NFL Nation: LeCharles Bentley
Head coach Pat Shurmur announced that defensive tackle Phil Taylor would need surgery to repair a torn chest muscle and could miss the upcoming season.
In May 2005, Kellen Winslow's season ended when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a motorcycle crash. In July 2006, LeCharles Bentley's season was done after he sustained an injury to his left knee on the first team drill of training camp. And middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson missed 26 games in 2009-10 because of two pectoral muscle injuries.
The latest rough turn of events occurred Thursday when Taylor injured himself. It didn't occur on the field and it wasn't the result of a hit. Taylor tore his left pectoral muscle while doing bench presses in the weight room.
Taylor posted this message on Twitter: "Just a bump in the road. Got [to] work hard and come back -- Strong."
Injuries aren't the only reason why the Browns have lost 117 games since returning to the league 11 seasons ago. The instability in the front office and coaching staff shows Cleveland has struggled to find and develop talent.
It just seems like the Browns are dealing with a setback even before the regular seasons begins. This time, the injury hurts an already weak spot on the Browns team.
Even with a run-stuffer like Taylor, the Browns gave up 147.4 yards on the ground per game last season, which was third-worst in the NFL and last in the AFC. In comparison, the Ravens (92.6 yards rushing allowed), Steelers (99.8) and Bengals (104.7) all ranked in the top 10 in run defense last season.
The likely replacement is rookie sixth-round draft pick Billy Winn. Third-round nose tackle John Hughes could also figure into the competition. The interesting part is Winn and Hughes are roommates.
"We've already started to create that little bond," Winn told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We're roommates so we've been doing a little chatting and going over the playbook. We'll help each other out and compete against each other and make each other better."
But as the Browns wrap up the final month of the season, is their physicality starting to fade?
AP Photo/David KohlCedric Benson racked up a lot of carries (31) and rushing yards (150) against Cleveland Sunday.
Is it possible the Browns are going "soft" down the stretch?
Former two-time Pro Bowler and Cleveland radio personality LeCharles Bentley believes that's the case. On ESPN's WKNR 850AM Monday Bentley, a former offensive lineman for Cleveland and the New Orleans Saints, didn't hold back when he described the Browns as "green-sticker nice guys" and not nearly as tough as they thought they were.
A few weeks ago toughness was never a question. Despite their lack of talent, the Browns were willing to bang heads with anyone for four quarters offensively and defensively, which made for competitive games. Only two of Cleveland's nine losses this year have come by more than a touchdown.
But lately the Browns have looked uninterested while getting pummeled by inferior opponents. Buffalo and Cincinnati outgained Cleveland in rushing by an astounding 380-164 margin. Bengals tailback Cedric Benson and Buffalo's Fred Jackson -- not necessarily household names -- combined for 262 rushing yards.
Whether it's a two-week anomaly for Cleveland remains to seen. But the Browns' toughness certainly will be tested down the stretch against two of the NFL's biggest bullies: the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4).
Will the Browns rediscover their physicality to end the season or continue to get pushed around?
Until Butler decides to speak about his decision to retire, we'll be left to wonder how he came to the surprising conclusion he was done with the NFL at 26.
The NFL almost always decides its done with you first.
All we've heard from Butler was a statement the Bills distributed, but last week at the NFL scouting combine I had the chance to sit down in Lucas Oil Stadium with another offensive lineman who suffered a knee injury when he was 26 and could've returned, but came to terms with the fact he just didn't want to play anymore.
"You've got to follow your heart," two-time Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley said.
Bentley posted four great seasons with the New Orleans Saints and signed a handsome deal with his hometown Cleveland Browns for 2006. On the first play of 11-on-11 drills on the first day of training camp, Bentley blew out his knee and never played again.
"All of a sudden, football lost its importance to me," Bentley said. "I wasn't distraught. I was more relieved than anything. I wanted to leave the game being able to stand on my own two feet, and I was able to do that.
"It's a difficult transition for those that don't prepare for it. That's true for most athletes. You never see your mortality. You feel that you're immortal and it's going to last forever. A lot of guys fail to understand that there is life after football. Those wheels will fall off at some point."
