King: End Near for Two Vets?

Nothing lasts forever, particularly in the NFL. Are two long-time Browns near the end of their tenure in Cleveland. Steve King ponders the signs...

Could the end be near for two of the few players left on the Browns from the early days of the expansion era?

Maybe so – or maybe not. That's not clear yet.

But what is clear is that tight end Steve Heiden is really struggling to rebound from offseason knee surgery, and also that guard/tackle Ryan Tucker was conspicuously and mysteriously absent from training camp practice on Wednesday.

First, Tucker. He has been battling an unspecified injury and had spent the last couple of days on the sideline riding the exercise bike during practice.

But he was nowhere to be seen Wednesday.

In addition, Tucker, the Browns' best lineman overall since they returned to the field in 1999, has seemed to fall out of competition for a starting job. He has been working with the second- and even the third-team offense at times.

Now 34 years old and entering his 13th NFL season, including his eighth with the Browns after signing as an unrestricted free agent from the St. Louis Rams in 2002, has Tucker decided to call it quits and retire?

The Browns, in the person of director of public relations Neal Gulkis, say emphatically no. However, Gulkis would not give a reason for Tucker's absence from practice, or if it would preclude him from practicing Thursday or playing in Saturday night's preseason home opener against the Detroit Lions.

Tucker played in just one game last season, returning from a hip injury to start at right tackle in the Browns' biggest highlight of 2008, a resounding 35-14 win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the middle of the year. Also due to injuries, he started only the final eight games of 2007, and in nine contests in 2006. It has been since 2005 that he has started all 16 games.

So are those injuries finally catching up to him?

Meanwhile, Heiden, who arrived in a trade from the San Diego Chargers just before the start of the 2002 season, missed the final two games of last year with a knee injury that required surgery. The soon-to-be 34-year-old (in about a month), in his 11th season overall and his eighth with the Browns, has been making progress in this training camp, but it's been slow. And that progress seemed to come to at least a temporary halt on Wednesday when he dropped two easily catchable passes.

Like a lot of tight ends, Heiden has never had much speed, but he has always been known for possessing great hands. He's traditionally been able to catch everything in sight. If that skill leaves him, then he's in trouble.

Heiden blamed it on rust.

"I'm definitely rusty," he said after practice. "I need some more reps. Hopefully, I'll get them. My downfall has always been when I'm coming back from an injury that I think I can just pick right back up from where I left off, but I can't.

"When camp started and I was on the field, everyone said to me, ‘You're back.' But I kept saying, ‘No, I'm not back.' This knee situation is definitely a process, and I'm building on it. As long as I keep making the progress I've been making, I have enough time to be ready for the start of the season."

But if not, and time runs out on him, then Heiden's roster spot could be in jeopardy. The Browns will likely keep only three tight ends. Also in the mix are free-agent signee Robert Royal, who is the projected starter, Aaron Walker, who joined the Browns at the end of last season, Martin Rucker, a 2008 fourth-round draft choice, and John Madsen, who came to the club late last year.

The only player who has been with the Browns longer than Heiden and Tucker is kicker Phil Dawson, the lone player left in the NFL from the 1999 expansion club.

All three players are well-liked and well-respected and considered among the team leaders. Will Dawson soon be the last of the last? We'll see.

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THE FINAL DAYS: The Browns have released the schedule for the last week of camp next week. They will hold public practices next Monday through Wednesday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

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CAMPER OF THE DAY: Everyone jumps on wide receiver Braylon Edwards when he drops a pass, so you have to praise him when he makes a big catch, such as he did Wednesday when he hauled in a 65-yarder from quarterback Brady Quinn for a touchdown.

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RUNNING A REVERSE: After wearing their brown pants and white jerseys in last Saturday night's 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the preseason opener, the Browns will don their brown jerseys and white pants against Detroit.

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UP NEXT: The Browns will hold their final practice of the week on Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Beginning Thursday and continuing through next week, there will be no more fan parking in the Baldwin-Wallace College lots as students return for the start of classes. There will be parking nearby at St. Paul Lutheran Church, located at the intersection of Bagley and Eastland roads, and at the former Station Restaurant at the intersection of Front and Depot streets.

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QUOTABLE: "Yeah, I'm ready -- to get out of the hotel." – Browns quarterback Derek Anderson when asked if he were "ready for all of this," meaning the quarterback derby, "to end."


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