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Monday, December 22, 2014
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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Needy Browns can't afford to make another mistake

BEREA, Ohio - Since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have had their share of first-round flops.

There has been one underachiever after another, from quarterback Tim Couch (1999) to defensive end Courtney Brown (2000) to defensive tackle Gerard Warren (2001) to running back William Green (2002).

And let's not forget center Jeff Faine (2003), who likely will be traded, oft-injured tight end Kellen Winslow (2004), who has played only two games in two years, or explosive receiver Braylon Edwards (2005), who was slowed by a midseason staph infection and then suffered a season-ending knee injury.

It has been a bumpy ride, indeed, for a once-proud franchise that hasn't won a division championship since 1989.

Cleveland went 6-10 a year ago under rookie coach Romeo Crennel, but the Browns could have been better had it not been for injuries.

They lost five games by seven points or less.

First off, Winslow was injured in a motorcycle crash last May while doing stunts in a secluded parking lot. And Edwards, the third overall pick and only big-time playmaker, got hurt in early December against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

General manager Phil Savage is optimistic that Winslow will be ready for the start of training camp, but Edwards might not even be ready for the regular season opener. Both players are coming off ACL surgeries - Winslow in June and Edwards in January.

With two key cogs missing, the Browns' offense struggled mightily in 2005, scoring a league-low 232 points.

However, there were a few positives - Charlie Frye got a trial run as the starting quarterback and Reuben Droughns emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher.

Defensively, Cleveland was dreadful in 2005.

The Browns were last in the league in sacks, 30th against the run and last in points scored at 13.6 per game.

On top of that, Savage - on the job less than a year - was nearly ousted in a late-season power struggle that eventually led to the resignation of team president and CEO John Collins.

Say this about the Browns: They may be bad, but they are not boring.

Despite all the front office turmoil, Savage and Crennel had a busy offseason in the free-agent market.

They signed center/guard LeCharles Bentley and linebacker Willie McGinest, offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, nose tackle Ted Washington and punter Dave Zastudil.

But the Crennel-Savage overhaul won't be complete unless they have a solid draft this weekend.

The Browns have the 12th pick in the first round, and will have nine selections overall.

Cleveland is expected to take a defensive player with its No. 1 pick tomorrow, a player who fits into its 3-4 scheme.

"That would be a good guess," Savage said.

Barring a last-minute trade, the likely first-round candidates include a trio of Florida State players - outside linebacker/defensive end Kamerion Wim-

bley, inside linebacker Ernie Sims and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley - and Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

"There are more guys available on defense that can help us, so we've done some work there and that's what we're going to try to focus on," Crennel said.

The Browns also have spent some time with Texas quarterback Vince Young, but it's unlikely he will be around when they make their pick inside their offices at Lou Groza Boulevard.

If Young does fall to No. 12, look for the Browns' phone to be ringing off the hook.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Cleveland taking Wimbley (6-foot-4, 255 pounds) because of his athleticism and versatility. He had 7 1/2 sacks last season, but missed most of the final four games with a sprained knee.

Savage also likes the explosiveness of Sims (5-11, 231), but said he may not be an ideal fit for the 3-4.

Bunkley was one of three defensive linemen the Browns brought in for visits, along with Wimbley and Ngata.

Bunkley (6-2 1/2, 305) and Ngata (6-4, 338) are widely regarded as the top two tackles in the draft.

Bill Rees, Cleveland's director of player personnel, is impressed with Ngata, who compares himself to Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton.

"He's really built for a 3-4 defense," Rees said. "He's very powerful, strong. He's going to have some pass-rush potential as he begins to mature. He's a very powerful inside force.

"There are not many guys that look like him that play like him."

If Crennel and Savage are to reverse the Browns' bad drafting habits, they need to get a major impact player with their No. 1 pick.

They can't afford another big bust.



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