A rash of injuries could be even more

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

A rash of injuries could be even more devastating to this year's offense.

As Butch Davis assembled his roster, most NFL experts talked about the new coach's emphasis on defense and team speed.

The signing of fleet-footed linebacker Dwayne Rudd at the outset of the free-agent signing period symbolized Davis' desire to build a defense loaded with players who can chase sideline-to-sideline.

Rudd was a big investment. He make a base salary of $550, 000 this season, with his contract escalating to pay him $14.5-million over the next four years.

So far, Rudd has proven himself worthy of the hefty contract, demonstrating speed and athleticism that had been lacking on the Browns' defense the previous two seasons.

While the signing of Rudd was a key to Davis' plans, a series of lower profile moves could end up being even more important to the Browns' defensive success.

Last season, several Browns players pointed to the addition of Marty Moore as an unheralded move that ended up being critical as the team tried to stay afloat amid a rash of injuries the second half of 2000.

Moore was the only veteran signed during offseason to fill a backup role on defense. When starter Rahim Abdullah was forced to the sideline with a groin injury, the Browns were lucky to have a 7-year veteran ready to step in.

Moore was no superstar, but his experience and consistency served as a steadying influence in the final nine games. Quite a bargain for the $450,000 he cost the club. While the Browns had Moore ready to step in, almost every other position on the roster had un-tested rookies and second-year players listed No. 2 on the depth chart.

Davis found Moore expendable during training camp, but to his credit, he and director of football operations Dwight Clark made several other inexpensive moves to add experienced backups at linebacker, defensive line and in the defensive backfield.

The Browns brought in 8-year veteran Brant Boyer from the Jaguars and 9-year veteran Barry Minter from the Bears to back up starting linebackers Rudd, Wali Rainer and Jamir Miller. Minter was released earlier this week, but Boyer alone has nearly as many years of NFL experience than the entire Browns' second unit last season. Boyer will make only $500,000.

Earl Little, Lamar Chapman, Anthony Malbrough and Rashidi Barnes were the Browns' backups in the defensive backfield last season. That group had a combined two years of NFL experience - all by Little, who had played in 26 games, all in a reserve role in his first two pro seasons.

Now the secondary includes recent additions Devin Bush and Scott Frost as backups. Bush is a seven-year veteran, a former first-round draft pick out of Florida State and a former starter for the Falcons and Rams when those teams went to the Super Bowl. Frost is still relatively young, but the former third-round pick appeared in 43 games on a pretty good Jets' defense during his three NFL seasons.

Bush will make just $490,000 this season. Frost will make $512,000.

The best of the modestly-priced free agents could be Mark Smith - a defensive tackle who made a name for himself for his speed and pass-rushing ability with 18 sacks in four seasons with the Cardinals.

Smith made $1,027,000 in 2000, but signed with the Browns for $700,000, presumably to add depth behind Orpheus Roye and first-round pick Gerard Warren. He ended up impressing Davis so much that he won a starting job. That just created more veteran depth on the defensive line by adding Roye to a rotation with 5-year veteran Stalin Colinet as backups at defensive end and defensive tackle. Roye and Colinet started every game for the Browns last season.

While the Browns are still a long way from having the type of depth necessary to be considered an elite defense, the additions of Smith, Minter, Boyer, Bush and Frost alone give the club a stronger defense than they had last season.

The Browns may have made positive steps in addressing the depth of the defense, but they may have been short-sighted in failing to find veterans to serve as backups on the offensive side of the ball.

Nowhere is this weakness more noticeable than on the offensive line, where backups Brad Bedell, Shaun O'Hara and Jeremy McKinney have combined to appear in a whopping 20 NFL games. Most of those appearances have been on special teams. Only O'Hara has any real experience, and that was because _ as a raw rookie _ he was forced into starting duty when Dave Wohlabaugh was injured late last year.

