|Thursday, August 31|
By Jeff Schudel
Pro Football Weekly
|Year Two for the Cleveland Browns -- unless more than one major miracle occurs -- will not produce the magic that vaulted Jacksonville and Carolina into the playoffs in the second year of their expansion lives.
Grade: C+ Running backs: The Browns were last in the league in rushing in 1999 for two reasons: They were behind so early and so often that they abandoned the run by the third quarter, and no player established himself as the No. 1 back in a season in which Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Terry Kirby, Marc Edwards, George Jones, Sedrick Shaw and Rashaan Salaam all carried the ball out of the backfield. The running game should be improved in 2000 because Errict Rhett is better and more durable than Abdul-Jabbar. Rhett gained 852 yards last season as a Baltimore Raven. Signed as a free agent over the winter, he impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic and surprised them as a receiver. The back to watch, though, is rookie Travis Prentice. He is faster around the corner than first believed, and he scoots through the line quickly. Kirby is always reliable as a third-down back.
Grade: C Receivers: "Younger" and "quicker" are the two words to describe the Browns receivers. Kevin Johnson and JaJuan Dawson will start. David Patten is the third receiver as the regular season nears, but it will be no surprise if rookie Dennis Northcutt overtakes him. The surprise of camp is the decline of Darrin Chiaverini. He caught 44 passes last season but quickly got into Palmer's doghouse in training camp, allegedly for trying to be a deep receiver instead of the possession receiver he was last year. Couch does not have the same kind of chemistry with Dawson, Northcutt and Patten that he does with Johnson. It should develop as the season goes on, but that could mean a slow start for the offense. At tight end, second-year pro Mark Campbell and fourth-round pick Aaron Shea, both Michigan products, are battling for the starting job.
Grade: C Offensive linemen: The Browns blew up the offensive line of last year and replaced 60 percent of it with quicker players. Steve Zahursky has moved to right tackle, replacing Orlando Brown. Roman Oben replaces Lomas Brown at left tackle, and Everett Lindsay is the new right guard. The group has been together since June minicamp with no tinkering, as there was last year. This group plays more as a unit than the last one did. Part of the reason is that Couch is using more three-step drops, which allows the line to be more aggressive at the snap. Run-blocking improved from the first preseason game to the second.
Grade: C Defense
Defensive linemen: Rookie Courtney Brown, Keith McKenzie and Orpheus Roye could turn the pass rush, one of the worst in the league last year, into a primary weapon on defense. Brown is quick, and McKenzie rushes with power. Roye can crush the pocket from inside, even if his sack total doesn't reflect greatness. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will have the luxury of rotating Derrick Alexander and Darius Holland, two starters a year ago, into the front four to keep everyone fresh for the fourth quarter. The spotlight will be on Brown. He went his first two preseason games without a sack, but there is no worry among the coaches that he'll produce like a No. 1 draft pick.
Grade: B Linebackers: Wali Rainer is a rock in the middle, but beyond him there is cause to worry. Weak-side linebacker Jamir Miller has not been the same since separating his left shoulder in the seventh week last year, even though he says his shoulder is healed. Second-year player Rahim Abdullah has been inconsistent. The bench is thin. Palmer was counting on Tony McCombs, but he was stalled in training camp by knee and pectoral-muscle injuries. Lenoy Jones will be the cover linebacker in dime packages.
Grade: C Defensive backs: Left cornerback Corey Fuller fought through a knee injury in training camp. If he is slowed a step, he'll be burned. Second-year starter Daylon McCutcheon plays taller than his 5-foot-8 height on the right corner, and new free safety Percy Ellsworth improves the safety position. The Browns will be young when they go to six defensive backs, with three rookie corners on the roster.
Grade: D Special teams
Chris Gardocki has never had a punt blocked in his NFL career. Phil Dawson attempted only 12 field goals last year, yet the Browns didn't bring a challenger to training camp. Dawson has responded by being nearly perfect. Northcutt (punt returns) and Patten (kick returns) are threats to go the distance.
Grade: C+ Material from Pro Football Weekly. Visit their website at http://www.profootballweekly.com
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