AFC North: David Bowens
The Browns cut six veterans Wednesday: tight end Robert Royal, offensive tackle John St. Clair, defensive lineman Shaun Rogers and Kenyon Coleman and linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton. Most were considered "Eric Mangini guys." Mangini was fired recently after back-to-back 5-11 seasons.
"We kind of had a feeling that with a new regime that Cleveland wanted to go with younger players," said Bowens' agent Harold Lewis. "David was Eric’s guy and [former defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan’s guy, so it’s not a surprise."
Cleveland is looking to start a new rebuilding phase under Shurmur. Cleveland will transition to a West Coast offense and a 4-3 defense next season.
All of these players are now unrestricted free agents.
With Mangini on the hot seat, the Browns (5-10) lost 20-10 Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland's third straight loss. Mangini is 10-21 in two seasons in Cleveland and 2-9 against AFC North foes, a mark this struggling franchise must turn around if it's ever to be a contender.
But as I watched Cleveland closely against the Ravens, the big question that kept running through my head was: "What was Mike Holmgren thinking?" The Browns' president is getting paid a lot of money to bring a winner to Cleveland. He put his trust in this Browns coaching staff this season despite many philosophical differences. More specifically:
- What was Holmgren thinking as the coaching staff cost the team crucial points for the second straight week with poor clock management at the end of the first half?
- What was Holmgren thinking after a poorly executed onside kick failed at the start the third quarter led to a quick touchdown by Baltimore?
- What was Holmgren thinking as the Browns continued to play ultraconservatively to try to keep the game close instead of playing to win?
- What was Holmgren thinking as he watched rookie Colt McCoy -- Holmgren's personal choice at quarterback -- run a porous offense with questionable play calling?
These are all things to ponder over the next few weeks as Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert evaluate Mangini and his coaching staff. To avoid back-to-back 11-loss seasons, the Browns must beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) next Sunday in Cleveland.
With the 2010 season virtually over, expect a lot of speculation about Cleveland's direction in 2011 heading into the regular-season finale.
"The coaches, their job is on the line but so is the players'," said Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, who could be in for his third regime change in five seasons. "Whenever you have a losing season, everybody gets evaluated from the top down. So players are playing for their jobs, they're playing for their pride, they're playing for the name on the back of their jersey and they're playing for that helmet."
Mangini had to demonstrate progress after last season's 5-11 record. But despite wins against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on the road and the heavily favored New England Patriots at home, the Browns have not shown enough improvement in 2010.
"You're judged in this league by how many wins you produce," Browns linebacker and team captain David Bowens said. "That's how people hold you accountable. We just haven't been able to win the close games. Not to say all of our losses have been close."
Cleveland's performance against Baltimore was a comedy of errors.
In addition to four turnovers, the Browns clumsily alternated between gimmicky and conservative play, never finding the right formula. As a result, the Browns were beating and tricking themselves while the Ravens took advantage and clinched a playoff berth.
The blunders started late in the second quarter. Down 13-7, the Browns took their time on offense during the final two minutes when a touchdown would have given them a halftime lead. Instead, Cleveland looked dazed, didn't use its timeouts and ran too much time off the clock. The mismanagement forced the Browns to kick a field goal on third down.
"I thought we would have three shots at the end zone. The plays ended up ... taking longer," Mangini explained.
Cleveland began the second half with a feeble onside kick attempt that rolled out of bounds. The Saints used the strategy successfully in Super Bowl XVIV against the Colts, but the Browns merely gave Baltimore great field position. Taking advantage of the short field, the Ravens took a 10-point lead they never relinquished three plays later.
"To go get that touchdown was big," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
McCoy had his worst day (149 yards, three interceptions) as a pro. But keep in mind, Holmgren drafted him to run a West Coast offense, not the conservative scheme Mangini is using. It's a scheme that has produced 14 points or fewer seven times this season.
