The loss of Fichtner will cause considerable shuffling of defensive backs. Head Coach Blanton Collier must not only replace Fichtner, but he must find a new cornerback, as well. Mike Howell, a regular at right corner but not a good tackier, will bid for Fichtner's free-safety spot while Ben Davis, who led the NFL in punt returns last season, will be tried out at Howell's old spot. The other cornerback will likely be Erich Barnes, who has been around quite awhile but still has speed and a sincere desire to jolt receivers. Ernie Kellermann is a veteran strong-side safety. If anyone breaks into this quartet, it probably will be Jim Bradshaw, a safety acquired from the Steelers. Reserve depth will come from a promising rookie group of Tom Schoen of Notre Dame, Al Mitchell of Morgan State and Nate James of Florida A&M.
Although Don Cockroft, a combination punter-placekicker who was on the cab squad in 1967, has been given another test, it's likely that Gary Collins will do the punting again. He finished 15th in the league in 1967, but a bad knee hampered him and he is a better punter than that. Upshaw and Morin can kick field goals. In exhibition games, an AFL reject, Errol Mann, was kicking both field goals and extra points, but then the Browns cut him, indicating they still count on Groza.
The Browns should win their division handily. If they go any farther it will be because they have heard—and heeded—Blanton Collier.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
With six 1967 starters missing from their defensive team, with a quarterback in only his second season and with a widely discussed racial problem to complicate matters, the St. Louis Cardinals do not appear ready to take over the leadership of the Century Division.
Coach Charley Winner is trying to rebuild a defensive unit which dropped from first in 1966 to 10th in 1967 in total yardage allowed. He has traded away the two cornerbacks—Pat Fischer and Jim Burson—and is looking for better speed at those positions because the Cardinals were badly hurt on long touchdown passes in 1967. Not all of the fault lies with the cornerbacks, of course. The St. Louis defensive ends did not put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and one of them, Joe Robb, has been traded to Detroit. Sam Silas, who made the Pro Bowl team in 1966, was an effective pass rusher in 1967, but he has gone to New York in exchange for a future draft choice. The Cardinals have veteran Chuck Walker and two good youngsters, Fred Heron (6'4", 250) and Bob Rowe (6'4", 260), to work at the tackle posts. It is likely that Dave Long will take over for Robb at defensive left end. Rookie Joe Schmiesing of New Mexico State will be the starting defensive right end, but the Cardinal defensive line must be rated as a question mark.
The linebacking situation is no better. Ernie Clark, acquired in the trade with Detroit, provides experience and ability on one corner. Larry Stallings, who will get weekend passes from the Army in order to play, and Dave Meggyesy, a six-year veteran, will share the right side.
Replacing Dale Meinert in the middle will be rookie Jamie Rivers, with Mike Strofolino, who came to the Cards from Baltimore and spent the last two seasons on the cab squad, backing him up. Rookies would provide depth here.
The Cardinals' defensive backfield once was one of the best in the league, but now only Larry Wilson and Jerry Stovall are left, and Stovall looked as if he would have to miss a couple of early games with an injured thigh. If so, Mike Barnes will take his place. A rookie from Grambling named Bob Atkins, who is 6'3" and weighs 212, will probably start at the left cornerback position. He has tremendous speed and the reflexes needed. Either Bobby Williams or Brady Keys, who was with Pittsburgh for years, will be at the other corner.
The St. Louis offense sputtered during the last half of 1967 when young Jim Hart, forced to take over after Charley Johnson was called up for military duty, began to throw interceptions. It is reasonable to assume that the experience he gained in 1967 will make him a better quarterback this year, but quarterbacks do not develop in a year or two. Johnson hopes to use accumulated leave days to get away from the Army at least part of each week, and, if he could return, the Cardinal attack would improve considerably. But Winner, the head coach, is understandably reluctant to use a part-time quarterback, even as a backup man. However, the rookie quarterbacks have not shown enough promise to make Winner prefer them to even a part-time Johnson.