Browns coach Eric Mangini says players generally make their biggest improvement between their rookie season and their second year in the NFL.
Second-year linebacker David Veikune certainly hopes that applies to him.
Veikune played in 10 games in 2009 and did not make a tackle. He was inactive for five games and placed on injured reserve for the final game because of a knee injury.
Several factors contributed to his season of misery, not the least of which was the typical problems rookies have making the jump to the NFL. Veikune's were deeper, though.
Veikune weighed 270 pounds last year, well above his ideal playing weight. This spring Veikune not only looks like a football player -- he is moving like one. He is in the crowded but unsettled pack fighting for playing time at inside linebacker. He has dropped almost 20 pounds and worked his butt off in the offseason to become stronger.
"I'm definitely in better shape," Veikune said. "Any rookie going through the Combine, your pro day and all those things your body never rests. Then you come in here and get going right away. Now I'm in the low 250s. Last year I was way too heavy."
Veikune played defensive end at the University of Hawaii. The Browns drafted him 52nd overall last year with the second-round draft choice acquired from the Jets in the trade for the draft pick the Jets used on quarterback Mark Sanchez. The Browns got center Alex Mack and more in the trade, but they are going to need a lot more than zero tackles from Veikune to make the trade work in their favor.
The coaches spent training camp last summer and most of the season figuring out just where Veikune should play. He was too light to play defensive end in the 3-4 defense, so it came down to inside linebacker and outside linebacker. That experiment did not work, so this season he is strictly inside. Players are in shorts and T-shirts until the pads go on in training camp, but Veikune looks surer of himself on the practice field.
"I believe David's really benefitted well from some opportunities that have been created at the inside linebacker spot without having D'Qwell (Jackson) here," Mangini said. "He's gotten quite a few reps and I think he's done a nice job. I think some of the value with linebackers really has to be determined once the pads come on.
"Part of playing that inside linebacker spot is your ability to go up and thump and I think that's something David showed in college. He showed different levels last season, but this is good work for him in terms of processing everything. Now ideally when it comes time to hit, it's where the added value comes in."
Last year the opening day starters were D'Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton. Both were injured during the first half of the season. David Bowens started the final nine games and Jason Trusnik the final six inside.
Jackson, unhappy the Browns won't budge from their one-year contract tender, boycotted the OTAs and minicamp. Barton is not practicing because he is recovering from neck surgery. Bowens is in his 12th season, so Mangini isn't going to wear him out in June.
The more the others are on the sideline, the more practice time Veikune is getting. Veikune said he felt "lost" in 2009.
"The whole year," he said. "Even though I studied and stuff, it was still like night and day. I got some pieces of it, but this year everything is slowing down a lot more.
"I'm still studying everything. You just have to be a smart player."