But McCoy made enough plays this season to show Holmgren that the rookie quarterback has enough talent to cultivate. Will Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll be the right people to get the most out of McCoy, Cleveland's offense and the team as a whole?
The Browns -- who have lost to the Bills, Bengals and Ravens in the past three weeks -- went backward as the season went on. That probably gives you plenty of insight into what Holmgren is thinking.
Andy from Canada writes: Do you see Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren heavily influencing Eric Mangini's decision at quarterback?
James Walker: Yes, Holmgren will certainly have input, which he does with a lot of decisions in the building. Holmgren has plenty of experience with quarterbacks, and Mangini will go to him for advice. The public perception is that Holmgren wants Colt McCoy because that's the quarterback he drafted. But I don't think that's a guarantee. Holmgren and Mangini want to win first, and they may feel veterans Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme give them a better chance to accomplish that goal when healthy. They certainly felt that way at the beginning of the season, because the plan was not to let McCoy play this year.
Steve from Union, Ky., writes: Is there a win total to keep Mangini in Cleveland?
Walker: We get this question all the time, Steve, and there is no firm answer. I said before the season started that Mangini has to win at least seven or eight games to show good improvement over last year's 5-11 record. That's just my opinion. But I don't know if Holmgren has a set number in mind. At 2-5, the Browns are on pace to go somewhere around 5-11. That was Cleveland's record last year, so Mangini has to get on a better pace after the bye week.
Andrew from Dayton, Ky., wants to know if the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff will be fired.
Walker: We have a lot of coaching questions this week. Andrew, Cincinnati's ownership does not like to fire coaches and won’t in this case. The team has the luxury of playing out the season and deciding what to do once Marvin Lewis' contract expires. Cincinnati then has the option of giving Lewis an extension or not re-signing him, and Lewis will be free to explore his options with other teams as well. Lately, I haven't heard much on the contract front, but that can always change.
Thaddeus from New York City wants to know what’s the deal with Cincinnati's pass rush.
Walker: It's a personnel issue, Thaddeus. Cincinnati has plenty of solid players on defense, but none specialize in rushing the passer. AFC North teams like the Steelers and Ravens make sure they draft those players as often as possible because getting to the quarterback is a unique and very important skill. Cincinnati was bailed out by its secondary last year, but a lack of pass rush has been an issue for a while. I'm sure the Bengals will address that need in next year's draft.
Steel City Jonny from Thousand Oaks, Calif., writes: You've been saying for a few weeks now that "if the Bengals don't turn it around THAT week, their season might be over," and they keep on losing. Now with a loss to the Falcons you are yet again saying that their season MIGHT be over. How many losses will it take before you stop using MIGHT?
Walker: I don't like to be to knee-jerk in the blog, Jonny. So I'm not writing off the Bengals at 2-4. If Cincinnati gets hot the next two weeks, the team is .500 and back in it. But if it loses Sunday to the Miami Dolphins and falls to 2-5, you can stick a fork in the Bengals. Their playoff hopes are done.
Steve from Austin, Texas, writes: I know Mike Tomlin is not placing Aaron Smith on IR, hoping he'll return sometime this season. Have you heard any prognosis on Smith's injury?
Walker: I'm told behind the scenes that the Pittsburgh Steelers were happy with the surgery and feel it went better than expected, in part because it was only a partial tear. That's why they are holding out hope for Smith. He's so important to the defense that Pittsburgh may be willing to do a Rod Woodson-type scenario, where they wait into the postseason to see if he can come back. I’m not sure the Steelers will wait until the Super Bowl in the event it came down to that. But Smith will have plenty of leeway to see if he can make it back this season.
Keefe from Georgetown writes: Mike Wallace's speed on the carpet in the dome screams out a big day for Wallace. What's your take?
Walker: Wallace could have a big day. He’s been making the game look easy lately, and I think he’s one of the fastest players in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints also have some recent injuries in the secondary.
