Outside the Perimeter: Three Battles

Mark Leonard examines positional battles (not QB) of keen interest to Cleveland Browns fans.

Though the topic might suggest as much, this entry will not address the QB controversy that is just beginning to brew in Cleveland between fan favorite Brady Quinn and former Pro Bowler Derek Anderson. Many will write about that and plenty will be shared.

Instead, three other positions will be analyzed, each of which could conceivably be as important to club fortunes during the inaugural season of the George Kokinis-Eric Mangini regime.

The units under examination will be LB, both inside and out,  and the WR job opposite Braylon Edwards.

A fourth—the right side of the OL—was originally to be in this piece when it was conceived; but that submission was lost to computer demons. Since that writing and this re-doing, RT George Foster was added to the mix, causing much to have been written and said elsewhere, rendering most anything that might be shared here superfluous.  (Suffice to say I like the signing.)

At any rate, readers familiar with this site and this author are aware LB has for many, many months been a unit of grave concern as it pertains to Cleveland's Browns. And with good reason. The team has had but a single above-average LB under its employ since its 1999 rebirth, one-time Pro Bowler Jamir Miller, whose career was abruptly ended just months thereafter by a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Consequently, Cleveland has rarely defensed the run well and even less frequently pressured the passer. This daily-double identifies a team rarely legitimate (or even relevant) among title aspirants. Moreover, weakness at LB is a horrible affliction for any club aligning in the 3-4, since the position is the most essential of defensive units in a scheme predicated upon playmakers at LB.

It was for these reasons both of the Browns' top-two draft opportunities were expected to be invested in strongside LBs—a physically-imposing run-stuffer for the inside and an athletic rusher off the edge. Alas, new coach Mangini and his Def-Coor, Rob Ryan, elected to rely instead upon seasoned UFA's Eric Barton (11th year) and David Bowens (10th), both of whom played for the head coach as New York Jets. These are not young men. They are not game-breakers. They are not long-term solutions. But they know the coach, his schemes, his expectations and, ideally, the means to elicit optimal performances from the other Browns LBs challenged with mastering the subtleties.

For their parts, Barton and Bowens talk a good game and are being praised early for their influences. Says Bowens, quoted in Tony Grossi's excellent Plain Dealer feature Wednesday June 3: "We will be smart and aggressive. The two minute (sets), short-yardage, backed-up (against one's own goal), red zone…when other teams would fold or make mistakes, we'll be good at it."

As for Barton, he said: "We'll attack offenses' weaknesses. It takes 11 guys buying-in and being sound.  When you have that, the system works."

Let's hope so. And let's hope the duo holds up, as there is precious little surrounding them among Cleveland LBs. Leading tackler D'Qwell Jackson returns inside to pair with Barton. Neither is a prototypical stack-and-stuff ‘backer nor a beastly type who inspires and intimidates. Kamerion Wimbley is also back as the D's primary pass-rush threat. This may be the last opportunity for the former number-one pick to demonstrate he can be a difference-maker on the weakside.

This unit is especially worthy of inspection because of its shortage of experienced alternatives. Behind this modest quartet of achievers is the raw crispness of fresh celery. Tentatively, if only because Bowens has only once in his extensive career been a fulltime starter, second-year man Alex Hall is penciled-in to start in the LOLB spot vacated by the ancient Willie McGinest. Hall was so green last season, he was rarely entrusted after Week Three. From Raleigh's tiny St. Augustine's College, Hall is seriously in need of additional bulk, strength, ballast and NFL  reps.

It is possible Hawaii's David Veikune, the last of three second-round draft selections, will factor opposite Wimbley, but he is also the foremost challenger to Barton's job, a very unlikely conversion for a collegiate DE. Clearly, the Browns cannot expect seemless transitions for either Hall or Veikune, regardless of where the latter aligns.

ILB Beau Bell, a 2008 fourth-rounder, and OLB Titus Brown, a practice-squad contender most of last season, will also compete for strongside deployment. But Bell missed most of his rookie season with knee issues and Brown was a downhill player exclusively at Mississippi State. Leon Williams returns for season-four, but possibly not as an insider, as had previously been the case. Williams tore-up his knee rushing from Wimbley's slot in a late-season contest and may return to that role instead. But he is a player who's been extended chances in the past without reward.

