What at first seemed like a surprise choice by the Browns in the 2008 draft, especially since they had only four picks to spend when the draft started, might not be such a surprise after all.
After trading with Dallas to move up 18 slots in the fourth round for the 104th overall pick to fill a need at inside linebacker with Beau Bell, the Browns swung another deal with the Cowboys seven picks later. But instead of reaching for a cornerback to fill another need, general manager Phil Savage grabbed Missouri tight end Martin Rucker.
Rucker is a pass-catching tight end, not a workhorse blocker. That's why the pick raised eyebrows at first. Obviously, Savage had a sense of urgency.
Kellen Winslow Jr. is coming off knee surgery -- again. He has had at least five operations on his right leg with four of them being on his knee. His most recent operation was a "routine" clean-out in February. Reports on his progress are positive, but there is just so much surgery one knee can take.
Fellow tight end Steve Heiden had back surgery in late April to repair a bulging disk. That left the Browns with Darnell Dinkins as the only healthy tight end. Savage said the goal is for Winslow and Heiden to be ready by training camp.
"Martin Rucker is going to get a lot of experience over the next couple months because of the situation with Steve and Kellen," Savage said. "We'll see how much he can grasp and where he goes. He certainly is capable of being a starter."
Then there is the issue of a potential holdout by Winslow. Winslow has three years left on his contract, but he also has a different agent, and his current representative, Drew Rosenhaus, is demanding a new deal.
"We really like Martin Rucker, but I think that always has to be in the backdrop," Savage said.
The Browns do not want their playoff hopes to be derailed because of a standoff between them and Winslow. Savage says he envisions Rucker and Winslow on the field together. Rucker caught 84 passes for 834 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
Rucker does not lack confidence. He dismisses criticism about his blocking by saying he did not line up next to the tackle. Instead he would split out, line up in the slot or go in motion.
"Of course you have to block -- it's football," Rucker said. "We weren't attached to the tackle. Most of our blocking was done in space.
"People look at me and say I'm a wide receiver and say I can't play with my hand on the ground. But I'm not worried. I'm just eager to prove to everybody I can."
Savage dismissed the criticism by saying all but a handful of tight ends aren't big-time blockers.
Likewise, Rucker is looking forward to competing with Winslow. Winslow has 171 catches over the last two seasons. Rucker said he sees Pro Bowls in his own future.
"I'm definitely up to that challenge," Rucker said. "Anywhere you go, somebody has been playing there before. Kellen Winslow is probably a lot better than some of them, but at the same time, it doesn't matter. When your name is called, you go and play football."
LB BATTLES BEGIN: Four Browns inside linebackers will use the offseason program, minicamp, training camp and the preseason to prove they deserve playing time, and three of them were drafted in the fourth round or later.
The latest to join the group is rookie Beau Bell. Bell was the Browns first draft choice in the 2008 draft, but because they traded their first three picks prior to the draft, Bell wasn't taken until the fourth round. He joins 2002 fifth-round draft choice Andra Davis, 2006 second-round draft choice D'Qwell Jackson and 2006 fourth-round draft choice Leon Williams.
Exactly when Bell will be part of the Browns' run defense only time will tell, but already the coaches expect him to have an impact on kick coverage. The Browns lost a valuable part of their kick coverage unit when Chaun Thompson signed with Houston in free agency. The Browns are hoping Bell will not only replace Thompson but also bring a hard-hitting mentality to the unit.
"I feel when we kick off on opening day, Beau Bell will be on the field (on special teams)," Savage said. "That's an immediate contribution. I will be shocked if he's not on the field of play."
All along, the Browns have been clear about their desire for an inside linebacker. Savage said Bell is "a hammer." The Browns spent an hour with him at the NFL Combine in February and were one of 15 teams that attended his pro day at UNLV. The interest from other teams prompted the Browns to trade up for him. If nothing else, the Browns will get effort for their willingness to trade two picks for one. They expect a lot more than just effort, though.
"I'd say the style of football I play would be real physical," Bell said. "I'm real physical at the point of attack. I like to run around, hit people and at the same time play under control and do what I have to do to get the job done."
Bell made 126 tackles in 2007. He forced five fumbles, intercepted four passes and made 9.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Bell was an outside linebacker in college, but since UNLV played a 4-3 defense the adjustment would not be a major one, Savage said. Bell said moving inside should bring out the best in him.
"UNLV and Cleveland are two totally different styles of defense," Bell said. "I feel that being on the inside could really bring out the qualities I have with my game, which is getting off blockers very well and being physical on the offensive lineman. I'm really looking forward to getting the opportunity to play on the inside."
The bigger adjustment is the level of competition, but last year the Browns drafted cornerback Eric Wright from UNLV and he made the transition well. The Browns are confident Bell, 6-2, 248 pounds, will also be successful.
"This kid's kind of a hammer-type hitter," Savage said. "He knows how to finish. We feel he's a powerful tackler."
The five forced fumbles by Bell in 2007 is an eye-catching statistic. Last year as a team the Browns forced 10. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley led with four.
--Quarterback coach Rip Scherer is working with Brady Quinn on the way Quinn grips the football and the way he drops back as he sets to throw a pass.
"We've worked on a different way of gripping the football and just different fundamentals as far as how you're loading the ball when you're getting ready to throw," Quinn told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We've also worked on overall drop mechanics and things like that."
--The Browns, and the Giants before them, did not get much from former track standout Tim Carter, but that did not stop the Browns from selecting Paul Hubbard from Wisconsin in the sixth round. Hubbard won the Big Ten indoor and outdoor long jump in 2003-04. There is no question about his toughness. He missed five games with a knee injury in 2007 and then caught seven passes for 134 yards against Michigan.
--The Browns can no longer use the excuse of being young. Thirty-two players on their roster have been in the league four years or more.
--The Browns want to build through the draft, but their roster is lopsided with players acquired in free agency. Including the 2008 draft but not including any rookie free agent signings, there are 26 drafted players and 34 former free agents on the roster.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I can't magically create a cornerback, but obviously it's something we're going to continue to watch." -- Browns general manager Phil Savage on not getting a cornerback in the draft.