Brandon Crawford from Sykesville, Md., writes: What are the chances the Ravens will start corner Josh Wilson over Fabian Washington after the bye week?
Walker: I think it's 50-50 at this point. Washington looked awful last week, as Buffalo receivers had him spinning like a top. But every cornerback has bad games. Washington will have to have two good weeks of practice for a chance to prove that game was a fluke.
Yianni from Baltimore writes: James, please bring up the topic that Ed Reed has already tied Troy Polamalu's interception total in one game!
Walker: The "Troy Reed" debate never ends.
Comment and complaint department
As usual we have plenty of comments and complaints from our AFC North community.
Stephen from Ohio writes: How is it that the two refs that totally screwed the Miami Dolphins last week are from PITTSBURGH!? The Patriots cheated with video, and now the Steelers are taking their own refs to the game?
Michael from Pittsburgh writes: James, I'm just calling it now. With Aaron Smith out, the Steelers are done. Without him we can't stop the run well enough to beat the better teams. Our defense was suspect in the second half against Miami after he left. Not good James, not good.
Walker: Stephen, I thought your comment was pretty funny, but it didn't have anything to do with the game. The NFL said the refs made the right call this week. The Steelers, in my opinion, were fortunate more than anything. Michael, Smith is a huge loss but I think this year's team is more prepared to handle it than in year's past. Check out our feature with Ziggy Hood from Friday. He has big shoes to fill.
Mike P from Boulder, Colo., writes: No offense, but I have to call you the opposite of a homer in just as negative a way. You picked the Browns ahead of the Bengals because you think they're playing better?!?! They could barely muster 200 yards of offense last Sunday. If there defense doesn't score two TDs off picks, they still lose that game. What a joke. Only things the Bengals have working against them are stupid mental errors and a lack of urgency. I would like to know how you think that the Browns are playing better than the Bengals.
Walker: Mike, Cleveland beat the defending Super Bowl champs and Cincinnati lost three straight. Cleveland is playing better football. Plus, you know who won recent the head-to-head matchup, correct?
Bryan Roberts from Philadelphia writes: I watched the highlight video for the Bengals and Falcons and I saw very upset faces and I'm starting to think that people were right and that we're going to explode as a team and I don't like this at all.
Walker: Everyone is waiting and predicting an explosion, but I was pleasantly surprised with how positive the Bengals' locker room was after last week's game. I didn't know what to expect, but the group stayed pretty upbeat and knew the challenge that was ahead of them. This is a more mature group than several years ago. That doesn't mean Cincinnati can't implode with several more losses, but I didn't sense 2-4 did the trick. Let's see how the Bengals react Sunday against Miami.
Gus Rafeedie from Warren, Ohio, writes: Picking Ed Reed over David Bowens for Player of the Week? James, you're better than this. Ed Reed got two INTs off of the worst team in football, a team that couldn't even figure out who their real QB is until after the season started. Reed got 46 return yards. Bowens, however picked off one of the best QBs in the league twice and scored both times, with 94 return yards. More production against a better opponent. We AFC North blog fans have high standards. I hope blunders like this are only going to happen once in a while.
Erik from Bowling Green, Ohio, writes: How did Ed Reed get the AFC North High Energy Player of the Week over David Bowens? I understand that it was his first game back from major hip surgery and had two interceptions. However, David Bowens also had two interceptions and both were returned for touchdowns. Until the garbage time TD the saints scored at the end, Bowens had outscored the Saints by himself.
Walker: Gus and Erik, you both are right. Both had great games. But if I had to do it over, I would choose Bowens as the High Energy Player of the Week and probably pick a different decisive moment in the division. Bowens was a candidate for both.
AFC North Homer of the Week
John W. from Denver writes: Bengals are going to win the AFC North. Just watch, they will go undefeated the rest of the season. Carson Palmer is by far the best quarterback in the AFC North and we have the most talented team. The Bengals’ time is now and they are going to be Super Bowl champs this year! WHODEY!!!!!
