Can Hank Fraley Fill the Gap?

Last year's starting center may have an important role to play in wake of the loss of Rex Hadnot. Steve King looks at the possibilities and more in his latest notes from camp...

The Browns didn't take center Alex Mack at No. 21 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft so he could stand on the sideline in a ball cap.

They got him to play and, more specifically, to start – probably right from the start. That would come at the expense of 10th-year pro Hank Fraley, the starter the last three seasons.

But Fraley might have gotten a reprieve – in the most unfortunate of ways – with the left knee injury suffered by guard Rex Hadnot in Thursday's practice. It's not known how severely he's hurt, but it didn't look good as they carted him off the field.

So whereas Fraley might have lost not only his starting job but also his roster spot – by clearing an older player like that off the roster, the Browns would create an opening for one of their younger linemen while also saving some room on the salary cap – the club will have to think long and hard about letting him go.  He has experience at guard, which is now obviously thinner without Hadnot and, other than Mack, he's the only other Brown who has played in the NFL at center. If Fraley would be released and Mack would then be sidelined by an injury, the Browns would be in deep, deep trouble.

It would be similar to the situation that brought Fraley to Cleveland in the first place just eight days before the start of the 2006 season. When prized free agent LeCharles Bentley went down with a career-ending knee injury on the second day of training camp, and veteran Bob Hallen subsequently retired without warning, the Browns found themselves in desperate need of a quality center. They searched and searched and searched and finally pulled off a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to get Fraley. Though the previous regime thought he tailed off as last season wore on, Fraley has played well overall and is the one of the most respected players on the Browns. He was voted a team captain at the start of the 2008 season.

Even before Hadnot's injury, the low-key Fraley was simply talking it all in stride.

"I'm not worried about anybody else. I'm just playing my kind of football," he said the other day. "A battle is a battle, and that's what I'm in right now. Both of us, Mack and I, are just out there competing.

"I'm getting a lot of reps, which is good. I'm having fun."

Fraley came into camp ready to let the Browns know he could still play. He lost between 10 to 15 pounds after the minicamps this spring and is now right at 300.

"I lost a lot of weight," he said. "I'm at about the same weight now as I was as a rookie."

Ah, yes, his rookie season of 2000. What he went through then – and even before then, in college – has steeled him for what he's experiencing now in having to stave off the challenge of a first-round draft pick.

Though Fraley helped his Gaithersburg (Md.) High School team to the state title in his senior season of 1995, not a lot of big-time colleges call calling with offers. So he ended up at smallish Robert Morris in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact he was an All-Northeast Conference player for the league champion Colonials, he was not drafted. He signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie in 2000, was cut at the end of camp and then got picked up by the Eagles. He spent all 16 games that year on the inactive list, but became a full-time starter the following season.

"I've always been the underdog," Fraley said.

He is so again in this camp, but maybe that changed on Thursday. We'll have to wait and see.

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HOW IT HAPPENED: Hadnot, who was playing left guard, was pass blocking against defensive lineman Louis Leonard. At left tackle was George Foster, who was blocking against rookie outside linebacker David Veikune. Veikune looped to the outside of Foster and was working his way past him when he was knocked down. As Veikune fell, he came down on the back of Hadnot's left leg, buckling it as he was engaged in blocking Leonard.

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MORE INJURY STUFF: The Browns avoided what could have been another disaster when sure-handed Mike Furrey, destined for the slot receiver spot, jarred his left shoulder and arm while going for a pass. He stayed down for a while and then popped up quickly and walked off. But he spent much of the rest of practice in pain, moving his arm and shoulder to keep the area loose.

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PLAYS OF THE DAY: Safety Brodney Pool made a diving interception. … James Davis broke a couple of tackles, put on a nice move to avoid another defender and then turned on the speed to race 40 yards for a touchdown. … Inside linebacker Eric Barton stripped the ball from Steve Heiden and then recovered it after the tight end caught a short pass.

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CAMPER OF THE DAY: Second-year cornerback Gerard Lawson is one of the fastest players on the team and looks good every time he touches the ball as a kickoff returner. Though he doesn't have much experience and won't be a starter on defense, his speed and versatility will make it hard to knock him off the roster.

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UP NEXT: The Browns will practice twice on Friday, from 8:45 to 10:45 a.m. and 5:45 to 7:45 p.m. The sessions are free and open to the public.

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QUOTABLE: "Hey, it looks like you might have played a little football in your day." – a media member joking with Browns assistant director of player development Kevin Mack after the franchise's No. 5 career rusher reached up and deftly caught a laser shot of an overthrown pass in practice while sitting on a bench near the locker room entrance.


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