The Line Between Defeat and Victory

The margin between defeat and victory during the Browns 2002 season was frequently razor-thin. As the team looks to make improvements to turn those close games into solid wins, the offensive line will continue to get close attention. Mike McLain examines the oft-criticized unit and suggests the Browns may see changes in three of the five positions along the line.

We all know that there will be changes on the Browns' roster next season. If there's one constant, it's that change always happens, even for Super Bowl champions.

The position area that might go through the most transition is the offensive line. There could easily be three new starters up front, which could include three new faces on the interior.

Here's what I know about the path the front office intends to follow at this critical area during the offseason:

The only sure 2003 starter is right tackle Ryan Tucker. Coach Butch Davis likes Tucker's gritty style, and he's a leader in the locker room. Tucker tends to have a few too many procedure penalties because, as he says, he guesses the snap count in order to get a fast initial step.

After Tucker, it's anyone's guess as to the composition of the remainder of the line. Ross Verba will probably return as a starter, but it's possible he could be moved inside to left guard.

Barry Stokes could be the odd man out, not only as a starter but also in terms of having a roster spot. Stokes did an adequate job at left guard last season, but he defines the word journeyman.

Right guard Shaun O'Hara will stay, but probably not as a starter. O'Hara is a valuable backup because of his ability to play both guards and back up at center. He's also the reserve long snapper. If the Browns aren't able to come to terms on a new contract with Ryan Kuehl, O'Hara could move to the top of the depth chart in that area.

With all that being said, you'd assume the Browns would make the offensive line a high draft priority. Unfortunately, for the Browns, this isn't a good year for offensive linemen, especially at the tackle spots.

It's possible that Davis will select a guard high in the process - perhaps in the first round (don't hold your breath) - but it's more probable that any lineman picked will be in the middle to later rounds.

Two keys to the puzzle will be second-year veterans Qasim Mitchell and Melvin Fowler. It might be a risky move, but Davis thinks Mitchell has what it takes to start at right guard, and he thinks Fowler could replace Dave Wohlabaugh at center.

Wohlabaugh isn't high on Davis' list. Wohlabaugh is a decent tactical player, but he lacks the strength needed to move large bodies. Fowler isn't overly big, but he has the body fame to play in the 305-310 area next season.

I've heard from more than one person close to the situation, that Mitchell was impressive in training camp before he was put on injured reserve with a minor lung problem. Actually, he had a small hole in the lung that healed before the season started, but the front office used the problem to (dare I say) stash him away for one year.

Mitchell, who weighs in at the 330 range, would give the right side a strong look lining up next to Tucker. Mitchell looked flabby at the end of last season because of his inactivity, but that's what offseason conditioning is all about.

Fowler, rated as the second best center in last year's draft, might have seen more time last season if he had been used properly in training camp. Instead of working him solely at his natural position of center, Fowler split time at center and guard. The staff eventually realized that he's not adept at guard, but by then his growth at center had been slowed.

In addition to Mitchell and Fowler, another key is what will be done at left tackle. Verba, who prefers tackle, lacks the long arms needed for the position, and his foot speed isn't great. Ideally, Davis would like to play Verba at guard, but, then again, his lack of speed could be a problem.

Verba is essentially a "tweener.' Still, he has plenty of experience, and he doesn't embarrass himself. He should be around next season.

To move Verba inside, a left tackle needs to be acquired. Don't count on the draft for finding that player. There are a couple of attractive potential free agents, but the price range for left tackles these days might prohibit the Browns from making a big play for anyone on the open market.

My gut tells me that Davis wants to work a deal for Minnesota tackle Bryant McKinnie, who held out until November before signing with the Vikings last season. McKinnie signed a cap-friendly deal that would make him attractive to any team that covets his services, and you know that Davis covets all Miami players.

I have to believe that the chances of landing McKinnie are less than 50/50. The Vikings, if they were even willing to talk trade, would probably want a number one and a proven veteran.

My guess tells me that McKinnie won't be a Brown next season. Instead, Verba will remain at tackle, and a high draft choice or a free agent will replace Stokes at left guard.

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