Joe's Camp Preview: Defense/Special Teams

Every year, training camp provides the opportunity to start understanding how each year's squad will fall together. This year, as always, training camp will serve to provide fans with their first clues as to how the team will fare. Fan commentator Joe Brownlee asks the questions that need answers in training camp...

Training camp is upon us! In the last installment, we looked at some things to watch with the offense. This time we will look at the defense position-by-position, special teams, and the head coach.

Defensive Line

The Browns worked hard to solidify some other positions, but going into camp, the defensive line looks to be the weakest of the position groups. The Browns did bring in some players, but there are some big question marks.

Veteran end Orpheus Roye has been with the Browns for quite a while now. He has shown versatility, moving to the nose on passing downs at times. While he has played well in anonymity in Cleveland, the last two years have been marred by injuries. Roye is getting to the end of his career, so this may be the pattern for him. Can Roye recapture his past form and stay healthy? The Browns brought in veteran Robaire Smith to man the other end, replacing longtime backup Alvin McKinley. Smith should be a definite upgrade over McKinley, but he is not young, either. Can Smith be an impact player in Cleveland?

The backup end position will be a battle. Simon Fraser went from undrafted free agent who played special teams in 2005 to seeing considerable playing time in 2006. Fraser did make plays, but those were mostly in the passing game. He was often a liability against the run. Has he rounded out his game? J'Vonne Parker has shown potential in very limited playing time, and much of that was at nose tackle. Can he be a credible depth player at end?

The Browns have a lot of new faces at defensive end. The other backup from last year, Nick Eason, moved east to Pittsburgh. Chase Pittman, Melilia Purcell, Orion Harris, Alvin Smith will fight to see if they can find a spot on the active roster or practice squad. Can any of these young players make an impact?

The Browns brought in veteran Ted Washington at nose tackle in 2006. As expected, he could only manage limited playing time, and teams game-planned to keep him off the field. When he did play, he was not always effective. Washington will return, but can he still be an impact player?

The Browns brought in Shaun Smith from the Bengals to be the rotation player for Washington. Early reports are that Smith looks like he can hold his own. Can he be an effective player at nose in the 3-4? Ethan Kelley has been the backup in the past, but he has split his time at end and has been injured a good bit. Does he have a role in the rotation on the nose?

Linebacker

When the Browns went to the 3-4 in 2005, the lack of talent at the linebacker position became a glaring weakness. Last year, Phil Savage assembled some pieces, signing veteran Willie McGinest and drafting three promising young players. All three of the draftees saw significant playing time in 2006, turning this position from a weakness to a strength.

The Browns had very few sacks last year and not much pressure on opposing quarterbacks in general. Willie McGinest was injured a good deal of 2006 and was ineffective most of the time. That's not to say he did not make some plays here and there, and he also is reported to have had a good influence on the young players. Can McGinest play a meaningful role? Top draft pick Kamerion Wimbley had a great rookie season, with double-digit sacks. He made some very athletic plays and began to get some decent notice. Can he continue the progress he showed last year? The Browns also added Antwan Peek, a 3-4 linebacker who had no role in Houston when they went to the 4-3. Peek is touted as a good rush linebacker in the 3-4. Can he be the bookend the Browns need on the outside?

The inside had problems in 2006. Veteran Andra Davis has a high motor, but sometimes he isn't as good against the run as you'd like to see. With some better talent around him, will he step up? Rookie D'Qwell Jackson played much of the season. He also gave lots of effort, but the mental part of the game proved a challenge for him at times. For example, he seemed slow to know when he should be covering running backs on pass routes. Can Jackson step things up in year two? Fellow rookie Leon Williams replaced Jackson late in the year when he was injured, and he was an immediate impact player. Can Williams build on that in 2007?

The Browns still have several depth players. Veteran Matt Stewart played more early, but ended up giving way to the young players. Can he still have a role? Chaun Thompson has had numerous chances to show something, but his status as a second round pick out of a division II school with a losing program has puzzled many. Despite all the physical attributes, it is said he cannot grasp the pro game. This is probably his last chance. Can he do something with it? Likewise, David McMillan has made a handful of plays in limited chances, but if he cannot step things up, he may also be out of the picture. The other players are unlikely to stick, though the Browns will probably give special teamer Mason Unck a chance to play some defense during camp. Can any of these players surprise the staff and latch on?

