Cleveland Browns 2006 Review
By Joe Brownlee
In this installment of the review, we'll delve into the defense. The team was in its second year of using the 3-4 scheme, a transition that is probably not yet complete.
The 2005 Browns struggled with rushing the passer or stopping the run. One of the priorities for 2006 was to improve in these areas. While the pass rush showed some improvement, the run defense was every bit as bad if not worse.
In the 3-4 defense, the nose tackle is a key position. The goal of the defensive line is to hold the point of attack and take on blockers, allowing the linebackers to flow to the ball and make plays. This all starts with someone on the nose who draws double teams and engages blockers. In 2005, Jason Fisk was a key weakness. He was a player that at the end of his career who was probably average in his prime. In 2006, the Browns brought in veteran Ted Washington. While also at the end of his career, Washington was a tremendous nose tackle during his career. The Browns knew Washington would not be an every-down player going into the season. His year was mixed. At times, he had a huge impact, but at other times he seemed very ordinary.
With Washington playing a limited number of plays, opposing teams went to no-huddle or other quick attacks to force Washington off the field. The other players at nose tackle did not man the position well. Ethan Kelley was considered a young player with potential in 2005. In 2006, he looked much the same as last season. He was shoved around a lot and was eventually injured. The Browns brought back J'Vonne Parker who had played well in a cameo performance in 2005, and he was decent enough, but he lasted one game until he was also injured. The Browns also tried some ends working at the nose in certain situations. The Browns finally used draft pick Babatunde Oshinowo in the finale, and he has a long way to go to play in the NFL. Suffice it to say, none of the solutions worked out all that well.
At defensive end, veterans Orpheus Roye and Alvin McKinley started, with Nick Eason and Simon Fraser rotating in. Roye has been a steady presence on the defense for several years, but with age, injuries are beginning to become a big problem for him. The Browns suffered when Roye did not play. McKinley is probably a good backup or rotation player, but not a great starter. He did make plays here and there, but overall, McKinley had a very nondescript year. I felt like Nick Eason played well, but I don't see him as a starting caliber player. Simon Fraser was largely a special teams player in 2005, but he saw significant playing time on defense this season. He generally played well against the pass, but was a liability against the run. His dumb penalty for "blocking" Big Ben three times during an interception return cost the Browns a touchdown against the Steelers, and the Browns eventually lost 24-20.
Analysis: The defensive line is almost as bad off as the offensive line. The Browns have players with marginal skill and the best players are old. The Browns have to find a younger player at the all-important nose tackle position even if they bring back Washington. Of the players the Browns have tried, Parker might have potential, but that's a crapshoot. Oshinowo would have to make a huge leap before camp to get a shot. I'm ready to give up on Kelley as anything but a backup. I love Roye's heart and experience, but he may be out of gas. I'd retain McKinley as a rotation player. Eason is also a rotation player unless he has more upside than I think. I'm really pulling for Fraser, but he has some holes in his game that I'm doubtful he can address. I hope he proves me wrong. The Browns need big-time help here.
The Browns had major personnel issues at the linebacker position to make the transition to the 3-4. The Browns drafted three new players and brought in veteran Willie McGinest to completely overhaul the position. It was a big improvement over 2005, but that's not to say there weren't problems.
On the inside, the Browns extended the contract of Andra Davis and played draft pick D'Qwell Jackson. Davis looked much the same as in the past. He makes tackles, but most of them are too far off the line. One new development this year was the number of times Davis missed tackles or was bowled over. He was schooled by LaDanian Tomlinson, but many defenders have been. I'd really like to see what Davis could do with an adequate defensive line in front of him. He might be a player the browns need to replace for the long haul.
Jackson had a better rookie season than I expected. He struggled against the pass, especially early in the season, but showed steady improvement throughout the season. I love his hustle. With an offseason to study up, I expect Jackson to be better in the fall.
Leon Williams saw playing time throughout the year, and got more and more as the season went on. Eventually he got to start due to injuries. Williams showed a lot for a fourth-round pick. He spied Michael Vick in the Atlanta game and did very well. Once he got into the lineup consistently in the last few games, Williams showed what he could do. He disrupted plays, made tackles, and even called defensive signals. In a lackluster Tampa Bay game, he was one of the few Browns players who had a good game.
Chaun Thompson was moved inside and saw little playing time. He had some sacks here and there, but when he was forced to play due to injuries at the end of the year, he looked bad. He was slow to react and did not make plays. When Thompson made tackles, they were way off the line. He may also be on his way out.
Willie McGinest battled injuries throughout the year. He had perhaps two good games where he made a huge difference, but for the most part, he was just too slow to make plays. His experience and smarts were his best asset, but many times, you could tell that he correctly read the play, but could not physically get there to stop it. If healthy, perhaps this will improve, but I'm skeptical.
