Roster cut-down days are looming on August 28th and September 1st. Position battles aren't over... we could get a few surprises over the next two weeks. This is how we see things evolving at this time:
Cornering the Market:
The strength of the Cleveland Browns defense may come from the overall skill of the players in the defensive backfield. A 2006 season where the team struggled with injuries at cornerback may actually wind up helping in the long run, as the team uncovered talent which is making for strong competition. Leigh Bodden holds down one starting spot, with rookie Eric Wright leading the race at the other starting position. Veteran Kenny Wright has struggled with minor injuries throughout camp, but Daven Holly has continued his solid play. Players such as rookie Brandon McDonald, Jereme Perry, Therrian Fontenot, and Jeremy LaSueur battle for playing time and recognition. The comeback of cornerback Gary Baxter has been a slow process, though an amazing one, and appears stalled at present.
Filling holes with the Linebackers:
starting outside linebacker Willie McGinest and Matt Stewart have robbed the
Browns of depth and experience at the position. For a team
that has had more than their fair share of issues stopping the run, any loss of
veteran talent could have a negative impact. Noted pass rusher Antwan Peek hopes
to fill the void of the McGinest loss, while Chaun Thompson and David McMillan
appeared poised to battle for a reserve position.
Other than for Kamerion Wimbley, there are more questions than answers, particularly at inside linebacker. Starter Andra Davis has been sidelined with an ankle sprain. Filling in for Davis has been second-year hopeful Leon Williams. Williams filled in for an injured D'Qwell Jackson late in the 2006 season and played well. Throughout the past two weeks, Williams has made his presence felt against the run in camp, but did not play particularly well last Saturday against the Lions. Jackson returns healthy following a foot injury and has displayed the quickness and awareness which landed him a starting role as a rookie. Both Jackson and Williams struggled getting off blocks, as the Lions' linemen were able to reach the second line of defense and neutralize the athleticism of the Cleveland linebackers.
Stepping up is hard to Do:
Playing along the defensive line of the Cleveland Browns may not be the most glorious job in the game, but with the questionable production coming from this unit, it may be a good place to look for work.
Starting defensive end Orpheus Roye is on the shelf following knee surgery, Shaun Smith replaces him, which takes talent and depth away from the nose tackle position, where the team has struggled. Veteran Robaire Smith lines up next to Ted Washington, but cannot cover enough ground to minimize the holes in the run defense. Quality and depth are concerns throughout the entire defensive line rotation, with the team placing hopes on youth and inexperience at the ends to persevere. Defensive end Simon Frasier and nose tackle Ethan Kelley have cemented their place onto the roster, while players such as Orien Harris, Alvin Smith, J'Vonne Parker, and Babatunde Oshinowo battle for a place on the squad.
This is what we see in the making:
J'Vonne Parker is the number-three nose tackle at this time, while Shaun Smith plays end in the absence of Roye and Kelley backs up Washington. Parker is beating out Oshinowo for a reserve spot at nose tackle, but the race is very close and a solid effort by either could be enough to nail down the role.
Rookie defensive ends Chase Pittman and Melila Purcell could be battling for one roster position behind Orien Harris and Alvin Smith. Both display speed and quickness at the position, with Pittman appearing slightly more equipped to handle the strength of the opposition. The opportunity exists that both players make the roster, but it is not likely. The knee injury suffered by Roye could be a blessing to one of the young linemen, if the veteran is not able to compete at the start of the season.
McGinest's injury opened the door for Peek to grasp the starting role and he has done that decisively. Peek has looked solid in rushing and passing drills and could be a force. Thompson battles McMillan to backup Peek, with Thompson looking better than anticipated after moving back to the outside after spending parts of the past two seasons on the inside.
Jason Short is going to make this roster, Mason Unck could be on the bubble. Clifton Smith is a long-shot at best, while Kris Griffin is exceptional on special teams and has shown speed and quickness in team linebacker drills.
With a couple weeks left, the positions in the defensive backfield are as competitive as any position on the roster. Bodden, Eric Wright, and Holly are locks. Perry and McDonald appear to have a leg up on the competition, while veteran Kenny Wright and Gary Baxter have yet to have an impact on the practice field. DeMario Minter is a talented player, but injury has again limited his opportunity and time may be running out. Therrian Fontenot and Jeremy LeSueur are fighting an uphill battle with time becoming their work enemy.