NFL Nation: Eric Barton
Fujita joins Eric Barton, D'Qwell Jackson, Kaluka Maiava and the versatile Jason Trusnik as players who spent time starting at middle linebacker for Cleveland last season.
A starter for the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, Fujita didn't come to Cleveland to be a backup. So let's assume he's a starter next fall. That leaves four players -- Jackson, Barton, Maiava and Trusnik -- competing for one starting job.
Barton signed a four-year deal last season and is a favorite of head coach Eric Mangini. But Barton is coming off neck surgery and his health is in question. Jackson has been one of Cleveland’s most productive defenders, but he's also coming off a season-ending pectoral injury. Jackson has a second-round tender and could generate some interest in the trade market.
Maiava and Trusnik both are young players who can provide depth.
Because the Browns play a 3-4 defense, they would probably prefer to keep a large surplus of linebackers. But Fujita, Barton and Jackson are a particularly odd trio with tons of combined starting experience and just two jobs available.
Fujita isn't going anywhere. So an educated guess is Cleveland's front office, led by new president Mike Holmgren, likely has to decide between keeping Barton or Jackson this offseason.
|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.
|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 i
s 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.
|Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images; Andy Lyons and Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The AFC North has lost some star power, with Bart Scott and T.J. Houshmandzadeh departing through free agency and Kellen Winslow Jr. sent off in a trade.|
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
With the busiest portion of free agency coming to an end, it is officially time to evaluate the decisions made by all four AFC North teams.
The range of activity in free agency varied this year. For instance, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely active in signing and losing players, while the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers only visited with a couple of players without reaching deals.
Let's examine the moves.
Analysis: Going into free agency, I thought the Ravens were doomed for failure with the amount of big names set to hit the open market. Baltimore certainly lost some of those players, but a creative and cost-effective plan allowed general manager Ozzie Newsome to soften the blow. The Ravens lost three key starters in linebacker Bart Scott, center Jason Brown and safety Jim Leonhard. They also released starting cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAlister. But Baltimore quickly added talent in free-agent cornerback Domonique Foxworth, veteran center Matt Birk, tight end L.J. Smith and return specialist Chris Carr. Keeping Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs were vital. And if the Ravens put together another solid draft class, which is Newsome's forte, Baltimore should be fine in 2009. This good grade is given to the Ravens for their resiliency in coming up with a plan to stay in contention despite losing a wealth of talented players.
Key pickups: WR Laveranues Coles, QB J.T. O'Sullivan, P Ryan Plackemeier
Analysis: No one was surprised when former Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left Cincinnati for the Seattle Seahawks. But it was surprising when the Bengals paid former New York Jet Laveranues Coles $28 million over four years-- including a whopping $9.75 million in his first year -- to replace Houshmandzadeh. Houshmandzadeh had 90-plus receptions the past two seasons, while Coles is more of a 60 to 70 catch receiver. Someone will have to make up that missing production whether it is a bounce-back year from Chad Ocho Cinco or a career year from one of the young receivers -- Chris Henry, Andre Caldwell or Jerome Simpson -- in the No. 3 role. Keeping tailback Cedric Benson was important, but the team still needs a big-play threat at that position. J.T. O'Sullivan was a decent pickup to back up quarterback Carson Palmer. With Palmer's return, a stellar draft could put Cincinnati in position to surprise next season.
Analysis: The Browns are cleaning house, and they probably are not done yet. New coach Eric Mangini and first-year general manager George Kokinis are turning over the roster quickly through every avenue possible. The Browns have not retained most of their in-house free agents such as safety Sean Jones and linebackers Andra Dav
is and Willie McGinest. They also cut offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer and receiver Joe Jurevicius and traded former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. for a pair of draft picks. The replacements have not been overwhelming. Former Jets linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens are both stop-gap players who are 30-plus. Royal is not nearly as dynamic a tight end as Winslow, and Cleveland still has a lot of holes left to fill in the draft. The Browns are clearly starting from scratch, which is why they are attempting to stockpile draft picks. Coming off a 4-12 season, Cleveland appears to be headed for another transition year in 2009.
Key pickups: None
Analysis: Pittsburgh hasn't signed anyone outside of its building. Instead, the team placed its focus on keeping together last year's championship team. The Steelers retained three starters from their offensive line in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks and brought back a host of backups and special-teams players. They are staying true to their identity of not being major players in free agency. But it would have been beneficial to add at least one or two offensive linemen from the outside to compete and provide depth. That probably won't happen until next month's NFL draft. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden bolting to the Arizona Cardinals could be softened if William Gay continues to develop in 2009. The Steelers are banking on it. Pittsburgh also brought in a few intriguing free agents, such as receiver Joey Galloway and cornerback/return specialist Chris Carr, for visits. But its reluctance to pay much on the open market this offseason forced those two players to sign with other teams.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- There's a chance Terrell Owens' glitz and glamour may not go over well in Buffalo.
- Regardless of how Owens' arrival plays out for the Bills, there's no denying they have everybody's attention now.
- For T.O., can what happened in Dallas stay in Dallas?
- From the "Be Careful What You Wish For" department -- Bills quarterback Trent Edwards asked for the Bills to sign Owens.
- The Dolphins are looking for a cornerback in a thin market.
- Dolphins receiver Brandon London fills the void by taking a spin on the runway.
New England Patriots
- Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hopes to stay with the Patriots beyond next season.
New York Jets
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bashful isn't a word that would be used to describe Rex Ryan.
|AP Photo/Darron Cummings|
|Rex Ryan responds to a question during a news conference at the NFL scouting combine.|
Ryan, holding a news conference at the NFL scouting combine in Lucas Oil Stadium, didn't hesitate when asked how long it would take for the Jets' defense to meet the standard he established for the Ravens.
"I think next year," Ryan said.
After Ryan left the podium, I asked him to clarify if he meant next year as in next season or as in 2010.
"This season," he replied. "I'm not backing away from a challenge. I want to be successful now."
The Jets ranked 16th in total defense last year, allowing 329.4 yards a game. The Ravens ranked second, yielding 68.3 fewer yards a game.
One way to give the Jets a more Raven-esque personality would be to add legendary linebacker Ray Lewis, who has said the idea of playing for Ryan again was compelling.
Ryan declined to discuss the possibility of pursuing the unrestrcited free agent. Ryan said he didn't want to be accused of tampering.
But Ryan rattled off a bunch of names in praise of what he called "a pretty good foundation" on defense. It would be easier to say who he didn't mention.
Barton and Law are unrestricted free agents. Elam is restricted.
"If we bring in the kind of players that we're talking about, we only need to add maybe one or two guys," Ryan said. "But the foundation's already there.
"I just think maybe the mentality that we're going to play with, maybe the style of play that we're going to play with is going to help the guys we already have.
"The proof will be in the pudding. But you know me. I'm not one to shy away from expectations. I think we'll be terrific. I think we'll have a defense our fans can be proud of."