Offseason Blueprint: Cleveland Browns

Notable Free Agents: Sean Jones, S; Andra Davis, LB; Willie McGinest, LB.

Projected 2009 Cap Space: $17,000,000

Draft Order: 5

Top Needs: Two years after signing LeCharles Bentley to a huge contract only to watch him suffer a career-ending knee injury on the first day of training camp, the Browns are once again in need of a center to bolster the interior of their offensive line. The team is also expected to beef up the linebacker corps and possibly add another defensive end for depth. Wide receiver and running back will also likely be addressed.

Offseason Outlook: Word has it that the Browns are already shopping quarterback Derek Anderson (the Jets have emerged as a possible suitor), which means Brady Quinn will likely become the unquestioned starter next season under center. But perhaps the majority of changes for the Browns this offseason will once again be made on the defensive side of the ball – especially in the front seven.

Adding defensive tackle Shaun Rogers via a trade with Detroit last offseason proved to be an outstanding move. Rogers was worth the risk (he was labeled as being lazy in Motown) and had a major impact along Cleveland’s defensive line last year. Corey Williams, another player the Browns added via offseason trade last offseason, was hamstrung with various injuries last season but showed his grit by playing hurt and is a steady player when healthy.

With the Browns set at those two positions on the D-line, they’ll turn their attention to the defensive end spot opposite Williams. Robaire Smith emerged as a quality playmaker in 2007, but a ruptured Achilles tendon cut his season short after only two games last year and the team was stuck with Shaun Smith, who proved to hit players more off the field (ask Brady Quinn), then he did on it. Don’t count on Cleveland upgrading this position in the first round of the draft because there simply isn’t a 3-4 end worth taking at No. 5, but the spot will be addressed at some point. Plus before his season-ending injury last year, Robaire Smith had only missed one game in the previous six seasons so if he can come back healthy, the starting job should remain his.

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Browns upgrade in offseason, defensive line now a strength

In the weeks leading up to the kickoff the 2008 NFL Season, I’ll take a look at position groups that could potentially lift teams to new heights, or bury them and their postseason hopes. Today I take a look at the additions the Cleveland Browns made in the offseason to bolster their defensive line.

When a team averages over 350 yards and 25 points a game on offense and doesn’t make the playoffs, usually there’s a glaring weakness somewhere on the roster. Besides having the unfortunate draw of playing in a stacked AFC, the Cleveland Browns can point to their defense as one of the main reasons why they missed the postseason in 2007, despite finishing with 10 wins.

One of the main issues the Browns had last year was their defensive line and more specifically, not being able to get to the quarterback. So the team gambled in the offseason by trading away multiple draft picks to acquire former Packers’ defensive tackle Corey Williams and former Lions’ DT Shaun Rogers.

Had it not been for the amount of depth along their defensive line, there’s no way the Packers would have dealt the underrated Williams in the offseason. Despite playing in a rotation and coming off the bench last year, Williams still matched a career high with seven sacks and was also solid against the run. Even though he’ll play an unfamiliar position in the Browns’ 3-4 front, he’s got the size and athleticism to play end in Romeo Crennel’s defense.

Acquiring Rogers was a bit of a risk, but a risk worth taking. Rogers was often criticized for being lazy and unmotivated in Detroit, but reports out of Browns’ camp have been glowing thus far. In fact, one of Cleveland’s personal members called Rogers, “the best defensive tackle in the division,” after observing him in camp this summer. If he can keep his focus, there’s no question Rogers is one of the best interior linemen in the league. It’s a rare occurrence when he’s not double-teamed and even so, he still makes opposing teams pay with his surprising quickness off the snap. When his head is right, Rogers is an absolute force to deal with.

Last offseason, the Browns signed former Texan Robaire Smith to a four-year, $12 million contract. He and Shaun Smith (a promising player who can play at nose, too) form a solid rotation at the end spot opposite Williams.

There’s no doubt Cleveland vastly upgraded its d-line the past two offseasons, but questions still remain. The biggest ones surround Rogers, who not only must stay motivated, but also learn nose in a 3-4 front. He certainly has the size to play the position, but will he get frustrated if he can’t shoot the gaps as easy as he did in Detroit? Plus, Williams has played tackle in a 4-3 scheme his entire career, so will there be a learning curve?

Regardless, with the firepower they have on offense, the Browns are built to win now. One of their biggest weaknesses last year was their d-line and hauling in a two athletic and talented players in Rogers and Williams was huge. Just look at how improved the Browns were last year when they upgraded their offensive line. With a solid d-line now in place, they can win the crucial battle in the trenches and make a postseason run 2008.

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