Walker: Why does every "Homer of the Week" believe their team will never lose another game? This is the NFL.
If you have any questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.
1. Cincinnati Bengals: There's no reason to pinpoint one player, because this is a team-wide failing. Whether it's receivers running the wrong routes, the defense missing tackles, or the offensive linemen not knowing the snap count, the Bengals are making various mistakes during their three-game losing streak. This will be a huge challenge for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to get this team back on track after a 2-4 start. In a must-win game, the Bengals will host the angry Miami Dolphins (3-3), who suffered a controversial loss last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
2. Fabian Washington, Baltimore Ravens cornerback: Washington, who has played decent football this season, had his worst game as a Raven Sunday in an overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. Washington gave up three touchdowns and was benched in the fourth quarter in favor of backup Josh Wilson. Cornerback is one of the league's toughest positions, so every player has days like this. But Washington has to prove last week's game was a fluke if he wants to keep his job.
3. Ravens' pass rush: Washington had a bad game, but the front seven on defense didn't help. It's concerning that Baltimore's pass rush couldn't get through against the worst team in the NFL. Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw the ball 43 times and was only sacked once. Lack of pressure is one reason Fitzpatrick was able to torch Baltimore's secondary for 374 passing yards and four touchdowns. Pass rush has been an issue in Baltimore for the past couple of seasons. I thought this year the Ravens would be more consistent, but that hasn't been the case.
2. Carson Palmer, Bengals quarterback: Despite the Bengals getting off to a slow start, Palmer had the type of game many expect from the $100-million quarterback. He threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Palmer seems more at home in the no-huddle offense, which was used nearly the entire game against Atlanta. Palmer has been part of the problem at different points this season, but that certainly wasn't the case last Sunday. The Bengals' offense will continue to score points if Palmer plays at this level.
3. Ray Lewis, Ravens linebacker: Baltimore gave up a lot of points to Buffalo. But Lewis was all over the field, recording 15 tackles and a sack. The future Hall of Famer also got a crucial strip in overtime that set up Baltimore's game-winning field goal. Lewis and the Ravens are 5-2 but have a lot to correct during their bye week. Baltimore will play Miami on Nov. 7.
Sanders led the league in kick return yards with 144 on five attempts (28.8-yard average) during Pittsburgh's 23-22 win over the Miami Dolphins. His 48-yard return in the fourth quarter helped set up Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed's eventual game-winning kick.
This is the second weekly award for the division, as Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens received AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Bowens didn't receive much playing time this season and there was speculation he wouldn't make the team following the preseason. But Bowens stayed ready and picked off Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees twice for touchdowns this past Sunday of 30 and 64 yards.
The Browns improved to 2-5 and have a bye this week.
For the first time in a long time, Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens was an afterthought on his team. There were rumors of the 12-year veteran being released after training camp, and although that didn't take place, Bowens was inactive or received little playing time in Cleveland's first six games.
But Bowens showed great professionalism by not complaining and staying ready. His number was called Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, and the veteran had two interceptions for touchdowns off Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees. Those plays proved to be the difference in Cleveland's 30-17 upset of the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Bowens, a backup, surprisingly scored more touchdowns (two) Sunday than the Browns' offense (one). His interception returns of 30 yards and 64 yards came in the second and fourth quarters, respectively. Bowens doubled his career total for interceptions, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Cleveland, which improved to 2-5 heading into its bye week.
The NFL is full of unpredictability, and Bowens proved that fortunes can change quickly by staying prepared. He set a good example for plenty of young players in Cleveland's locker room last week.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers benefited from a lucky break to escape with a 23-22 win over the Miami Dolphins.
- Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens had a career day with two interceptions for touchdowns in an upset over the New Orleans Saints.
- The Cincinnati Bengals turned to right tackle Andre Smith to start against the Atlanta Falcons.
