It's that time of year again. The long offseason is nearly over and the Browns will prepare for the 2007 season. Phil Savage had a productive free agent season and the Browns appear to have added three impact players through the draft.
Still, there were so many holes to fill that they simply could not all be filled for this year. The Browns are looking to be competitive, especially within the AFC North. In 2006, they were swept by the rest of the division for the first time ever.
If you read the Orange and Brown Report on a regular basis, I know you are familiar with the issues facing the team. Let me give you some things to look for position by position during camp and the preseason.
This is the position that most people will be watching. The Browns have a wide-open competition her because the play from the quarterback position was not great in 2006. Incumbent Charlie Frye got 11 starts last year. The question was whether he would improve his game over the off-season and make better decisions. In his starts in late 2005, my concern was that he was too careless with the ball. That did not change in 2006. He threw too many interceptions and had several costly fumbles. Frye showed a tendency to settle for underneath throws when intermediate ones were available, and so the Browns did not move the ball. I'm skeptical that Frye has improved over the offseason. Will Frye step up thanks to increased competition?
Derek Anderson was an unknown going into 2006. The book on Anderson was that he had a good arm, but tossed too many interceptions in college. Anderson got a chance when Frye was injured in the Kansas City game. He showed good decision making and was quick with the ball, but he also showed questionable accuracy. In his final start, Tampa Bay picked off Anderson four times. Anderson did enough to play himself into the competition, but I'm doubtful Anderson can develop into a true NFL starter. He might hold the chair for a while this year, though. Will he show improvement over the end of last year?
The Browns gave up a 2008 1st round pick to get Brady Quinn. His legendary fall on draft day made Quinn's a household name. Quinn played in the highly touted program at Notre Dame under former NFL coordinator Charlie Weiss. As with any rookie, there is a huge debate as to whether the Browns should let him sit and watch or throw him in the fire. There were hints that Quinn might hold out, though, which could make this debate moot if he misses too much time. Is Quinn ready to make the leap?
The Browns also have Ken Dorsey who has physical limitations, but is a student of the game. The Browns might consider keeping him as more of a player/coach than as a top-notch signal caller.
Here is another position that has a lot of question marks going into camp. The Browns signed an old nemesis, Jamal Lewis to replace Reuben Droughns, who was traded to the Giants. Lewis has faded over the last two years, but rumor has it that he is over his issue with bone spurs. Despite the fact that Lewis is 28, he has a lot of miles on him. I'm skeptical he can regain the form he had in his prime. On the other hand, if Lewis can perform at the same level as Droughns or better, at least the Browns haven't lost anything.
Beyond Lewis, there will be a lot of sorting out to do. Jason Wright is an unheralded player out of Northwestern who did a solid job as a change of pace back last year. He ran with determination and showed excellent hands out of the backfield. But Wright is not going to hold up as the feature back if Lewis goes down. Can Wright develop into something nobody expects?
Last year's 5th round pick, Jerome Harrison, had good credentials in college and showed flashes in the preseason. But while he could run, the other aspects of his game, such as chipping a rusher and catching passes, were sorely lacking. Harrison largely rode the pine. Harrison has supposedly bulked up. Can he step up to have a role?
Lawrence Vickers got some limited playing time in 2006 and showed good hands as a receiver. He did not run much. What might the Browns ask him to do in the new offense? The Browns also have Chris Barclay who not only ran well in garbage time last preseason, but tore up the now defunct NFL Europe. Can Barclay parlay that into any kind of role on this team? Jerome Jackson is an undrafted free agent who is a long shot to stick.
This position looked like a strength last season, but it rapidly devolved into chaos. Braylon Edwards proved the critics wrong and returned quickly from a devastating knee injury in late 2005. But beyond that, Edwards didn't always make plays and was involved in too many off-the-field issues, including defying team rules to be at the Ohio State-Michigan game, and a disputed confrontation on the sideline involving Charlie Frye, though it appeared the real target was the offensive line. In year three, can Edwards grow into a receiver worthy of the third overall pick?
The Browns brought in Joe Jurevicius to provide veteran leadership. He did that, but injuries kept him off the field for a good chunk of the season. Also, the coaching staff often played Dennis Northcutt rather than Jurevicius. Can Jurevicius be an impact player for the Browns, especially on third down?
With Northcutt's departure, the rest of the jobs on the receiver corps is wide open. Special teams ace Josh Cribbs got some chances on offense, but never really made much of an impact. Can he do the job on offense? 2006 third round pick Travis Wilson was in the doghouse with Romeo Crennel and never really got a chance to play until the last few weeks. He showed some promise in very limited chances. The Browns added Tim Carter in the Droughns trade. The book on Carter has been good speed, bad hands. Will a change of scenery help him to be a productive player? There are also a number of undrafted free agents, 7th round pick Syndric Steptoe, and practice squad returnee Kendric Mosley.
