Off-Season Analysis: Defensive Line

Mike McLain continues our off-season examination of the Cleveland Browns prior to the draft. Mike looks at the defensive line, recipient of much of the team's energy, and source of many problems.

If the Browns had received a decent return on their investment in defensive linemen, there wouldn't be talk today about the need to strengthen that position area.

Instead, much of the offseason talk has been about adding muscle up front to help a defense that was 21st overall and 27 against the rush in the NFL last season. Obviously, the organization has done a poor job of procuring talent on the line, which is a reason why the salary-cap woes are disturbing.

By all accounts, the Browns should have a dominant line. With three first-round draft choices up front, including the first overall pick in 2000 (Courtney Brown) and the third overall pick in 2001 (Gerard Warren), the Browns shouldn't even be considering the selection of a lineman high in the draft. Yet, that could be the case, depending on how the first round unfolds.

No area in the development of the team can be considered more disappointing than the defensive line. It's now become an albatross around the neck of the organization, and a quick fix doesn't appear in sight.

Brown's future is a pivot point for the future of the defense. If he fully recovers from the knee surgery he had last year and is somehow able to summon the skills ex-coach Chris Palmer saw in him, then things won't look so bleak.

But that's asking a lot from someone who's been injury-prone for most of his three seasons and seems to lack the inner drive to be among the best. While it still might be too early to give up on Brown, there are legitimate reasons to consider him a "bust."

Coach Butch Davis can easily shield criticism of Brown because he was a Palmer and Dwight Clark pick. There's not much Davis can say to defend Warren, who had a strong end to his rookie season but fell off drastically last year as his commitment to excel seemed to lessen.

Warren's lack of dedication hasn't been well received by teammates. He avoided a deserved fine last season that, according to one player, would have cost him and any of his teammates money.

The best performer on the line last season was tackle Orpheus Roye, who had 76 tackles and was rewarded when he escaped the purge of high-priced talent in recent weeks. While Roye isn't a strong physical force against the run, he uses his quickness to disrupt plays.

Kenard Lang was supposed to help the rushing defense when he was signed last year to start at left end. Lang battled through numerous injuries and had a decent season, but defensive coordinator Dave Campo will need to get more production out of the six-year veteran.

It's unfortunate that the situation has reached its current status. With the salary cap virtually paralyzing the front office, it would be of some comfort to know that the line isn't an area that needs a lot of attention.

The truth is that changes have to be made, and that includes more than the recent signing of backup Alvin McKinley. One of Davis' goals last season was to improve the defense against the run, but the best the unit could do was an average yield of 129.9 yards a game.

Equally as important as improving the rush defense is to need to boost an anemic pass rush that generated just 28 sacks last season. Even when healthy, Brown showed none of the promise that had scouts drooling over his skills when he was at Penn State.

Brown is undoubtedly the mystery man on the roster. His lack of production is hard to explain, and because of his quiet manner he's not about to reveal his thoughts on the subject.

Although Davis has said that he expects Brown to be fully recovered from his surgery long before training camp starts, there have to be whispers about his health. He's been slowed by knee injuries two straight seasons. It's safe to say that he is at a crossroads in his career.

Free agency isn't going to help the cause of the line. Because of needs at other areas (linebacker, cornerback and offensive line quickly come to mind), you would think that Davis will avoid defensive linemen in the draft, but don't be surprised if that's not the case.

How convenient it is that two of the top line prospects are former Davis recruits to Miami - Jerome McDougle and William Joseph. McDougle will likely be gone when the Browns select with the 21st pick, but Joseph could slip that far.

The top line prospect on most draft boards is Penn State's Jimmy Kennedy. Considering how poorly Brown's career has gone, the Browns might be gun shy about going for a Penn State defender.

From what I've heard, Davis is still in Brown's corner. He's not convinced that Brown will become a Michael Strahan type of pass rusher, but Davis believes that Brown can develop into a steady player.

"Steady" isn't the word fans want to hear about a first overall draft choice whose salary is becoming a front-office issue. The same can be said of Warren, who seems to have been out of shape from the time he reported to his first minicamp in 2001.

Davis sat down with Warren prior to training camp last year and told him how important it was for him to step up and become a leader. Apparently, Warren didn't get the message. He looked slow and tired and was nowhere close to reaching the level at which he finished his rookie season.

In essence, the defensive line epitomizes many of the poor personnel decisions the organization has made from day one. Now, it appears the team is starting to pay for those mistakes.

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