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2 Cleveland Browns Butch Davis starts over at linebacker, throwing three second-year players into the lineup

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

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Sept. 1, 2003

NFL Preview 2003

2 Cleveland Browns Butch Davis starts over at linebacker, throwing three second-year players into the lineup

By Peter King Projected lineups and PVRs compiled by David Sabino

Now that the quarterback controversy has been settled, with Kelly
Holcomb winning the starting job, it's time to answer another
important question regarding Cleveland's prospects this season:
Who in the world are those new starting linebackers, and can they
play?

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

Early in the off-season Browns coach and defensive architect
Butch Davis cut last year's starters--Darren Hambrick, Earl
Holmes and Dwayne Rudd--plus rehabbing pass-rush linebacker Jamir
Miller. In their place he penciled in three 2002 second-day draft
picks: Kevin Bentley (fourth round) and Ben Taylor (fourth) on
the outside with Andra Davis (fifth) in the middle. None of the
three have started an NFL game. Which leads to yet another
important question: Coach, have you gone mad?

"I knew the purge was coming, I just didn't know it would be this
soon," says Butch Davis. "Then I saw how we played at linebacker
last year. Our starters were a nonfactor on special teams, and we
needed more speed and versatility at the position. Did you know
that our starting linebackers totaled one sack and one
interception last year?"

Holmes is a great run-stuffer, but how effective could he have
been if Cleveland ranked 27th in rushing defense last year? Plus,
the NFL game now requires more speed at the linebacker spots than
ever before. Until this season Philadelphia, for example, favored
huge middle linebackers in its scheme; the Eagles signed a quick,
small Falcons backup, Mark Simoneau, to be their defensive
quarterback this season. Similarly, Butch Davis and his new
defensive coordinator, Dave Campo, have embraced speed and youth
at all three linebacker slots.

Of the three, Bentley got the most playing time in the regular
defense last year. Taylor, the defensive leader at Virginia Tech
for three years, played well early in camp. Andra Davis is a
technically sound player with more quickness than his 255 pounds
would suggest; he had 24 tackles for a loss in three seasons at
Florida. "I understand why people are wondering about us," he
says. "None of us have been battle-tested, but we know we can
play. Why not put us out there now and let us grow?"

"In our scheme," says Taylor, "the defensive line keeps the
offensive line off the linebackers. We're supposed to be the
playmakers. Coach Campo is on us every day, telling us there are
no excuses. No one cares that we haven't played before. We know
we have to get it done now."

The new linebackers will be challenged early: Cleveland plays
four explosive offenses--Indianapolis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh
and Oakland--in its first six games. Yet it's hard to predict how
they will perform when there are also questions about the
effectiveness of the front four. In making defensive end Courtney
Brown the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft and Gerard Warren the No.
3 pick in '01, the Browns expected to have a dynamic pass-rushing
duo by now. Instead, Brown and Warren have a combined 18 sacks in
63 career games. Brown is recovering from risky microfracture
surgery last December (a hole was drilled in his left knee to
stimulate the growth of cartilage that would cut down on
bone-on-bone contact in the joint), and he says he'll be ready
opening week. He missed the first two preseason games, however,
because he felt that the knee wasn't in game shape. With the
exception of brief flashes of dominance in the last month of his
rookie year, Warren's tenure has been marked by an alarming lack
of productivity. Never was that more evident than this preseason;
he had zero tackles in the first three preseason games.

The new linebackers will have their hands full in September
whether Brown and Warren are on their games or not. "I hope the
young bucks can step it up," says Warren. "We need them. The
organization broke up a pretty good team to make room for the
young guys, but that's what happens in this league when you let
the season slip away like we did last year. Change happens."
--P.K.

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF CHRISTENSEN/REUTERS THE FUTURE IS NOW Bentley (below), Davis and Taylor provide the speed and versatility needed by the Browns' defense.COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS ANDRE' DAVISCOLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

The team's first-round draft pick in 2002, running back WILLIAM
GREEN looked like a flop through his first nine games: 161 yards,
2.3 per carry. But over the last seven games, he ran for 726
yards and averaged 4.2 per rush. With the uncertainty surrounding
the defense, Green needs to play with the confidence he had in
the second half.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"You could tell last season that Kelly Holcomb is the better
quarterback and that Tim Couch has some holes. Holcomb's a
natural leader; Couch always looks as if there's something
holding him back.... I like their receiver depth, but I'd play
Andre' Davis more. He's a star waiting to happen, and he and
Dennis Northcutt are deep threats the Browns should be using to
stretch the defense.... Butch Davis overrates Jeff Faine--and
you're going to have some mistakes from a rookie. Their whole
line is like Shaun O'Hara: tough as nails but limited
strengthwise and athletically.... On defense Gerard Warren's been
stealing money for two years. He should be so much better
collapsing the line. With his degenerative knee, Courtney Brown
could be out of the league within a year.... I loved Ben Taylor
coming out of Virginia Tech, and I love Butch's move to play his
young linebackers. Why not? The old guys didn't fit his
scheme.... They'll have the best special teams in the division.
Chris Crocker [a rookie defensive back from Marshall] will be one
of the best special teams players in the league by November."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 INDIANAPOLIS
14 at Baltimore
21 at San Francisco
28 CINCINNATI

Oct. 5 at Pittsburgh
12 OAKLAND
19 SAN DIEGO
26 at New England

Nov. 2 Open date
9 at Kansas City
16 ARIZONA
23 PITTSBURGH
30 at Seattle

Dec. 8 ST. LOUIS (Mon.)
14 at Denver
21 BALTIMORE
28 at Cincinnati

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 22
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .480
Games against playoff teams: 5

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 9-7
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 23/18/23
DEFENSE 27/15/21

COACH: Butch Davis; third season with Cleveland (16-16 in NFL)

WILLIAM GREEN

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 55 243 887 3.7

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
16 113 7.1 6

KELLY HOLCOMB

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 78 106 64 60.4

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
790 8 4 92.9

AARON SHEA

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
H-B 279 7 49 0

KEVIN JOHNSON

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 112 67 703 4

STEVE HEIDEN

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 310 17 105 1

ROSS VERBA

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'4" 308 lbs. 16 16

BARRY STOKES

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'4" 310 lbs. 16 16

JEFF FAINE[1] (R)

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'3" 303 lbs. 13 13

SHAUN O'HARA

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'3" 306 lbs. 16 16

RYAN TUCKER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'5" 305 lbs. 14 14

QUINCY MORGAN

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 81 56 964 7

DEFENSE

RE COURTNEY BROWN 42 tackles 2 sacks
RT ORPHEUS ROYE 55 tackles 1/2 sack
LT GERARD WARREN 40 tackles 2 sacks
LE KENARD LANG 46 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
OLB KEVIN BENTLEY 34 tackles 0 sacks
MLB ANDRA DAVIS 5 tackles 1 int.
OLB BEN TAYLOR 3 tackles 0 sacks
CB DAYLON MCCUTCHEON 42 tackles 1 int.
SS ROBERT GRIFFITH 73 tackles 3 int.
FS EARL LITTLE 61 tackles 4 int.
CB ANTHONY HENRY 62 tackles 2 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K PHIL DAWSON 221 34/35 XPS 22/28 FGS 100 PTS.
PR DENNIS NORTHCUTT 163 25 RET. 14.7 AVG. 2 TDS
KR ANDRE' DAVIS 133 50 RET. 21.4 AVG. 1 TD
P CHRIS GARDOCKI 81 PUNTS 41.8 AVG.

[1] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"Their offensive line is tough as nails but limited strengthwise
and athletically."