus Sam Adams clones among the bunch, but what the Browns have is a wealth of talent in the middle of the defense.
Unnoticed, the Browns have accumulated youth, quickness, and strength between the tackles. One of the best deals that never transpired in the off-season was one that could have involved Orpheus Roye.
Roye was subject to trade talks and exposure in the expansion draft in February. Willing to restructure his contract, Roye and the Browns appear a better fit today that at any time in the past. In excellent physical condition, with his confidence restored and quickness regained, Roye has been a standout performer throughout the 2002 training camp.
The Browns rotation at the defensive tackle consists of a group of players that the common fan wouldn't know. Beside Roye and the man known as "Big Money", Gerard Warren, the remainder of the Browns interior defensive linemen could be construed as the 2002 version of the no-name defense.
There are no aged veterans in the likes of Jerry Ball and John Jurkovic, that patrolled the gridiron once upon a time in Cleveland upon the rebirth of the Browns. Now, there are the likes of Mark Smith, Marcus Spriggs, Alvin McKinley, Cecil Caldwell, and Damian Gregory.
Not your household names, but players with a future in the game nonetheless.
Smith is the battle-tested veteran of the group. Coming to Cleveland via free agency from the Arizona Cardinals, Smith was a valuable contributor to a Browns defensive line that struggled with injuries during the 2001 season. Resigned by the team to a one-year contract in the off-season, Smith will fill a valuable role in the Browns defensive line rotation. Can play defensive end in a pinch, but much better suited for the defensive tackle position.
Marcus Spriggs is a physical player with a good burst off the ball, which has impressed the Browns coaching staff. Standing 6' 4" and weighing 320-pounds, Spriggs is a raw, and intriguing mix of power and quickness. Having dedicated himself during the off-season, Spriggs has had a very good training camp after practically losing the entire 2001 season due to a broken forearm. A Browns defensive that is geared to size, speed, and quickness, Spriggs could land a roster position a depth player. Presently, all the defensive tackles but Smith in training camp have taken reps with the second and third team defenses.
Much like Spriggs, McKinley is an aggressive, young player that gained valuable experience with the Browns in the 2001 season. Signed by the Browns after being released by the Carolina Panthers prior to the 2001 season, he was signed to the practice squad and remained there until signed off the practice squad in October of 2001. Slightly light at 295-pounds, McKinley utilizes his quickness and lower body strength to penetrate the line of scrimmage. Again, like Spriggs, Roye, and Warren, McKinley is having a good camp and has caught the eye of the coaching staff with his desire.
Cecil Caldwell is the fireplug of the Browns defensive line. Short for a defensive tackle at 6' 1" and 285-pounds, Caldwell uses his stature as an advantage. Getting underneath an offensive lineman, he is able to gain needed leverage due to a quick first step. Very workmanlike in his approach to the game, Caldwell could be well suited for a team that has a large defensive tackle lining up next to him. The competition, talent and depth at defensive tackle make Caldwell's chance of being added to the Browns regular season roster questionable.
Damian Gregory is a player that has a tremendous upside as a defensive tackle that can stuff the run. The Browns were in the process of acquiring Gregory from the Miami Dolphins in October 2001 when the Dolphins decided to trade him after an altercation with a member of the coaching staff. Prior to the official completion of the deal, Gregory suffered a ruptured spleen and was placed on the reserve/non football injury list. Physically strong and agile, Gregory has impressed the Browns with his attitude and ability to pickup on the defensive responsibilities of the position. Gregory is another defensive lineman that is having a good camp according to a member of the Browns coaching staff, and is a player who is locked into the competition at the deep defensive tackle position.
Also, the Browns have utilized two defensive ends at the defensive tackle position in certain defensive substitution packages. Starting defensive left end Kenard Lang has frequently moved inside to defensive tackle in passing situation during training camp practices. Mark Word has shown the ability to play inside, if needed.
We may not know how many defensive tackles the Browns will carry on the 2002 roster, but we are confident that a player or two in competition for a roster spot will not make the team. There may not be enough room on the roster for all these defensive tackles on this roster, but the player(s) that don't, they most likely will see another day, with another team in the NFL.
The Browns have improved their team depth and other teams in the National Football League have taken notice.