- The Baltimore Ravens look like they really need their bye week after a sub-par performance against the Buffalo Bills.
Nathan from Coralville, Iowa, writes: I know the Browns overpaid for Jake Delhomme. But how can he seriously be penciled in as a starter? Isn't Seneca Wallace a much better quarterback?
James Walker: Delhomme is more proven, Nathan, and has led teams to the playoffs and a Super Bowl. Wallace doesn’t have near the same qualifications. And let’s be honest: A $7 million salary does have a lot of clout in who plays next season. You don’t want Delhomme sitting on the sideline with that kind of money holding a clipboard. That would mean Cleveland's front office made a huge mistake.
Michael Estep from Cleveland wants to know why the Browns don't skip drafting a quarterback and wait for University of Washington's Jake Locker next year.
Walker: Because football is too unpredictable and teams do not operate the way fans often think, Michael. Waiting for Locker involves too many variables. First, you're assuming the Browns will go 2-14 next year to secure the No. 1 overall pick. What if they go 5-11 again or 8-8? Second, what if Locker has a down year and/or suffers a major injury next season for the Huskies? It would be foolish for Cleveland to try to predict everything that will happen a year from now when the team can attempt to improve the quarterback position in this year's draft.
Joseph from Columbus, Ohio, writes: If the season started today, who are the Browns' starting linebackers?
Walker: Unofficially it would be D'Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita in the middle and David Bowens and Matt Roth on the outside. Eric Barton's status is a bit up in the air coming off neck surgery, but I think Jackson is younger and better at this stage. "King Kong" Marcus Benard also is a possibility on the outside, but he's likely the first guy off the bench on passing downs. The Browns are not done acquiring players. So some things can still change by training camp.
Paul Whitmore from Grand Blanc, Mich., wants to know "IF" (in capital letters) Texas quarterback Colt McCoy is drafted, when will he become the starter.
Walker: I'm glad you emphasized the "if," Paul. Because the Browns are definitely interested in McCoy, but with 31 other teams you just never know how the draft will shake out. But if McCoy is drafted as Cleveland's long-term solution at quarterback, the team's goal would be for him to sit at least one year under Delhomme to get use to the speed of the NFL game. But if Delhomme plays the way he played last year, McCoy or any rookie quarterback could see action late next season.
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|Derek Anderson, left, and Brady Quinn continue to battle for the starting QB job.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- It takes only one training camp session to notice who's the new boss of the Cleveland Browns.
Eric Mangini's presence already looms large in Cleveland. Whether it's the improved practice habits, the meticulous charting of plays and game situations, or the constant running of laps after mental errors, the new Browns coach has quickly placed his fingerprints all over this team heading into the 2009 season.
Cleveland is trying to bounce back from an abysmal 4-12 record last year. Most players returning from last season are coming off the worst individual performances of their careers, and part of Mangini's job is to get the best out of them as well as the new additions.
"Nobody cares what anybody did last year," Browns offensive lineman Ryan Tucker said of the team's approach.
But Cleveland still has a lot of issues to address in its first year under new leadership.
1. Who is the starting quarterback?
The Browns have been searching for their franchise quarterback since returning to the NFL in 1999. A decade later there is another controversy at the position involving former Pro Bowler Derek Anderson and 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn.
Preseason games are going to be huge for these two, and Quinn has jumped out to an early lead with a moderate performance Saturday against the Green Bay Packers. He completed 7 of 11 passes for 68 yards and an interception in a 17-0 defeat, while Anderson didn't fare nearly as well, going 0-for-2 with an interception.
Mangini says he won't make this decision hastily and will stick with his choice once the decision is made. But based on the offensive system and some early signs, a lot is pointing to the Browns going with Quinn to start the regular season.
