Top pick Braylon Edwards idolized Jerry Rice as a kid but won’t wear No. 80 because that’s the number of Kellen Winslow. Edwards will wear No. 17. “It’s new. You haven’t seen any receivers wear No. 17,” he said.
Cornerback Daylon McCutcheon (third-round draft pick) and placekicker Phil Dawson (free agent) are the only players who remain from the Browns’ expansion roster of 1999.
Raven droppings Although Phil Savage started his NFL career with the old Browns in 1991, he built his reputation as a talent sleuth with the Baltimore Ravens. As Browns GM, Savage acquired former Ravens Trent Dilfer, Gary Baxter and Kyle Richardson.
Savage made four trades in his first three months on the job. He traded Gerard Warren to Denver for a fourth-round pick, used that fourth-round pick in a trade with Seattle for Trent Dilfer, traded Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers to Denver for Reuben Droughns, and sent Luke McCown to Tampa Bay for a sixth-round pick.
Mark it down
The Browns ended long losing streaks in 2003 and 2004 by winning their 16th game on the road by the same score of 22–14. This season, the Browns close out their schedule at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Prophecy: “The Browns have made incremental progress every year in their ability to run the ball and stop the run on defense, but there is a long way to go for them to compete at the highest level.”
The Lie: “Butch Davis removed an albatross from his neck when he replaced Tim Couch with Jeff Garcia.”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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The Cleveland Browns are starting over again. Entering their seventh season since returning as an expansion franchise in 1999, the Browns have their first general manager and third head coach.
It was no accident that owner Randy Lerner moved 180 degrees in his thinking on the makeup of his football operation. After four years of former coach Butch Davis calling all the shots, Lerner wanted a clear delineation of duties for his general manager and coach.
The new setup gives GM Phil Savage full authority in the draft and the makeup of the final roster. Savage, 40, got his NFL start in Cleveland in the 1990s under former Browns coach Bill Belichick. When the old team was moved to Baltimore, Savage developed into one of the best talent evaluators in the league. He assisted in the drafting of 10 eventual Pro Bowl players in nine years with the Ravens.
For his coach, Savage turned to Romeo Crennel, who earned his third Super Bowl championship in four seasons as Belichick's defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots. Crennel, 58, also won two championships with the New York Giants under Bill Parcells.
Savage wasted no time in overhauling the roster he inherited. In his first three months on the job, he signed nine free agents, made four trades and oversaw his first Cleveland draft.
One of Savage's first personnel decisions was to stabilize the quarterback position. He chose to trade for 11-year veteran Trent Dilfer, who earned a Super Bowl ring with Baltimore in 2000. Dilfer hasn't started 16 games since 1998, but he convinced Savage he was in great shape and was determined to finish his career with a bang. He signed a four-year contract.
Savage sees Dilfer as a transitional quarterback who can double as a mentor to rookie Charlie Frye and second-year prospect Josh Harris. Frye was a popular third-round draft choice from Akron who has the intangibles of Brett Favre, if not the rocket arm.
After failing to steal restricted free agent Chester Taylor from the Ravens, Savage traded for Reuben Droughns, the latest 1,000-yard rusher from the Denver Broncos' assembly line. Droughns will compete for the starting halfback spot with Lee Suggs, who closed the 2004 season with three straight 100-yard games.
Droughns is an inside runner who has that classic first step Denver teaches to avoid the initial tackler. Suggs has more outside speed but has struggled to stay healthy. He missed six games last year with neck and toe injuries. This one-two punch may line up together in the backfield on occasion. Former starter William Green went unclaimed on the trading market and could return in a reduced backup role.
Fullback Terrelle Smith may be the beneficiary of the offensive philosophy brought by new coordinator Maurice Carthon, a former NFL running back.
The Browns haven't had a true No. 1 receiver since they were reborn in 1999. They feel that first-round pick Braylon Edwards of Michigan will more than adequately fill that role.
Edwards, rated by many as the top player in the 2005 draft, strung together three successive 1,000-yard receiving seasons at Michigan, demonstrating good speed and the ability to outjump and outmuscle defenders for the ball. If Edwards is an immediate starter, holdovers Andre Davis, Antonio Bryant and Dennis Northcutt will battle for the other wideout spot.
The wild card in the passing game was to be second-year tight end Kellen Winslow, coming back from a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments. But Winslow's second season was ended when he suffered multiple injuries in a motorcycle accident in early May. Backup tight ends Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea are dependable veterans but lack the playmaking ability of Winslow.
A traditional franchise weakness was bolstered in free agency when Savage moved quickly to sign veteran guards Joe Andruzzi from New England and Cosey Coleman from Tampa Bay. Both players earned Super Bowl rings with their former teams. Savage hopes the presence of the experienced twosome will most benefit third-year center Jeff Faine, who was a first-round pick in 2003. Faine, however, could receive competition from backup Melvin Fowler, who played better last year, according to the outgoing offensive line coach. If tackles Ross Verba and Ryan Tucker can stay healthy, the Browns feel the line can be competitive.
Savage ran roughshod over this position, trading or cutting four key players, including former No. 1 picks Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren. Part of the overhaul was due to Crennel's switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme. But the exodus of Brown and Warren represented concerted efforts to cut losses from disappointing high draft picks.
Crennel wasn't sure about his strength up front, but he figured to head into training camp with a starting lineup of Orpheus Roye at left end, free-agent pickup Jason Fisk at nosetackle and Alvin McKinley at right end. Roye, who joined the Browns in 2000, is the best free-agent signing the club has made.
This area figures to receive a lot of scrutiny and coaching in Crennel's first training camp as he converts to the 3-4. The roster lacks a proven outside "edge" rusher, of which the defense needs two. The early candidates to start on the outside were Matt Stewart, a free-agent pickup from Atlanta, and Chaun Thompson, an athletic second-round pick in 2003. Mid-round draft picks David McMillan of Kansas and Nick Speegle of New Mexico could get long looks simply because the competition is not loaded with candidates. Had the Browns found a higher-rated outside linebacker in the draft, Stewart might have been moved inside. Those positions now will be manned by Andra Davis, a sturdy tackler who was the middle linebacker in the previous 4-3 scheme, and Ben Taylor, a fourth-round pick in 2002 who has not been able to stay healthy.
It's possible there could be four new starters by season's end, though it will begin with Daylon McCutcheon manning one cornerback spot for the seventh consecutive year. He'll be joined by Gary Baxter, whom Savage welcomed to Cleveland when he backed out of a verbal agreement to re-sign with Baltimore. The physical Baxter should help the team's perimeter run defense.
The starting safeties will come from a training camp battle between Chris Crocker, who ended 2004 as one starter; Brian Russell, a two-year starter with Minnesota acquired in free agency; Sean Jones, a 2004 second-round draft choice who sat out his rookie year after knee surgery; and rookie second-round draft pick Brodney Pool of Oklahoma.
Placekicker Phil Dawson, a free agent signee in 1999, joins McCutcheon as the only players left from the Browns' expansion roster. Savage corrected a problem area by signing veteran punter Kyle Richardson in free agency. The return game was energized by the addition of fourth-round draft choice Antonio Perkins.
Savage has enormous confidence in Crennel and coordinator Todd Grantham being able to incorporate and teach the 3-4 defensive scheme with a defensive roster that is lacking in playmakers. That side of the ball will take time -- a few offseasons of acquisitions -- to fully develop. In the meantime, the offense on paper looks like it should be the team's strength. If the line can keep Dilfer healthy through 16 games, he has enough playmakers in Edwards, Davis, Northcutt, Droughns and Suggs to help out the defense with possession time and points.