USC's Kaluka Maiava was added in round four this spring with the understanding he'll be brought along inside. For the time being, however, he is likely to play only situationally, especially on passing-downs, matching up with underneath targets.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that's as  good as it gets. At least at this point.

Undrafted free agents include Jackson State's Marcus Benard, Houston's Phillip Hunt and Central State's Jonathon Foster, but they too offer nothing insofar as established professionalism is concerned.  Additional camp bodies belong to David Holloway and Bo Ruud.

What is above described is an unspectacular collection of  positional contenders largely lacking in both explosiveness and experience. It could be enough. It probably won't be. Stopgaps without backups is not generally considered a recipe for success.

As for WR, this unit was possibly the club's single most disappointing during the disaster that became the 2008 campaign. Edwards followed his stellar Pro-Bowl season of 2007, one in which he was mightily contributory to the team's surprisingly potent 10-6 effort, with a wildly inconsistent dropfest of immense disenchantment. Nearly dealt prior to if not during the April draft, Edwards returns in no small part because he is the club's sole offensive threat. Minimally, he figures to be the only one causing opposing DC's to lose any sleep in the weeks leading up to Browns' games.

Opposite Edwards last season, signed with the expectation he'd out-do what Tim Carter had done for the attack in ‘07, was Donte Stallworth, a one-time number-one draft pick (by New Orleans) who'd also failed in similarly-brief stays with Philadelphia and New England. Stallworth might just as well have added the suffix "-less" to his surname, for all he did to advance the Cleveland cause in ‘08. When he wasn't out with peculiar ailments, he was invisible. Since, he's gotten himself involved with a death in Miami, seemingly associated with his driving while intoxicated. Though the legal process has yet to play itself out, indications are the decidedly-limited production that had been Stallworth's will not be available to (nor relied upon by) the Browns in 2009.

This much has been enunciated by the drafting of a pair of lanky wideouts, each chosen with a second-round selection preceding Veikune's. Ohio State's Brian Robiskie and Georgia's Mohamed Massaquoi so impressed Cleveland coaches that they were considered more essential than any defensive addition, evidenced by Veikune's being the new regime's most highly-drafted defender at choice 52. The drafting of this duo also seems to suggest last year's top two rookie targets, Wisconsin's Paul Hubbard and Miami's Lance Leggett, are not foreseen as impact performers.

Furthermore, the candidacy of Stallworth's primary ‘08 replacement, Syndric Steptoe, seems diminished by the free-agent signings of David Patten (34), Mike Furrey (32) and DeVale Ellis. Toss in return-specialist Joshua Cribbs and it becomes even easier to see this is another position of number lacking in consequence, another violation of quantity over quality.

This unit, too, could be good enough. It simply is not likely to be.

What the two positions share is being populated by two extremes of age. There are older guys with oodles of experience supported by raw youngsters predictably unlikely to produce immediately. In addition to this disparity of seasoning and readiness is the general ordinariness of the candidates. Premier athleticism does not abound.

In a team sport, however—especially in professional football—it is possible for a collection of athletes, achieving as one unified entity, to exceed the combined strength of their abilities—the so-called whole exceeding the sum of its parts. Because it can be assumed—at least at this point—that Kokinis and Mangini, in conjunction with their paid assistants, are too bright to be oblivious to the positional truths illuminated above, one must conclude it is their intention to win with precisely this strategy.

That doesn't mean they won't be perpetually scouring the waiver-wire all training camp long, weighing patience developing their youngsters against the potential of immediate enhancements from outside.

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Fans still paying attention during the final month of last year's shocking collapse may recall the signing of an obscure TE out of Utah who reportedly once labored as a member of Al Davis' Oakland Raiders. The signing of one-time Ute wideout John Madsen easily might've passed beneath fan radar, but it came on the heels of yet another injury to now-departed TE Kellen Winslow, Jr. One pass-catching TE giving way to another pass-catching TE.

Rob Chudzinski was the Cleveland Off-Coor at the time, a play-caller known to be partial to TE production, possibly because he, himself, had been a collegiate TE. Madsen might well have been assumed to be Chud's idea of a downfield TE threat able to mitigate Winslow's loss, much as Missouri TE Martin Rucker inspired former GM Phil Savage to deal-up to secure his rights during the 2008 draft.

