The Cleveland Browns, champions of the Century Division in 1967 and patsies in the playoffs, are caught up in a youth movement. They added 12 rookies to their 40-man roster last year and by necessity will add almost that many again this season. Four starters were gone before training camp began. Defensive End and Captain Paul Wiggin has retired to be an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker John Brewer retired, then signed with the New Orleans Saints, and two players, Guard John Wooten and Defensive Back Ross Fichtner, were dropped by Owner Art Modell after Fichtner, promoting a golf tournament, failed to invite any of the Browns' Negro players and Wooten decided to make an issue of the matter.
Add to this imposing list of absentees injured Ernie Green, one of the best combination runner-blocker fullbacks around, and it is obvious that the Browns will have a new look for 1968, if not necessarily a better one.
The quarterback, of course, will be the same. Gray, scholarly Frank Ryan hobbled to a surprisingly good season on two bad ankles in 1967; the ankles destroyed his mobility and made him a sitting duck for blitzers. He should be considerably better this year with the ability to run for his life added to his other skills. Behind Ryan is another veteran, acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is Bill Nelsen, and he should give the Browns at least as good backup strength as they had with Jim Ninowski. As a plus, he is much younger than Ninowski, a factor to be considered in view of Ryan's age—32. Nelsen, who was hampered by injuries during his career at Pittsburgh, has developed into a strong backup for Ryan and adds strength at this position.
Until Ernie Green was injured in the first preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams, the Browns could reasonably claim to have the best starting backs in football. Leroy Kelly led the league in rushing with 1,205 yards, and Green added 710. Both were good receivers, as well. Green suffered a knee injury, the exact extent of which was still undetermined at the start of regular-season play. If he comes back, the Browns once more will have the most effective ground game in the East. If not, the replacements drop off sharply in quality.
The first-line pass catchers are excellent. Gary Collins at flanker, Paul War-field at split end and Milt Morin at tight end compare with the best in football. Morin was hampered last season by injuries, but the Browns expect him to. become one of the great tight ends. He is 6'4", weighs 245, has speed enough for deep patterns and strength enough to flatten an enemy end or linebacker when he is blocking ahead of a ballcarrier. Warfield and Collins, of course, have bedeviled defensive backs as a team for four years and seem to improve from season to season.
The loss of Wooten may have done serious damage to the Cleveland offensive line, which was not too deep to begin with. John Demarie, a second-year man from Louisiana State who was a substitute tackle in 1967, has done fairly well as a replacement for Wooten, but the club lacks depth behind the starting line. Aside from Demarie, the others are all veterans who have been playing together for some time. They are Monte Clark and Dick Schafrath at the tackles, Gene Hickerson at guard and Fred Hoaglin at center. Behind the starting offensive line, Collier must scratch for really capable deep strength. Injuries would hurt here.
There could be two new faces on the rush line if sophomore Jack Gregory shows enough to beat out veteran Bill Glass at end. Replacing Paul Wiggin at the other end is Marvin Upshaw, a first draft choice from Trinity University of San Antonio. Upshaw may also contribute to the conclusion of the longest career in pro football history—that of Lou Groza. He has been handling Cleveland kickoffs, long the prerogative of the 44-year-old Groza, who is entering his 18th season as a pro. If the Browns can find a reasonably accurate place-kicker, Groza may at last hang up his kicking shoes.
The interior of the defensive line is set and solid with Jim Kanicki and Walt Johnson, both young, big and experienced. The reserve strength is good, and the Browns should have no worries here.
The linebacking seems solid, too. Jim Houston and Dale Lindsey will be on the outside, with Bob Matheson in the middle. Houston, in his ninth year, lends the trio the needed wisdom; Lindsey has played three years and Matheson only one. Behind them are three highly regarded rookies: John Garlington of LSU, Wayne Meylan of Nebraska and Tom Beutler of Toledo. Meylan, at middle linebacker, seems the most impressive of the three.