Tales from the In-Box: Linebacker Edition

Lane cruises over to check on the linebackers and offers his assessment of the team's next moves. Get the latest scoop about rumors which persist about the Cleveland Browns continuing interest in front seven help.

Q: Prior to Willie McGinest and Andra Davis restructuring their contracts, it looked like one or both could be released. With the restructuring, is the team now inclined to retain these players?

LA: All the free agent LB visits have been a telling sign about the organization's view of the ILB and OLB spots. The Browns definitely have reservations about the roster at those positions, but the talent level in free agency was not strong enough or financially within the scope of the organization plan after the huge deals they gave new defensive linemen. The Browns certainly have a level of interest in some of the players and could still do something later in the off-season.

As it stands today, the defensive line was a priority and has been upgraded, which should improve the production of the LB's on the roster. Linebackers are expected to make plays in this defense and I still question the overall talent level and depth at the position. That being said, a player such as D'Qwell Jackson could thrive in space if the offensive linemen are unable to reach the second level of defense thanks to the new DL acquisitions.

Q: There was a media report that the Browns are one of four teams that are in the running to sign veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes. Spikes was a stud not too long ago - is he a legit option?

LA: The Browns have not offered a contract to Spikes and I have been told there have not been any negotiations between the parties. I believe Spikes can still play the game at an above-average level, but has past injury issues which are a concern and he would only be a stop-gap measure. Spikes played in the 3-4 early in his career and would be serviceable, but he is far from a priority for the team right now.

Q: Basically, the Browns have replaced Chaun Thompson with Shantee Orr. Good move?

LA: In total fairness, Orr is more than just a replacement for Thompson - the Browns had displayed an interest in Orr prior to Thompson departing. Thompson never convinced the coaching staff he was capable of holding down a significant role within the defensive structure. This is where Orr could provide this team with another legitimate option at OLB. Orr is a pass rusher who adds depth. Orr easily had his best production playing in the Houston 3-4 defense, prior to the Texans changing their scheme. He has displayed the ability to create pressure from the LB spot and will get an opportunity to play within such a role in Cleveland. Thompson was a very solid special teams player for the Browns, and Orr will see time in that part of the game as well.

Q: What do you believe are the factors as to why the Browns haven't signed most of the linebackers which the organization had in for visits?

LA: Phil Savage noted prior to free agency that the organization would talk and visit with many players. The quality and depth on the team's roster has improved to the point where Savage does not feel the need to over-pay or over-extend for talent in the free agent market. After the initial wave of free agency, players are now seeing that teams like the Browns are not offering significant assurances of compensation and playing time. This is significant for the team in future years, as the salary cap room is managed so the Browns can make moves to fortify the roster later, rather than having to endure a radical cap purge such as the one after the 2002 season.

Q: With the moves (or lack of) at the linebacker positions, which player concerns you the most due to productivity and health? Why?

LA: Based on productivity, I would say Andra Davis. Davis is not a player that plays with quickness and is most effective on a slow track. The veteran makes plenty of tackles, but the issue has been he does so downfield. Dealing with weak defensive line in years past could be part of the problem, but a physically imposing, aggressive and athletic player in the middle of the Cleveland defense is a necessity. I am not sold on Davis being that player.

Based on health, veteran Willie McGinest has to be a question due to his age. McGinest has missed playing time due to injury issues, but he is a stable presence and knows the defensive scheme. In what could be his last season, McGinest will only be a part-time player, as to be expected at this stage of his career.

Q: Looking at the remaining players available in free agency and the need of an inside linebacker for the Browns, who is the best option for the team heading into the 2008 season?

LA: I do not see an ILB on the market that I would consider an instant or significant upgrade. Al Wilson could be that type of player, but his neck injury is a concern despite gaining medical clearance from a noted specialist and 'passing' physical examinations conducted by a handful of teams. 

If not for the neck injury, Wilson would have garnered significant and immediate interest around the NFL.

The Browns have had further discussions with Wilson's representative, but it does not appear either party is close to committing. When Wilson does sign with a team, expect the deal to be short-term with plenty of bonus compensation attached. At this time, there is not a team willing to offer the former All-Pro anything more, due to his injury situation.

If the cost is minimal, though, the Browns would be well-served to provide Wilson with an opportunity. The reward could be much greater than the cost of the player.

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