The Browns got great production out of this position last year. This year should be the same as long as Kellen Winslow can return after more surgery on his knee. His 89 catches tied the Browns record set by Ozzie Newsome, and Winslow frequently said he was playing in pain. If he recovers, it will be interesting to see if he can improve on that. Winslow's health is a huge question for the offense.
Steve Heiden is a solid tight end. Paired with Winslow, Heiden's good hands make him a great decoy and change of pace. Other than one high profile and uncharacteristic drop, Heiden had a solid 2006 season. Can the Browns find ways to use Heiden effectively? Darnell Dinkins was the third tight end in 2006. He is a decent blocker and a good special teams player. The Browns also brought in veteran Ryan Krause and Buck Ortega to provide some insurance and competition.
The Browns made the line a priority in the offseason. In many ways, 2006 was effectively ruined when free agent LeCharles Bentley went down on the first snap of team drills in camp. The Browns went through a bizarre series of twists and turns before finding a credible center to replace him. Despite the fact the Bentley wants to attempt to return, it is unreasonable to expect that to happen, and even if he does, can he be anywhere near his previous Pro Bowl form? I hope he can beat the odds.
The Browns raided the Bengals to add Eric Steinbach. He is a huge upgrade over either of last year's guards, and he could also be a factor at tackle. The Browns drafted Joe Thomas with the third pick overall. If he does not hold out, he should be a starter from day one. Assuming Bentley can't go, last year's starter, Hank Fraley, signed a four year contract. He's a decent center. The Browns signed Kevin Shaffer last year and he played left tackle. He got off to a tough start by wiping out a touchdown on the first offensive play of the season with a holding penalty. He had an OK year. Assuming Thomas is the left tackle, the Browns will have to decide what to do with Shaffer. He might move to the right side. Ryan Tucker has been the most consistent player on the line, but he had some kind of mental issue and missed a big chunk of the season. Can the Browns count on him for the long haul?
The Browns will also have to sort through some of the depth on the line, something that has killed the team in recent years. The Browns signed Seth McKinney from the Dolphins. He had a neck problem and didn't play last year. If he can return to form, McKinney should be a solid guard. Kelly Butler was a castoff from the Lions last year who saw playing time when Ryan Tucker went down. Butler showed mechanical problems, but he is relatively young yet and has some experience. Nat Dorsey also saw playing time, but he has shown no ability to be an NFL offensive lineman. I seriously doubt he will be on the team come September. Lennie Friedman is another veteran who looked like he might be starter at center for a while last summer. He has experience and can play both center and guard. He is a good depth player. Isaac Sowells messed up an ankle in camp and lost a chance to gain some valuable experience. He got some playing time at the very end of last year and did OK. There are several other players in camp who will have to work very hard to get a chance to stick.
The big question in camp will be who are the starting five on the line? Beyond that, who are the depth players? Some of the guys who were on the team last season will be hard pressed to stay because there is more talent overall. But even with all the talent in the world, the offensive line needs time to play together as a unit. The Browns will have to make some quick decisions to get the line time to gel. Can they do that in a way that will not hinder the offense early in the season?
Coordination and Coaching
After the Maurice Carthon fiasco, the Browns needed a better scheme and a better coach. The Browns brought in former tight ends coach and Ohio native Rod Chudzinski. His scheme is based on timing and motion, using both to create mismatches. One of the things to look for is to see if the Browns are establishing that timing. Several factors will work against them:
Inexperience at quarterback.
Sorting out on the offensive line.
Sorting out at wide receiver.
Limited playing time for Kellen Winslow in camp as he completes his recovery.
A lot of how this unfolds will be dependent on the quarterbacks getting comfortable with the receivers, and on the offensive line opening holes for the running game. Reports out of the off-season drills say that the timing is definitely an issue, and that the receivers really have to tighten up their route-running. This will be something to watch not only in games, but day-to-day in camp. The Browns will have to settle on a third receiver, but I would suggest using Winslow in the slot on third down with Heiden at tight end. To me, that allows the Browns to get the best hands on the field, assuming none of the other receivers comes out of nowhere.
Inexperience at quarterback, a new system, and several position battles lead me to believe the Browns are in for a rough start. Unfortunately, they face all three division opponents at home plus a game at New England in the first six weeks. We may see a lot of three and outs at first. Keep an eye on that. If the Browns can finally get a decent running game, though, it will help a lot. William Green's run in the second half of 2002 was what propelled the Browns to their only playoff appearance of the expansion era. If the running game can take pressure off the passing game, the Browns will be able to overcome some of their issues on offense.