2. Will players buy into Mangini's system?
It's no secret that former Browns coach Romeo Crennel was considered a "nice-guy coach." But in four years, that approach didn't work as the team finished with three losing seasons in that span.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|New Browns coach Eric Mangini brings a different style of coaching to Cleveland.|
Therefore, the Browns went in the opposite direction in hiring Mangini, who is a stern disciplinarian. At the very least, Mangini expects to clean up some of the lazy mistakes that permeated the team.
There was some butting of heads initially, but at least publicly there haven't been any major dust-ups between Mangini and his players in training camp. It's still questionable if all the players will completely buy into Mangini's disciplinarian approach. Victories probably will be the biggest determining factor of whether everyone stays on board long term.
3. Can the defense improve?
The Browns haven't done many things well defensively the past several seasons. But Mangini and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan feel they have some answers.
Perhaps the biggest wrinkles that are noticeable in training camp have been added to the pass rush. Ryan is not afraid to bring extra defenders at the expense of exposing his secondary. That is something Cleveland was leery of doing in the past.
Free-agent pickups such as safety Abram Elam and linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens -- all former New York Jets -- know Mangini's system well and are helping the rest of the defense ease the transition. In the early going, Cleveland's defense looks like the strength of this team.
The talent has always been there, but for various reasons receiver Braylon Edwards
has had an up-and-down career in Cleveland.
Edwards got off to a slow start in his first two years because of injuries and rookie mistakes. Then he exploded in 2007 with 80 catches, 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns. But Edwards faltered again last season by leading the NFL in drops and catching only 55 passes and three touchdowns.
The Browns are counting on the 2007 Edwards to show up this season. This summer he has been the most dominant offensive player in training camp by making spectacular catches look routine. But he did have one drop Saturday in the preseason opener against the Packers.
Much of Edwards' production this year will rely on which quarterback can get him the football. But playing in a contract year, Edwards looks motivated to produce whenever opportunities come his way.
Newcomer to watch
The first draft pick of the Mangini era in Cleveland naturally will have pressure to perform, and that is certainly the case this year with rookie center Alex Mack. The Browns traded down in the first round to select Mack with the No. 21 overall pick.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|The Browns are hoping to get early contributions from Alex Mack.|
So far, Mack has been inconsistent in training camp. The Browns are throwing a lot at him mentally and physically. As the center, he has to be aware of all things on offense. In competing with veteran Hank Fraley, Mack also is getting a lot of reps with the second team and is going against Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who is dominating most of their one-on-one matchups.
A crowded field is competing for the No. 2 receiver job opposite Edwards. Rookies Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie and veterans Josh Cribbs, David Patten and Mike Furrey are all getting reps at that position. Massaquoi has been the most consistent receiver this summer, but Cribbs also has made a push with a solid preseason opener. ... Rookie tailback James Davis has been one of the early surprises in training camp. The sixth-round pick from Clemson has shown good vision and a burst that may be able to help spell veteran Jamal Lewis. ... Kicker Phil Dawson and Cribbs both are unhappy with their current contracts. But things have been very quiet on that front and it's unknown if the team would be willing to renegotiate with either player before the start of the season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
- Baltimore Ravens tailback Willis McGahee is back on the practice field, but he is currently with the second team.
Morning take: For now, McGahee says he has no problem backing up second-year tailback Ray Rice. Both gave way to fullback Le'Ron McClain last season, but that probably won't be the case in 2009.
- New Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens says he's ready to contribute in any capacity.
Morning take: It turns out the AFC North now has another "D-Bo," joining the original "Deebo" (James Harrison) of the division from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Speaking of the Steelers, they just unveiled their newest Super Bowl ring.
Morning take: The Steelers honored their history by having six large, round diamonds signify each Super Bowl win, which incorporates all the great teams of the distant and not-so-distant past.
- Here is a poll to gauge how well the Cincinnati Bengals and receiver Chad Ochocinco will perform this year.
Morning take: "Bengaldom" is extremely optimistic. A majority of fans voted for Ochocinco eclipsing 1,000 yards and Cincinnati having a winning record in 2009.