Bentley had offers to return and admittedly overpriced himself with the Detroit Lions. But he eventually figured he didn't want to return at any price. Bentley has pursued a broadcast career in Cleveland and covered the combine for his Web site, O-lineWorld.com.
"There's no groupies in blogging," Bentley said with a laugh. "There's no love in that."
Tell me about it.
Butler's career options are more substantial. He majored in government studies at Virginia and spent time on Capitol Hill during the 2008 offseason as an intern for Kemp Partners in Washington D.C. Kemp Partners was founded by former Congressman and legendary Bills quarterback Jack Kemp.
Butler also has participated in the NFL's business management and entrepreneurial programs at the Harvard Business, Stanford Business and Wharton Schools.
"For him to make the kind of decision he made, he's probably pretty far along in his decision-making process," Bentley said. "A lot of the milestones that players have to go through, he's probably already gone through them. I would have a hard time believing he's uncomfortable with that decision. There's something else out there for him. You don't make that type of decision without something profound pulling you in that direction."
Bentley recalled how difficult it was to retire when so many people around him wanted him to stay in the game. The fame, the glory, the money are alluring not only to the player, but also those who benefit from being close to him.
Butler also had to come to grips with the idea of leaving his teammates in a lurch. The Bills already were hurting along the offensive line before he told the team he was through with football.
"I lost some people because my decision wasn't a popular decision," Bentley said. "My ability as an athlete afforded some people around me luxuries that they wouldn't have had without me. Those people are no longer around.
"You get the velvet-rope treatment your entire life. Guys don't want to let that go. There's a psyche to growing up being The Man their entire life. Once you take off that helmet, those shoes, that jersey, you're who you are as a man. That's a bitter reality a lot of players aren't ready for."
AFC East nose tackles Jason Ferguson, Vince Wilfork and Kris Jenkins are vital to their team's 3-4 defenses.
Without a nose, the face of the defense disappears.
"If you don't have a good nose guard, you don't have a 3-4 defense," two-time Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley said at the NFL scouting combine in Lucas Oil Stadium.
"You can build everything else around it. You can have a great pass-rusher. You can have a great safety like Troy Polamalu. But if you don't have a solid nose guard? You can't run a 3-4. That's the whole basis of the defense."
Nose guards, nose tackles, those mammoth ogres in the middle -- whatever you want to call them -- never have been a more valuable NFL commodity than they've been this offseason.
For proof, look no further than the AFC East, the only division where all four teams will operate out of a 3-4 design and have concerns at nose tackle.
The Buffalo Bills simply need one. They're switching from a 4-3. Miami Dolphins nose tackle Jason Ferguson is a free agent recovering from a torn quadriceps muscle. The New England Patriots placed the franchise tag on Vince Wilfork and are trying to negotiate a long-term deal. New York Jets stud Kris Jenkins is coming off a knee injury.
As more teams convert to the 3-4, the need for nose tackles increases. Fewer of them are available.
"There are only so many big guys walking on this earth," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "It's a big priority in any defense. When you find them, you've got to keep them."
How rare are athletic humans who weigh 350 pounds? Rob Rang, the senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, considers this year's class of nose tackles to be "pretty strong compared to past years" with only three top prospects: Tennessee's Dan Williams, Alabama's Terrence Cody and North Carolina's Cam Thomas.
"There aren't a lot of guys with that kind of size and any speck of athletic ability," Rang said.
Bills head coach Chan Gailey said his criteria in identifying a nose tackle includes "huge, big, fast, nasty." But he might have to settle for whatever he can find.
"Everybody's looking for a certain type of guy," said Gailey, who doesn't seem to have a decent candidate on his roster but owns the ninth pick in April's draft. "There's not a lot of them, to be perfectly honest. You either have to take people that you have and adapt, or you don't have to play the same type of 3-4.
"While we're all looking for that prototypical nose guy, there's a lot of good football players out there that don't fit that prototype, but at the same time can be productive players for you on the field. If you can't get it, you adjust."
