Sunday, July 29, 2007

Training camp '07: The secondary


You think the offensive line has had the worst luck of any Browns unit? Close, but no cigar.

The O-line is a major contender in the bad karma arena, but even they get nudged out by the secondary.

In the past year, while LeCharles Bentley was attempting to recover from one ruptured patellar tendon, Gary Baxter was recovering from two ruptured patellar tendons, sustained on the same play versus the Broncos last October.

The other starting cornerback, Leigh Bodden, is a tease of Lee Suggs proportions who can stick like glue to Chad Johnson, but only when he's healthy, which isn't often.

The cornerbacks' inability to stay healthy magnifies the frustration for fans (and I'm sure the coaches) because this could be one of the deepest and most talented areas of the team at full strength.

In the wake of the injury to Baxter, Daven Holly came out of nowhere and played well enough to warrant another look in training camp. Justin Hamilton pulled a Mason Unck, performing well enough on special teams to get a longer look in defensive sets. Sean Jones and Brodney Pool began to stabilize the safety positions, though it remains to be seen whether either will morph into a skull-cracking hitter who dissuades receivers from venturing over the middle.

The offseason

The loss of safety Brian Russell is arguably the biggest personnel blow the Browns received this spring. When Russell left, he took the closest thing the Browns had to an intimidating presence in the defensive backfield with him. Now the pressure is on Jones and Pool to fill that role.

Phil Savage stoked the coals of the cornerback corps once again this offseason, adding Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald in the draft, and signing nine-year veteran Kenny Wright in free agency.

After burning this year's second-rounder to acquire the 22nd pick and draft Brady Quinn, Savage traded back into the second round to draft Eric Wright from UNLV. Wright transferred to UNLV from USC due to some off-the-field issues, and many football writers believe he would have been a Top 15 pick had he entered the draft out of Pete Carroll's program.

Needless to say, a lot is riding on Wright to become the shutdown corner who can smother the opponent's top receiver each week.

The major players

CB Gary Baxter: No player has ever recovered from two ruptured knee tendons to have a productive post-injury career. Baxter is trying to break new ground, and it looks like he just might do it.

An offseason of intense rehabbing has gotten Baxter back to the field. Barring any setbacks, it appears likely he'll see game action at some point during the preseason.

There's no telling on what level he'll be able to contribute, but like Bentley, if he can give anything, it will be a major boost to his unit.

CB Leigh Bodden: Who can stop 85? Bodden can stop 85. Bodden's reputation as a Chad Johnson stopper is preceding him, and got him a starting gig.

He's not an elite cornerback, but if Eric Wright develops the way Savage and Romeo Crennel think he will, a starting corner pair of Wright and Bodden seems capable of sticking around here for a while, to say the least.

CB Eric Wright: He just might start right away. He's easily the most athletic player in the secondary.

CB Daven Holly: Carpe diem. Holly, a virtual unknown at this time last year, took the baton and ran with it after Baxter's injury. Now he's looking at major playing time in '07. Still, if he's starting games, it's not good, because it means everyone listed above is either injured or underperforming.

CB Kenny Wright: A veteran of 56 NFL starts, Wright can add some very real depth to the cornerback situation. As important is the leadership Baxter and Wright can provide to the young guys in the secondary.

S Sean Jones: A Butch Davis holdover, Jones had a breakout season a year ago, starting all 16 games and tying for the team lead with five interceptions. He has stud potential as a safety, but with only 32 games under his belt, we need to see more.

S Brodney Pool: It's shine time for Pool, who will be a full-time starter this year. Shine or watch Savage draft your potential replacement next year.

S Jusitn Hamilton: The safety position lacks significant depth, so the opportunity for someone like Hamilton to jump in and see playing time is there. Actually, the Browns need Hamilton to step up, because the rest of the safety unit is either inexperienced or unfamiliar with the Browns' system.

Up next: Special teams, coaching and the front office


Hornless Rhino said...

I've really enjoyed these previews of the various Browns units.

I know that you plan to profile the coaching staff, but I think the single biggest thing that Cleveland's secondary has going for it is defensive backs coach Mel Tucker.

In light of the injury situation, I think it's a near miracle that the Browns were able to maintain a functioning secondary for most of last season, and I give Tucker a ton of credit for that.

Erik said...

Thanks, Rhino.

I'm planning to mash the rest of the team (special teams, coaching, front office) into one last preview this week.

I'd like to say I'm going to give Mel Tucker some props (which he does deserve for spinning straw into something resembling a semi-precious metal a year ago), but likely, my coaching preview is going to focus heavily on Crennel's job security and Chud's new offense.

I'm hoping to have my final preview posted before the end of the week.