The Browns got to opposing quarterbacks only 17 times last year -- only the lowly Chiefs were worse. New coach Eric Mangini and new GM George Kokinis brought in a lot of new players this offseason, but the pass rush really doesn't look to be vastly improved.
On the defensive line, Shaun Rogers is a beast. As a pass-rusher, he can push the pocket, disrupt throwing lanes and occupy interior blockers. But his stamina is an issue and he often leaves the field on clear throwing downs. In his first season in a 3-4 scheme since coming to the Browns from Green Bay, Corey Williams registered only half a sack in 16 games. Learning a new scheme or not, that is unacceptable. Williams had seven sacks in each of his final two seasons with the Packers; expect his production to improve in 2009. Also struggling in 2008 were Sean Smith and Robaire Smith, neither of whom had a sack. Kenyon Coleman will factor in this year, but he had only two sacks in 32 games played for the Jets over the past two seasons.
|Scott Cunningham/Getty Images|
|Second-year linebacker Alex Hall (96) has the tools to be an effective pash-rusher.|
Cleveland also needs to generate a much better pass rush from their linebackers, particularly on the outside. The biggest culprit here is Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley is proving that he cannot be the top pass-rusher; he's only equipped to be a secondary option. While his get-off and closing speed are very good, he relies too much on his speed rush and once stymied, doesn't adjust with counter moves. He also doesn't set up his opponent well throughout the game and becomes too predictable. Maybe the new coaching staff will get more out of Wimbley.
One player to watch is Alex Hall. Hall got to the quarterback three times in limited action in his rookie season. He has great body length and excellent natural pass-rushing tools. Hall, David Bowens and second-round selection David Veikune should compete for the starting spot opposite Wimbley.
Veikune is a tremendous hustle player -- another quality this defense has lacked at times -- but adjusting to the new scheme may not be a quick transition. Veikune still could factor in off the edge on passing downs, but expect his rookie year to be a learning process.
Bowens was a good pickup. He is not an upper-tier pass-rusher, but he is a veteran with strong intangibles and should help Hall and Veikune transition. Bowens has appeared in all 16 games in each of the past five seasons and in that span he has 24.5 sacks. That isn't elite production, but he has been consistent. Consistency is something the Browns need more of.
Still, no one on this defense presents a serious challenge to opposing pass-protection schemes and there isn't one guy who needs to be game-planned around on throwing downs. If they don't improve the pass rush dramatically, the Browns will be in for another rough year.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
|Gregory Shamus/Getty Images|
|Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson, who led the NFL in tackles last season, is looking to assert himself as more of a leader on defense in 2009.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
BEREA, Ohio -- When Eric Mangini first arrived in January and studied the Cleveland Browns' game tapes of 2008, there wasn't much that stood out from their 4-12 season. That was evident after the new coach swiftly executed an immense roster overhaul in his first offseason.
But there was one player who caught Mangini's eye in nearly every game he studied: Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.
Mangini watched Jackson hustle. He saw Jackson flow to the football and make play after play, despite the fact most games were out of reach and playoff dreams were shattered by midseason.
The result for Jackson was an NFL-leading 154 tackles in Cleveland's No. 26-rated defense. His accomplishments last season went mostly unnoticed except in the film room of his new head coach.
"I've really enjoyed watching D'Qwell," Mangini said. "He is pretty much in the frame at the end of every play and that is always what you look for. You always try to count how many defenders are in that last frame and he seems to be everywhere."
Jackson is happy someone recognized his play last season and plans to use it as motivation.
"It's a great compliment coming from the head guy coming in," Jackson said. "Now I got to take it and run. I don't call it pressure but it's my job to fulfill that role. I have to take a bigger leadership role and I have to be the guy to count on these plays."
