Where Did all the Interceptions Go?

With the draft and free agency season beckoning, The Owl continues his look at the present Browns squad with an eye to who will return and who will (or should) not. The Browns interception totals collapsed like Enron stock in 2002: will 2003 see a return to previous high standards or was last season the start of a trend. Get the straight scoop from the shadowy Owl...

Interceptions by the Browns went south like the stock market in 2002. The difference is the decline had nothing to do with the weather in Zanzibar, stale chicken feet in China or any of that crazy stuff that dictates what happens on Wall Street.

Was it a lack of pressure on the quarterback or inept play by the defensive backs that caused interceptions to dip from a franchise-best 33 in 2001 to 17 last season? The truth is, it was some of both. That's a difference of one interception a game on the average.

Interceptions were down and touchdown passes by opponents were up - 20 compared to 18 in 2001. Passing yardage by opponents was up slightly _ 3,441 in '02 compared to 3,377 in Butch Davis' first season as head coach.

One number was down. Opponents completed 299 passes _ 10 fewer than in '01.

What does it all mean? It means the Browns were not a big play defense. They dumped wheelbarrows full of cash at the cleats of Kenard Lang, Earl Holmes and Robert Griffith in free agency. Money well spent? The Browns gave up 319 points in 2001 and 320 last season.

The Owl wants to take a look at the secondary today. He does not like all he sees.

Corey Fuller:  Fuller will be 32 in May. Okay, so he's too old for the high school prom. He can still cover a wide receiver and he knows how to lead. He is a tough, tough competitor and he plays with passion. He gave back money last season because he did not play well in 2000. Never a whimper, never a grumble.

Fuller belongs on the team. Besides, there are holes bigger than left cornerback to fill.

Daylon McCutcheon: To know McCutcheon is to like him, friends tell The Owl. What Davis has to decide is whether McCutcheon is too fragile to be the starting right cornerback. He might be, fully acknowledging the difference between fragile and wimpy. No one can be expected to play with a severely broken thumb or sprained elbow _ injuries that slowed McCutcheon last season.

He is short and can still cover taller receivers. Make him the nickel back and he'll be worth $500,000.

Earl Little: Little is a free agent. The Browns should bring him back. He led the team with four interceptions and was fourth on the team in tackles despite missing the first three games with a sprained ankle.

Little is a smart player. So he isn't a headhunter. Big Deal. Some people hunt with their heads and draw crippling penalties. A player who doesn't make mistakes is more valuable since judges don't hold up tackle cards reading "9.7."

Robert Griffith: Griffith said 2002 was the worst season of his career. He'll get no argument here. He missed part of the season with a shoulder injury and never made an impact. In fact, he missed critical tackles, particularly in the Carolina game and he drew a stupid head-butting penalty in the playoff game in Pittsburgh.

Is Griffith a bad signing? No, but he better produce in 2003, or he'll be next in line to get his pay reduced.

Anthony Henry: The Browns can only hope Henry went through a sophomore jinx. His interceptions plummeted. After 10 picks in 2001, he made just two last season. Teams picked on him. He has to be a genuine concern. He did not prove he can be the shut down corner the Browns need.

Lewis Sanders: Sanders was healthy in 2002 after two injury-plagued seasons. He played well on special teams. He was inconsistent as a defensive back, which is where the Browns need him most.

Sanders showed potential as a rookie. He was hurt so often his first two years, he had to almost relearn the position. He is a restricted free agent. It is unlikely he will get much action. The Browns can bring him back at their price. If another team signs him it will not be a big loss.

Devin Bush: Bush lost his starting job soon after Little recovered from the ankle injury. Bush played with hamstring and groin injuries severe enough to hamper him. He is an unrestricted free agent. It would be surprising to see him back with the team.

Michael Jameson: Jameson could be the starting free safety next season. He played well in spot chances last season. He is a quiet person but he does not play out of position. He could be better if he gets more chances in training camp and preseason.

Conclusion: The Browns need a cornerback that shut down the star receiver from the opposing team. Drafting one or signing one in free agency means McCutcheon would be able to be the nickel back.

Jameson will get a chance to be the free safety, but don't be surprised if Earl Little takes the job away, assuming the Browns do re-sign him. It will be a mistake if they don't - so says The Owl.

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