Browns need to resolve some issues to meet expectations

BEREA, Ohio -- After surprising many en route to winning 10 games last season, the Cleveland Browns have high expectations coming in 2008.

Although the Browns missed out on the playoffs, an AFC North title is clearly one of the team's goals. When the season ended, Phil Savage went to work addressing the issues that kept the Browns out of the postseason a year ago.

In watching the Browns practice, there's no doubt Savage's hard work paid off. The defensive line has gone from a liability to a definite strength.

Shaun Rogers came over in a trade from the Detroit Lions and is considerably lighter than in years past, which makes sense considering he's getting rave reviews for his work in the weight room.

Corey Williams, acquired in a trade with Green Bay, will be a force at defensive end. Besides being a terrific pass rusher, he will help set up the outside linebackers to pass rush.

Still, a brutal schedule, which includes going up against the NFC East, will present a challenge.

Sitting down with coach Romeo Crennel and discussing his job, it became obvious he's trying to keep the team grounded and focused on making the postseason. He constantly reminds his players that the 10 wins in 2007 were nice, but it wasn't enough to make the playoffs, especially when the Browns had controlled their fate down the stretch.

With Crennel supplying the vision, linebacker Willie McGinest offers the leadership in the locker room for the Browns.

At this point in his career, McGinest knows he's more of a situational player, but that doesn't stop him from talking full-time to the young guys. When it came to discussing defensive packages and the possibilities for expanding the game plans, McGinest said the talent is there to do a lot of different things. However, Crennel and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker are much more interested in building the defense slowly and insuring the whole group just plays fast.

Heading into his 15th NFL season, McGinest is the elder statesman of the roster. But as more than one player noted, "This is Derek Anderson's team."

While Anderson wasn't quick to talk about emerging as a leader, he shows it on the field. Along with a command of the offense, he spends a lot of time talking with the receivers about route running and the little things they need to do.

Despite only having 18 starts under his belt, Anderson's teammates are clearly receptive to what he has to say.

The first-string offense caught my eye when they went up against the starting defense. The shotgun empty-backfield package was really impressive. Anderson has a lot of targets at his disposal with receivers Braylon Edwards, Donte' Stallworth and Josh Cribbs as well as tight ends Kellen Winslow and rookie Martin Rucker. Stallworth and Rucker are two more of Savage's offseason acquisitions.

Anderson put on a clinic on the deep ball passing attack with Edwards. On a number of occasions, Edwards would streak down the field with a corner on his hip and Anderson would try to overthrow Edwards, who would switch gears and burst to the ball leaving the corner behind. Edwards got to every ball and the play started to look uncoverable.

It's not all about the skill positions for the Browns. When you look at the offensive and defensive lines, collectively they have one of the best groups of in the league.

Second-year offensive tackle Joe Thomas is already a premiere player at his position. The same can be said of guard Eric Steinbach.

When you add Rogers and Williams to the front four, the unit should take a major step forward.

Even with all the positives the Browns have going, there's a chance the team could go 9-7 and actually be a better than a year ago. The schedule is tough, but the Browns will give the Pittsburgh Steelers all they can handle in the AFC North race and have a good shot to make the playoffs.

Here are some issues that have to be resolved for the Browns to meet their expectations:

1. Can the pass rush produce?

Kamerion Wimbley has to at least regain his 2006 form as an edge rusher and probably needs to get in the neighborhood of 12 sacks. Having Corey Williams on the opposite side will help, but in the end, Wimbley needs another presence. Outside backer Antwan Peek might have been the answer, but he had arthroscopic knee surgery to remove a piece of cartilage recently and is expected to miss the preseason. With Shaun Rogers on the nose and also working in the nickel package, there will be opportunities to blitz the inside linebackers much like the Steelers do. The Browns need the pressure to help the young corners on the field. The group will be better, but consistency is important.

2. Can Jamal Lewis deliver again?

Lewis came to Cleveland last year on a one-year deal and was a dominating runner. He got a big contract and came back even hungrier this year. He built a big sand pit at his home in Atlanta and worked extremely hard. He looks lighter and more powerful this season. I would be surprised if he didn't rush for more than 1,200 yards and add another 300 yards receiving. If he goes down with an injury, the Browns like Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison, but there would be a significant dropoff.

3. How do the Browns replace Leigh Bodden?

Bodden was part of the trade that sent Rogers to Cleveland and he has to be replaced. Eric Wright shined as a rookie last year and is on the verge of being a star. On the other side, Brandon McDonald is the current starter but that isn't a lock until he shows the organization he can do it every down. I think the Browns will continue to look for a trade to bring in another corner, especially one who can help with matchups against the taller receivers they defend. The nickel back right now is Terry Cousin, but that could change over the next month.

4. Will the Browns get any new contracts done?

The Browns have enough cap space left to do a contract extension or two this summer or fall. Kellen Winslow told me he has put his contract issues aside for the season and is focused on football only. I don't anticipate a new contract for Winslow during the preseason or regular season. Safety Sean Jones is in his contract year and has the size and numbers to warrant a new deal. I get the feeling the Browns will wait this one out until they see more from Jones, especially since the market for premiere safeties could be upwards of $6 million a year. Braylon Edwards could also be a candidate for a new deal, but there wasn't much talk about anything pending. At this point, it looks like there will not be any new contracts before the midseason mark, if there are any at all.

5. Who is the third receiver?

Joe Jurevicius is still out with an injury, and it may be a while before he returns. There's some question where he'll be back at all. Cleveland has to find and develop the third wide out for this offense. Although Kevin Kasper had the early lead, he's been nursing a hamstring injury. Josh Cribbs is an intriguing candidate, but how much do the Browns want to risk the great returner? Cribbs told me he wants in on the competition and figures the coaches will build a package for him. I suspect the coaches will develop a "Steve Smith" kind of series of plays for Cribbs. The next option is third-year wide receiver Travis Wilson. He got a vote of confidence from one front office executive, and Derek Anderson had nice things to say about his development. If there was a game tomorrow, I think the Browns might put Martin Rucker at tight end and work Winslow as the third receiver. That package might give Anderson the best set of weapons in a two-minute drill.

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