Browns Bring Familiar Faces, Solid Defense

Robert Griffith is the latest solid defensive starter to defect to Cleveland in the last four years, joining Corey Fuller (1999) and Dwayne Rudd (2001). The Vikings will see them all as part of a tough Browns defense in their preseason opener.

The Vikings are going to see several familiar faces when they open the 2002 preseason schedule with a matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Not only will they see defensive coach Foge Fazio again, but defensive standouts Dwayne Rudd, Corey Fuller and Robert Griffith.

The Browns are a team that many people believe are on the cusp of being a playoff contender after three years of mediocrity. The defense is in place, but the offense still has some questions to be answered.

The hallmark of the offense remains quarterback Tim Couch. Drafted first in a QB class that included Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb, Couch has improved with each season, and head coach Butch Davis thinks Couch can be a Troy Aikman type of control passer who leads the Browns to the next level. He'll likely see limited duty, leaving most of the playing time to veteran Kelly Holcomb and youngster Josh Booty, who will be competing for the backup job.

Running back has been a big issue for the Browns, who have never had a go-to runner to pace the offense. Rookie William Green is going to be given the chance to become that threat, drafted specifically because he fit better than T.J. Duckett in the Browns offense. He will face competition from James Jackson, who played for Davis at Miami, for the starting job. The Browns have some depth here, with former Dolphin J.J. Johnson, Jamel White, Carl Fair and rookie Ben Miller competing for roster spots. Johnson may end up at fullback, competing with converted TE Aaron Shea for a starting job.

In every year of their existence, the new-era Browns have taken a wide receiver early in the second round of the draft. To date, only one player — Kevin Johnson — has panned out. He's the unquestioned go-to guy in the passing offense, but the battle for the other starter will be waged during the preseason, with Quincy Morgan, Dennis Northcutt, JuJuan Dawson and rookie Andre Davis looking to fight for a starting job.

One of the primary battles in training camp will be for roster spots, as former Titan Chris Sanders, Andre King, Kwame Cavil and rookie Dimitrius Breedlove fight for a precious few roster spots.

At tight end, injuries halted Rickey Dudley's first year with the Browns and now he'll have to fight off competition from Mark Campbell and rookie Darnell Sanders — like Dudley, an Ohio State alumnus — to keep his starting job.

Since joining the league, the Browns offensive line has been, well, offensive. That looks to change this year.

Ross Verba is the best of the group, but is a converted guard playing left tackle. The Browns signed right tackle Ryan Tucker away from the Rams to bolster the line and also signed versatile fill-in Barry Stokes, who is currently slated to start at left guard, joining incumbent guard Tre Johnson and center Dave Wohlabaugh. However, Davis has made it clear that all positions except Verba's are up for competition, which means center Shaun O'Hara will get a long look, as well as guards Brad Bedell, Richard Mercier, Paul Zukauskas and rookie Qasim Mitchell, and tackles Roger Chanoine — a full-time starter last year — and rookie Joaquin Gonzalez.

The defense has been the foundation of the team for the last couple of years and will be what wins or loses games for the Browns. As usual, it starts up front, where the Browns have one of the best defensive lines in the league with Courtney Brown and Kenard Lang at defensive end and Gerard Warren and Orpheus Roye at tackle. They're all pretty well entrenched as starters, so most will see limited action, leaving the time vs. the Vikings to be shared by tackles Mark Smith (a former full-time starter), Alvin McKinley, Marcus Spriggs, Felipe Claybrooks, and Damian Gregory and ends Tyrone Rogers (another former starter), DeVone Claybrooks, Arnold Miller and Mark Word. This versatility and depth makes the Browns front four one of the best in the AFC.

At linebacker, there is little dropoff in talent — with Rudd and Jamir Miller on the outside and Earl Holmes in the middle. The Browns went outside the organization to get all three players and they have been critical in bringing Cleveland to the top of the AFC's defensive titans. Barring injury, like the DL, all three linebackers are entrenched starters, which means Vikings fans will be seeing players vying for roster spots and backup positions. These include a pair of rookie outside backers — Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley — as well as veteran inside backers Anthony Denman and Lenoy Jones. In the middle, another rookie, Andre Davis, is the lead backup. It is clear with three rookies in the second tier of the depth chart that the Browns are building for the future.

The weakness of the defense, if there is one, is in the secondary. While Fuller and Daylon McCutcheon are solid corners and Griffith and Devin Bush are excellent safeties, depth is the big issue, and a battle is on for backup positions. The fights at cornerback include second-year men Anthony Henry and Dyshod Carter and third-year men Lewis Sanders and Earthwind Moreland. Again, the young players are clearly seen as the future, not the present of the franchise.

With young players everywhere, the Browns can rightly consider themselves one of the up-and-comers in the AFC, whether it's this year or next year. They will be testing a lot of these players against the Vikings, which could make this preseason opener more interesting than most.

It's tough to predict a matchup to watch because the starters will only play for a couple of series, but don't be surprised if the Vikes go after former players Dwayne Rudd, Robert Griffith and Corey Fuller in the passing game.

The Vikings defense was one of the worst in the NFL last year because of the free-agent losses of Rudd and Fuller and injuries to Griffith. With nothing to lose in a preseason game, the Vikings may want to prove a point to the defectors that, while the money in Cleveland was better than offered here, the fans of the Vikings want the team in purple to win — not guys who used to wear the colors.

Fuller, Griffith and Rudd will all have something to prove themselves in their first trip back to the Metrodome as visitors, and it could be that aggression that can be used against them. If the Vikings put a couple of wrinkles in the offense to get them to bite on fakes, they could be exposed and exploited — looking to make a big play and instead being the victims of the same big plays — creating the matchup of the game.

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