First-round pick Kamerion Wimbley had a fantastic year, including double-digit sacks. What pass rush the Browns had in 2006 came almost exclusively from Wimbley. While he struggled a bit against the pass, Wimbley just got better and better. His forced fumble by Michael Vick preserved a Browns victory. Wimbley says that he really only has one pass rush move now and he wants to develop more. I can only imagine what he could do with a better line in front of him.
The Browns used Matt Stewart outside. He started the opener, but faded into the background as the season went on. Stewart made some good plays here and there. He's a smart veteran, but may not be a player the Browns keep given the development of the rookies.
David McMillan saw spot duty, largely in pass rush situations. He made a few plays in limited chances.
Analysis: Wimbley is the best rookie the Browns have had since The Return. Jackson and Williams also look like keepers. The Browns have to get Williams on the field in 2007, even if it means a move to the outside. Davis is what he is, but the Browns have a lot worse problems to worry about than Davis. If McGinest comes back, he needs to move into a Ted Washington-like role, playing only a limited number of plays. Stewart is an experienced backup and is worth retaining if his contract situation is good. I'm ready to give up on Chaun Thompson despite all of his physical skills. McMillan is probably never going to be anything but a backup.
Much like the center position, the cornerback position became quite an interesting journey. The Browns went into the season thinking they had three solid veterans they could count on at the position. As it turns out, Daylon McCutcheon never saw the field, Gary Baxter played only a little, and Leigh Bodden fought nagging ankle problems the entire season. As such, the Browns were forced to start players that probably would not have been on the roster had the starters been able to play.
Gary Baxter struggled when he played, but he was never healthy. Finally, when it looked like he had returned to form, he blew out both patellar tendons on a freak play in the Denver game. Likewise, Leigh Bodden started the year well, but once he was injured, he was never really 100% again when he was able to get on the field. The Browns had to force some players into service to cover.
The Browns turned to veteran Ralph Brown early on. He was to serve as the nickel back. Brown is not someone the Browns wanted to rely on. He did not show good ability in coverage or as a tackler. But as the season wore on, somehow the Browns managed to get decent play out of Brown.
The Browns pressed Daven Holly into service at corner as well. Holly had shown some potential in the preseason. At first, Holly struggled. But very quickly, Holly developed into a decent corner. He played against some tough receivers and largely held his own. He also showed a knack for intercepting the ball, including a touchdown in the Pittsburgh game. I think one positive out of a bad season was to find a player with the potential of Holly who could develop into a decent nickel back.
Undrafted Jeremy Perry made some plays in the preseason finale, but given the number game on defense, it seemed unlikely he would see much playing time. When the Browns resigned Perry due to injury, he was pressed into service way too early. Perry made some good plays in limited duty. He seems like a solid tackler. He's definitely worth another look during camp.
At safety, the Browns had tried to start Sean Jones in 2005. That experiment failed and so many wrote off Jones coming into 2006. He proved the critics wrong with an excellent performance. Jones was a hard hitter, played the ball well, and helped against the run. Jones was also used on some blitzes. While he did not make the Pro Bowl, Jones has been mentioned as a top safety by some football publications. This was a breakout season for Jones.
Brodney Pool also played well. He often drew the job of covering good tight ends and between Pool and Jones the Browns really shut down players like Crumpler, Heap, and Gates. He was even pressed into service at corner. He got burned by Steve Smith in Carolina, but didn't embarrass himself while playing out of position.
Veteran Brian Russell was someone many fans were ready to see released after 2005. I admit, I wasn't one of his biggest fans. But not only did Russell play much better this season, it became evident when he missed the last month due to injury just how much the secondary relies on him. The play of the entire secondary, and especially the safeties, slipped dramatically when Russell was not there. He is the on field general, and the Browns need his experience as a steadying force with a number of young players. His hit on Chad Johnson in the Cincinnati game is already something of legend.
Justin Hamilton had a nice preseason, but was injured a lot of the year. He is a hard hitter. He played very little and largely on special teams, so it is hard to evaluate him. Hopefully he can get healthy and be a contributor in 2007.
Analysis: The Browns have to plan for 2007 as if Baxter won't be back, even if he is showing signs to date of an amazing recovery. Nobody can question his heart or effort. Bodden is a solid starter. The Browns need another starter. McCutcheon could perhaps fill that role, but the mystery surrounding his situation leads me to believe he may be done with football. Holly is a player that might yet improve and I like Perry as a fifth corner and special teamer. I'd be OK with sending Ralph Brown to his next destination. That means the Browns might need two new corners. At safety, I think the return of Brian Russell is more important than it may look on paper. If the Browns can extend him, they are set at safety.