The Browns started the season with a trio of inexperience running backs in James Jackson, Jamel White and Benjamin Gay. Prior to the opening-game loss to the Seahawks, only White had appeared in an NFL game.

While O.J. Santiago was re-signed to create veteran depth at tight end, most of the Browns' offensive free agents _ Ricky Dudley, Mike Sellers, Ross Verba and Tre' Johnson _ all came to Cleveland to fill starting roles.

Kelly Holcomb was brought in to backup Tim Couch at quarterback, but in four previous seasons the former Colt attempted just 73 passes. All of those came in 1997.

The lack of an emphasis in creating depth on offense could be another sign of Davis' defense-first approach _ which he underscored in his decision to draft Gerard Warren with the third overall pick of the draft.

Yes, the Browns defense has more talent and more depth than the first two seasons, but once again the offense finds itself just a few injuries away from being completely crippled.

The Browns may just see how important it is to have a craft veteran hanging around this weekend when they face old friend Ty Detmer and the Lions.

Earl Little, Lamar Chapman, Anthony Malbrough and Rashidi Barnes were the Browns' backups in the defensive backfield last season. That group had a combined two years of NFL experience - all by Little, who had played in 26 games, all in a reserve role in his first two pro seasons.

Now the secondary includes recent additions Devin Bush and Scott Frost as backups. Bush is a seven-year veteran, a former first-round draft pick out of Florida State and a former starter for the Falcons and Rams when those teams went to the Super Bowl. Frost is still relatively young, but the former third-round pick appeared in 43 games on a pretty good Jets' defense during his three NFL seasons.

Bush will make just $490,000 this season. Frost will make $512,000.

The best of the modestly-priced free agents could be Mark Smith - a defensive tackle who made a name for himself for his speed and pass-rushing ability with 18 sacks in four seasons with the Cardinals.

Smith made $1,027,000 in 2000, but signed with the Browns for $700,000, presumably to add depth behind Orpheus Roye and first-round pick Gerard Warren. He ended up impressing Davis so much that he won a starting job. That just created more veteran depth on the defensive line by adding Roye to a rotation with 5-year veteran Stalin Colinet as backups at defensive end and defensive tackle. Roye and Colinet started every game for the Browns last season.

While the Browns are still a long way from having the type of depth necessary to be considered an elite defense, the additions of Smith, Minter, Boyer, Bush and Frost alone give the club a stronger defense than they had last season.

The Browns may have made positive steps in addressing the depth of the defense, but they may have been short-sighted in failing to find veterans to serve as backups on the offensive side of the ball.

Nowhere is this weakness more noticeable than on the offensive line, where backups Brad Bedell, Shaun O'Hara and Jeremy McKinney have combined to appear in a whopping 20 NFL games. Most of those appearances have been on special teams. Only O'Hara has any real experience, and that was because _ as a raw rookie _ he was forced into starting duty when Dave Wohlabaugh was injured late last year.

The Browns started the season with a trio of inexperience running backs in James Jackson, Jamel White and Benjamin Gay. Prior to the opening-game loss to the Seahawks, only White had appeared in an NFL game.

While O.J. Santiago was re-signed to create veteran depth at tight end, most of the Browns' offensive free agents _ Ricky Dudley, Mike Sellers, Ross Verba and Tre' Johnson _ all came to Cleveland to fill starting roles.

Kelly Holcomb was brought in to backup Tim Couch at quarterback, but in four previous seasons the former Colt attempted just 73 passes. All of those came in 1997.

The lack of an emphasis in creating depth on offense could be another sign of Davis' defense-first approach _ which he underscored in his decision to draft Gerard Warren with the third overall pick of the draft.

Yes, the Browns defense has more talent and more depth than the first two seasons, but once again the offense finds itself just a few injuries away from being completely crippled.

The Browns may just see how important it is to have a craft veteran hanging around this weekend when they face old friend Ty Detmer and the Lions.

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