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Published: 3/22/2005

Browns busy in off-season

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Few NFL teams have been more active during the off-season than the Cleveland Browns.

Of course, few needed as massive an infusion of talent.

Oakland's acquisition of Randy Moss in a trade with Minnesota may have been the signature off-season move. Add in the less-celebrated signing of running back Lamont Jordan and the addition of end Derrick Burgess to one of the league's worse defenses and it's clear that the Raiders weren't willing to wait until next month's college draft to overhaul their roster.

Neither was Baltimore, a disappointment last season but, on paper, already a serious AFC Central title contender for 2005. In signing two players whose contracts were terminated by salary-cap strapped Tennessee - receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle - as well as free-agent guard Keydrick Vincent, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens got arguably the best players at those positions on the open market.

The Atlanta Falcons, who advanced to last season's NFC championship game and then vowed to upgrade defensively, made their 14th free-agent signing yesterday, coming to terms on a six-year, $26.25-million contract with solid ex-Baltimore linebacker Edgerton Hartwell. Houston has inked 11 free agents. In regard to both teams, however, the bulk of the signings were done to prevent their own top players from escaping. The Falcons, for example, gave standout cornerback Allen Rossum a four-year deal.

The Browns, on the other hand, have made wholesale changes. Seven players from the 2004 roster have been traded, released or allowed to move via free agency. So far, only Cleveland free agent linebacker Ben Taylor has been re-signed by the team.

Meanwhile, seven players have been brought on board from other organizations, to date, with the free-agent period winding down.

The six free agents who have joined the Browns are guard Joe Andruzzi (New England), cornerback Gary Baxter (Baltimore), guard Cosey Coleman (Tampa Bay), defensive tackle Jason Fisk (San Diego), punter Kyle Richardson (Cincinnati), and linebacker Matt Stewart (Atlanta).

The seventh player, quarterback Trent Dilfer, was acquired from Seattle for a fourth-round draft pick that the Browns, in turn, had received from Denver in a trade for defensive tackle Gerard Warren.

Dilfer, who once quarterbacked Baltimore to a Super Bowl crown when Phil Savage was the Ravens' personnel chief, was 2-0 as a starter last season for the Seahawks and, while probably not a long-term answer for Cleveland, he at least stabilizes a shaky situation at quarterback.

The Browns are still expected to take a hard look at the top remaining quarterback in the draft, either Aaron Rogers of Cal or Alex Smith of Utah, with their third overall pick. However, if Savage, the Browns' new general manager, and rookie head coach Romeo Crennel are satisfied with Dilfer and/or young Luke McCown at quarterback, they might opt to instead give him a talented target like Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards.

The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, bulked up their quarterback situation with the addition of free agent Jeff Garcia, who had a miserable season in Cleveland but is better suited for coach Steve Mariucci's West Coast offense. Garcia was signed to back up Joey Harrington, but that could change if the returning starter fails to progress satisfactorily.

Whoever is at quarterback has a nice, new option in tight end Marcus Pollard, signed as a free agent off the Indianapolis roster. Another ex-Colt, guard Rick DeMulling, a top pass protector and a key blocker for Edgerrin James in Indianapolis, is another new Lion.

Detroit also improved its secondary by signing Denver free agent Kenoy Kennedy, a strong safety, to a five-year deal.

Detroit figures to be defensive with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the draft, especially if either Adam "Pac Man" Jones (West Virginia) or Antrel Rolle (Miami), the two best cornerbacks, is still available.

With Hartwell going to Atlanta, cornerbacks Ty Law (New England) and Renaldo Hill (Arizona) seem to be the top remaining free-agent candidates.

San Francisco owns the No. 1 overall pick in the April 23-24 draft and is expected to take one of the top-rated quarterbacks, Rogers or Smith. Miami, where first-year coach Nick Saban has used the free-agent period to address defensive deficiencies, should then take a running back, most likely Ronnie Brown of Auburn.

The Dolphins opened the off-season checkbook for the likes of defensive ends Kevin Carter (Tennessee) and Vonnie Holliday (Kansas City) as well as safety Tebucky Jones (New Orleans).

Chicago made one of the top offensive signings, nabbing receiver Muhsin Muhammad of Carolina, and the Bears could add a top running back with the No. 4 overall pick to substantively upgrade a so-so offensive unit. If the Dolphins take Brown, either Cedric Benson of Texas or Auburn's Carnell "Cadillac" Williams could go to the Bears.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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