Defensive Back

This area was a source of drama throughout 2006. The Browns looked to have three starting caliber players headed into 2006, but Leigh Bodden had the most playing time, managing seven games around ankle problems. Can Bodden stay healthy and anchor the position? Veteran corner Gary Baxter suffered patellar tendon tears in both knees. He vows to return from this devastating injury this season. His story is inspirational as he amazes the doctors, but can he get healthy enough to play a meaningful role this fall? Second round pick Eric Wright looked great on film and he reportedly did very well in the offseason drills. He has great closing speed and appears to have good instincts. The off-the-field issues that led to his ouster from USC seem to be an aberration. Can Wright be an immediate impact player?

Beyond the potential starters, the Browns have a lot of depth players to sort out. Last year, Daven Holly went from castoff to starter because of the injuries. Holly made plays and showed improvement over the course of the year. I'm going to be watching closely to see how much he can continue to improve. Can Holly have a significant role in the backfield? Jereme Perry made some plays in the preseason and was called back when the Browns needed depth. He made a few plays. Can he remain on the roster? The Browns signed veteran journeyman Kenny Wright to be the 2007 version of Ralph Brown. Does this guy have skills that will help the team? 2006 draft pick DeMario Minter never played because of injury. Can he play himself into a role? The Browns have some other depth players that will be fighting to impress the coaching staff.

At safety, many fans had given up on Sean Jones heading into 2006. After missing a year due to injury, Jones showed little in 2005. Jones broke onto the scene last year as one of the best young safeties in the league. Can Jones build on that this year? Brodney Pool had shown promise in limited playing time in 2005, but it 2006, he had a solid year, including being pressed into service at corner at times. Can Jones and Pool together provide a good combination, especially without veteran Brian Russell?

The Browns will have to come up with backup players at safety. The Browns brought in young veteran Mike Adams hoping he can be the third man at the position. Last year's 7th round pick, Justin Hamilton is a hard hitter. Nagging injuries kept him sidelined during parts of last season. Can he step up to get increased playing time?

Coordination

Rumors persisted that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was going to be offered the head coaching position at Michigan State. That never materialized. While Grantham is a high-energy coach who seems to have done a good job with the players, it isn't like the defense tore up the league. Because of problems on offense, the defense often spent a lot of time on the field. Injuries took a huge toll, especially on the line and at corner. As this season dawns, the defense is in the third year in the 3-4 and within Grantham's scheme. Can Grantham get this defense to take a step up, especially against the run?

Defensive backs coach Mel Tucker seemed to do a great job with holding together a patchwork secondary much of the year. Can Tucker continue to coach up the young secondary players?

Outlook

Even with the problems up front, the defense looks to be improved over 2006. If young players like Wimbley, Jones, Jackson, and Williams can take another step up and the veteran additions like Peek and the "Smith Brothers" can help out, the defense could be very good. Just how much can this group improve?

Special Teams

The Browns have some talent, but they also have some holes. Phil Dawson returns at kicker, the only remaining member of the 1999 expansion team. He did much better in 2006 on kickoffs, but his field goals suffered. Can he improve in that area? Punter Dave Zastudil had a very solid first year as a Brown. Can he continue his solid kicking? Long snapper Ryan Pointbriand has been very steady. Will that continue?

In the return game, the Browns let long-time punt returner Dennis Northcutt move on. The Browns don't have a ready replacement, though kickoff return man Josh Cribbs tried it some. Cribbs had a great year in the kickoff department, though. Can Cribbs continue and perhaps add punt returns to his game?

Ted Daisher comes over from Oakland to replace Jerry Rosburg as special teams coach. Rosburg did a great job in Cleveland. Daisher coached Oakland's special teams to dead last in the NFL. Special teams contributed heavily to the Browns' win at Oakland last year. Can the special teams continue to be a strength of the team under new leadership?

Head Coaching

Going into the 2004 season, Butch Davis had worn out his welcome with many in Cleveland. But head coach Romeo Crennel is considered a "hot seat" coach by most publications going into camp. Crennel has not had tons of talent to work with and injuries have been a huge factor in both of his years with the Browns. But, at least in my opinion, Crennel did make the most of what he had. His mishandling of the situation with Maurice Carthon, his failure to reign in Braylon Edwards, and his stubborn refusal to give young players experience when the team is clearly not going anywhere don't speak well of his leadership.

For Crennel to stick, I think the team has to show progress in the first six games. With a lot of changes, especially on offense, this is a tall order. Can Crennel make adjustments that will allow him to save his job?




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