Lewis is once more running with the burst and power of a workhorse back.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
at New England
at N.Y. Jets
at St. Louis
The King 500
170Joe Thomas, Tackle
The first-rounder got smoked in his first week of practice by linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who made him whiff in a pass-rush drill. "That was a move I never saw in college," Thomas says. But schooled in the pro technique and with a power forward's wingspan, Thomas should handle the league's Wimbleys. He's got one early fan in running back Jamal Lewis. "Joe's a man already," says Lewis. "He's not going to get pushed around."
On the strength of a superb draft and some savvy off-season pickups, the future is... later. But at least things are looking up
Cleveland enters the season the clear-cut No. 4 team in a four-team
division during a time of nearly unprecedented strength in the AFC and with no
idea who its quarterback will be on Oct. 1. But as general manager Phil
Savage said the day after the draft in April, "I think the sun might finally be
out over this franchise." He's right: No team was as rejuvenated on draft
weekend as the Browns, who got their left tackle of the future, Wisconsin's Joe
Thomas, with the third pick and, they hope, their quarterback of the future,
Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, at No. 22. In the second round Cleveland plucked
a huge risk-reward cornerback, Eric Wright, who might be the long-term twin for
underrated Leigh Bodden.
But the best thing the Browns did in the off-season was to try to establish
offensive consistency by building a running game. They signed Pro Bowl-alternate
guard Eric Steinbach (seven years, $49 million) on the first day of free
agency; Steinbach, 27, and Thomas, 22, should form a solid wall on the left side
of the line. Cleveland followed by picking up discarded Ravens running back
Jamal Lewis, who'll be looking to rejuvenate his career.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
If Savage knows what he's doing, this will be a good team, and maybe a
very good one -- in 2009. The Browns just might have five of the most important
positions on the field covered for the long term in Quinn, Thomas, corners
Bodden and Wright and pass-rushing outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. All are
25 or younger. Bodden and Wimbley had breakout years in '06; you may not have
heard of them, but they're on their way to becoming premier players. Cleveland
also may have a game-breaking wide receiver, 2005 first-rounder Braylon Edwards,
who had 61 catches last year, but he's been plagued by injuries and off-field
issues (a torn right ACL; flare-ups with staff and teammates) since being
drafted. If the Browns really are living right, and all six pan out, they'll be
contenders for years. If two or three of those players go in the tank or
Cleveland doesn't continue to build successfully around them, this will continue
to be the Pigpen of football franchises.
Lewis should help bridge the gap to respectability. After rushing for 2,066
yards in 2003 (the second-highest single-season total in NFL history) and
gaining a solid 4.3 yards per carry in '04, he totaled only 2,038 yards
over '05 and '06, at a measly 3.5-yard clip. But he was slowed by right-ankle
surgery in '05 and bone spurs in the same ankle last year. (They were removed
early in '07). Properly motivated, the 5' 11" Lewis came to Browns camp at a
rock-solid 239 pounds and early on surprised the coaches and personnel
staff with a burst they didn't expect from him. "I know I can be a dominant
runner again in this league," says Lewis, 28. "I'm making cuts I haven't made in
years because I feel like a kid again. This line is suited to me -- I have mean,
hungry guys in a system that stresses running first. I'm seeing holes I haven't
seen in a long time." It'll be up to the line, and eventually Quinn, to make
sure Lewis isn't battered into submission before this team gets good.
On defense Cleveland still is too stopgap at too many positions. Defensive
tackle Ted Washington played 48.5% of the defensive snaps last year and could
play as many this year -- at age 39. The Browns were 2-7 in the last two months of
the season and got strafed for 22 points or more in seven of those games.
They're hoping better coverage and consistent pressure from Wimbley can be the
start of something good, though the run defense must significantly improve on
the 4.4 yards per carry it allowed in '06. In fact, the Cleveland defense has
not been under 4.0 for a season since the reincarnation of the team in 1999, a
horrible streak of generosity against the run.
Opponents outrushed the Browns by 59 yards a game last year, and until that
changes, all the shouting for Quinn to take over the starting job will drown out
the real issue: The Browns simply have to run better and stop the run better.
"We know we have to knock people off the ball, and stop getting knocked off the
ball, in order to win," says coach Romeo Crennel. "But that's usually what you
need to get done on a team that hasn't been very good for a while."
If the Browns are this year's Miracle Mets, we'll know early. They play the
Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Patriots in the first 29 days of the season.
Crennel probably won't be around to oversee Cleveland in the long term; he's not
even the one who brought in new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the choice
of Savage. But the coach from the Parcells-Belichick school can get things
headed in the right direction. "I see this team being in Year One of a great
turnaround," says Steinbach. If nothing else, at least the Browns are talking a
good game these days.
-- Peter King