The Owl Looks at Linebackers

As the Browns get ready to make their 2003 off-season moves, the linebacking corps remains, in the opinion of the Owl, "the most unsettled on the team". Get the Owl's exclusive takes on the current group, including who should stay and who shouldn't. Bernie's newest and most mysterious Insider sets the stage for the 2003 off-season...

So many linebackers are on the roster they're practically coming out of the earholes of the Browns helmets, but as The Owl sees it, linebacker is the most unsettled position on the team.

Seven linebackers were on the roster for the playoff game against the Steelers. The starters were Darren Hambrick on the strong side, Earl Holmes in the middle and Dwayne Rudd on the weak side. The backups were Lenoy Jones on the strong side, Brant Boyer in the middle and rookie Kevin Bentley on the weak side. Rookie Andra Davis was listed third behind Holmes and Boyer. Rookie Ben Taylor is a strongside backer who spent the second half of the season on injured reserve.

Jamir Miller is not listed among the eight because he missed the entire season on injured reserve and there is no guarantee he'll be on the roster in 2003. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, says Miller prefers to stay with the Browns, but money speaks louder than words, and if some other team wants to make Miller rich, he'd be a fool to turn the money down.

Here's how The Owl looks at the rest of the linebacking corps:

Dwayne Rudd - Forget for a minute Rudd's irrational showboating in the season opener when he stupidly threw his helmet, thinking the game was over. As anyone who cares enough about the Browns to subscribe to Bernie's Insiders knows, that gold medal toss in the Selfish Olympics cost the Browns a victory against the Chiefs. If that were Rudd's only sin in 2002, it could be forgiven. But it wasn't. He reacted slowly, was out of position and failed to make an impact except when he helped stop Warrick Dunn in the final regular season game against the Falcons. He is not worth the $4 million the Browns are under contract to pay him in 2003.

Kevin Bentley - Bentley pushed Rudd the first two months of the season. He was just about to take Rudd's starting job and then broke his hand and hyper extended his elbow while playing against the Steelers Nov. 9. Bentley was slow to return from the injury. When he did start playing again, he did not play with the same fire he showed early on. It might have been because of the proverbial wall, but it might have been because of something deeper; privately, some veterans question his desire to work hard at being an NFL player.

Earl Holmes - Once Holmes got accustomed to the 4-3 defense, he was the run stopper the Browns hired him to be. He personally saved two games _ one by stopping Corey Dillon on a goal line stand in Cincinnati and the other by spitting back Dunn on fourth down in Cleveland. That stop catapulted the Browns to the playoffs. Holmes' contract calls for a $1 million roster bonus at the end of the month. The Browns should pay it with a smile. Holmes signed a cap-friendly contract last string. This will probably be his last season in Cleveland. Bottom line: the Browns don't have anyone ready to take his place.

Brant Boyer - Nobody plays harder than Boyer. He is the best special teams player on the roster and he is a nickel linebacker. He plays with his head and gets the most out of his body. Boyer can be an emergency starter. He isn't a 16-game starter and that's fine, because teams need role players. He does not commit stupid penalties on defense or special teams. He is a quiet leader in the locker room.

Andra Davis - Davis could be the middle linebacker of the future _ with emphasis on could be. He didn't play enough in 2002 to show definitively how good he can be. While at the University Florida, Davis was projected as a high draft pick until a knee injury in 2000 wiped out what would have been his senior year. He was a redshirt senior in 2001 and still wasn't 100 percent when the Browns drafted him in the fifth round last year. Davis played primarily on special teams last year. The 2003 training camp is critical to his chances.

Darren Hambrick - Hambrick was signed last August to plug the hole left gaping when Miller was injured. Hambrick did not make anyone forget Miller, but he was at a disadvantage because he missed the first three weeks of camp and had to dive into a new system. Ironically, Hambrick would probably be better in the defense new defensive coordinator Dave Campo is installing. The conventional wisdom is Hambrick won't be brought back, but if the Browns could get him at a bargain price, they should keep him around.

Lenoy Jones - Jones was signed late in the season when Ben Taylor was placed on injured reserve. He didn't do much and should not be part of the future.

Ben Taylor - He was injured early in training camp and never completely recovered. He is part of the unknown.

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