The Browns are a combined 5-19 against the Ravens and Steelers since 2003, because those two teams physically dominate the Browns at the line of scrimmage. The Cincinnati Bengals split with Cleveland last season but are also making significant improvements this offseason to become a more physical team, following the blueprints provided by Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division.
Even with Jackson's production, Cleveland was very pedestrian defensively. The Browns failed to stop the run (rated No. 28) in 2008 and couldn't sack the quarterback, posting an anemic 17 sacks in 16 games.
As a point of reference, Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison had 16 sacks alone in 2008.
"If you look at that defense, he's certainly not the problem," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of Jackson. "If there are 11 starters, he's probably the second- or third-best guy. [Defensive tackle] Shaun Rogers is their best player on defense, and D'Qwell could very well be their second-best player."
Critics of Jackson often say too many of his 154 tackles were not impact plays. Williamson agrees to some extent but added that one player cannot stop the run alone. It takes all 11 defenders shooting their gaps and knowing their assignments, which has been a challenge for Cleveland in recent years.
"D'Qwell does tend to make a fair amount of his tackles further down the field than you would like, but he is still a very good player," Williamson said. "He's a very good tackler, has good reaction, and he doesn't take many false steps. He's also good in coverage, so there is a lot to like there."
For Jackson to take his game to the next level, the former second-round pick in 2006 will need a lot more help running Mangini's 3-4 defense. Cleveland's coach acquired assistance in the form of several defenders Mangini worked with in his previous stint with the New York Jets.
Veteran starting linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens, both older than 30, will work closely with Jackson. The Browns also added former Jets at every other level of the defense with safety Abram Elam and cornerback Hank Poteat helping in the secondary and C.J. Mosley adding depth on the defensive line.
But Barton in particular has been a great tutor for Jackson, because Barton will line up next to his younger counterpart at middle linebacker. The two former Maryland Terrapins, seven years apart in terms of experience, are expected to become the leaders of Cleveland's defense and are already developing a good chemistry together.
"All of his career he is a Mangini guy, and you know Mangini is a
smart guy," Jackson said. "That's what Eric Barton stands for; that's what type of guy he is."
From the second Cleveland's new coach turned on the game film, Jackson showed potential to become the latest "Mangini guy." Now it's up to Jackson to prove on the field in 2009 that he deserves that distinct moniker from his new head coach.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Team needs: Linebacker, receiver, defensive line
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Because it's unlikely Aaron Curry will be on the board, the Browns should consider defensive lineman Brian Orakpo (above).|
Plan B: If Curry is off the board, the Browns could turn their attention to Texas linebacker/defensive end hybrid Brian Orakpo. New head coach Eric Mangini needs versatile players for his 3-4 defense. Orakpo also brings a pass rush, which was a major weakness last season in Cleveland. Do not completely rule out Cleveland looking at receiver. It recently released receiver Joe Jurevicius and starter Donte Stallworth is facing legal woes that have put his career in jeopardy. With top receiver Braylon Edwards a big name on the trading block, Cleveland will need someone to throw to in '09.
Scouts Inc. take: "Their needs are many. Going across their offense, the Browns need receivers now. I think receiver all of a sudden is a huge need and Michael Crabtree might be a great pick for them. They need a running back-in-waiting. But they really need a pass-rusher. Their pass rush is atrocious, so Orakpo makes sense for them, putting him on the other side of Kamerion Wimbley. I think Wimbley has proven that he is not a No. 1 pass-rusher. He could be OK as a complementary guy. But he's been disappointing when the attention is rolled in his direction. So Orakpo or Crabtree makes the most sense, but they need a lot." -- Matt Williamson, Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: Contractually, first-year general manager George Kokinis has final say on the 53-man roster. But based on the team's moves in free agency -- acquiring four Jets last month -- it's clear that new coach Eric Mangini is pulling many of the strings behind the scenes. The company line is that both Mangini and Kokinis will work together as an equal tandem.
Now on the Clock: Seattle Seahawks.