To look at their stats, nothing suggests a nose tackle's significance to a defense. They don't register many sacks. They're not among their team's tackle leaders or turnover creators.
Wilfork, for instance, is considered an elite nose tackle. Last season, he had no sacks or quarterback hits and was fifth in tackles for the Patriots. He forced one fumble and didn't recover any.
But what a quality nose tackle does is absorb linemen and disrupt lanes for a defense that's susceptible to the run merely by nature of its design. Before every snap, there are large bubbles over both guard positions to run through. Nose tackles plug those holes.
"A 3-4 defense allows you to create more mismatches," said Bentley, who is covering the combine for his Web site, O-lineWorld.com. "You can be as exotic as you want to be. Defensive coordinators can become mad scientists. Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan are prime examples of that. Those blitz packages they can throw at you are unbelievable.
"The nose guard is a one-man show. He makes you play honest football."
No wonder three teams used the franchise tag to keep a free-agent nose tackle from hitting the open market: Wilfork, Aubrayo Franklin of the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan Pickett of the Green Bay Packers.
Unless a long-term deal can be negotiated, the franchise tag guarantees a one-year deal for the average of the five highest-paid players at his position. This year's franchise figure for defensive tackles is a shade above $7 million.
"The tag's not outrageous, price-wise," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. "It makes good business sense not only from the standpoint of financials, but also because of the importance of the position."
By using the franchise tag to keep nose tackles from hitting unrestricted free agency, front offices essentially are price-fixing. It's not collusion, per se, but general managers realize the price tag for nose tackles would skyrocket if they went to the auction block.
Teams know a good nose tackle is worth more than $7 million a year even though they don't sell tickets or jerseys.
"They don't want to pay those guys the salaries of the most important guy on the defense," Bentley said. "It's going to be very hard to justify and a very difficult pill to swallow when you're paying your nose guard $9 million a year. People think, 'You don't pay those guys. All they do is take up space.'
"But if you don't have them, you don't have a defense."
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:
- The tight ends of the Pittsburgh Steelers could make an impact during Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.
Morning take: Pittsburgh's Heath Miller has been solid in the postseason, averaging 16.5 yards per catch. He could be a sleeper in this game.
- Are the Cincinnati Bengals eyeing defensive tackles at the Senior Bowl?
Morning take: This is not a bad position to fill now that John Thornton likely won't return. But a lineman on either side would work.
- There was a LeCharles Bentley sighting in Cleveland Thursday.
Morning take: In reading this story, it doesn't sound like Bentley is too eager to return to football, which is somewhat surprising.
- Count former NFL Pro Bowler Warren Sapp among the people who feel the Baltimore Ravens must keep linebacker Ray Lewis.
Morning take: Sapp is in the majority. There aren't many who think Lewis should be in another uniform next season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here is your one-stop shopping for the best stories around the AFC North:
- Over the weekend, Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that four weeks have passed since former Browns center LeCharles Bentley asked for his release and he has yet to find a new team.
Walker's take: This is an odd time to find work as front offices spend most of July on vacation and negotiating rookie contracts. Bentley will get a look somewhere, even if it's not at the start of training camp.
- Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times says the Baltimore Ravens' special-teams units could be special this year.
Walker's take: Two years ago, Ravens rookie head coach John Harbaugh and new assistant Jerry Rosburg may have been the top special teams coaches in the NFL. Now those two minds are together in Baltimore.
- Albert Breer of SportingNews.com ranks the Ravens as the third-best destination for Brett Favre in the event he leaves the Green Bay Packers. The Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
Walker's take: I am in total agreement. See for yourself.
- Christopher L. Gasper of the Boston Globe did a profile on Donte' Stallworth's move from the New England Patriots to the Cleveland Browns. In the article Stallworth says, "I've been kind of joking with Randy [Moss] and some of the guys that the road to the Super Bowl goes through Cleveland."
Walker's take: Has the road to the Super Bowl ever gone through Cleveland? The last time the Browns won a football championship was in 1964, before the NFL/AFL merger.