The point—yes, there is one!—is the administration change may not preclude either Rucker or Madsen this year, particularly with veteran Steve Heiden still rehabbing a knee. Renown run-blocker Robert Royal has, indeed, been added from Buffalo in free agency and Heiden is expected back, possibly for the start of training camp. But don't sleep on either Rucker or Madsen making this roster and leading their positional challengers in receptions—especially with the anticipated youth at WR. Madsen and Rucker could surface as chain-movers.

To help with leadership and positional mentoring, among other reasons, six former Jets have followed Mangini from NY, each infused to the D, two for each of the three positional units: Hank Poteat and Abram Elam in the secondary; Barton and Bowens among the LBs; CJ Mosely and Kenyon Coleman along the DL.

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Rather quietly and methodically, the Browns have positioned themselves nicely in the secondary, executing a rather wholesale renovation that improves the team on many levels. Leadership, toughness, ‘teams play, experience, intelligence, savvy and feistiness were served through the additions of Poteat and one-time Browns' training-camp invitee Corey Ivy. Youth, athleticism, size, ball-skills and upside were addressed via sixth-rounders Don Carey and Coye Francies.

Earlier, some semblance of continuity and stability was attained via the retention of free-agent safety Michael Adams, one of the club's top special teams performers and a situational defender who started several games over the past two years in place of both Brodney Pool and the since-departed Sean Jones, now an Eagle. Most recently, Rod Hood was imported as a free agent to become the third CB. His slot coverage and tackling skills will both be assets to a sometimes-soft secondary.

Together with projected starters Elam (SS), Eric Wright (LCB) and Brandon McDonald (RCB), these number ten, a total that legitimately challenges both Nick Sorenson and Hamza Abdullah, as well as holdover CB/KR Gerard Lawson, who heads a fourth-string that includes fellow undrafted free agents Bryan Williams (Akron), Nat Ness (Arizona) and Brett Lockett (UCLA).

When it becomes time to prune this collection and designate some for prospective spots on the practice squad, perhaps we'll have an answer to my question as to whether GMs have an unwritten rule about allowing losers to sneak kids onto their DEVs. Sure, the Ravens lost Anderson to the Browns, but Buffalo was allowed to nurse along OLT Jason Peters, much as Cinn was permitted time with ORT Stacey Andrews and Tampa stashed OLT Anthony Davis. (Both Peters and Andrews now play for Phila, with Stacey's brother Shawn; all three played together at Arkansas, too. Davis is on the street and someone Caro should consider.)

Was it a gentlemen's agreement that seemingly allowed Savage to get onto the DEV talent he sought to keep, or was his idea of talent simply not appealing to any other organization? The one year Cleveland won, they failed to get OLT James Lee onto its practice squad. (What kind of confidence tempted Savage to risk losing Lee so as to retain Isaac Sowells?)

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This week's Sporting News mention has to do with its listing "25 NFL players most likely to dominate in 2009." Why it is noteworthy is that:

1. AFC players account for 9 of the top 12 identified, three of whom play in the AFC North, two of whom are safeties.

2.  Three of the top ten are from Miami's U. Tennessee also was thrice represented overall.

3. The illustrious list, compiled by RealScouts, features products from Kent State, Marshall, Boise State, Idaho State, New Mexico, Troy, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Syracuse, Maryland, UNC, Pitt and Cal. I expect the point speaks for itself.

(Less interesting is that Michigan had two, also.)

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One of those NFL nuggets that possibly did not make the trip from the West Coast into the consciousness of America's Heartland is the Niners' record of ten-plus wins in 14 consecutive seasons.

Contrast that run of excellence with this list of successive SF number-one draft picks preceding this year's selection of Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree: DB Mike Rumpf, OT Kwame Harris, WR Rashaun Woods, QB Alex Smith, TE Vernon Davis, OLB Manny Lawson, OLT Joe Staley, MLB Patrick Willis (even a blind squirrel?) and DE Kentwan Balmer.

Credit Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News for that bit of research.

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This may well be my last installment for the OBR until mid-July, as I'm off to Europe for a month. Thanks to those of you who've accepted me warmly and read me regularly.


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