> Clevelandenters the season the clear-cut No.¬†4 team in a four-team division duringa time of nearly unprecedented strength in the AFC and with no idea who itsquarterback will be on Oct.¬†1. But as general manager Phil Savage said theday after the draft in April, "I think the sun might finally be out overthis franchise." He's right: No team was as rejuvenated on draft weekend asthe 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, NotreDame's Brady Quinn, at No.¬†22. In the second round Cleveland plucked ahuge risk-reward cornerback, Eric Wright, who might be the long-term twin forunderrated Leigh Bodden.
But the bestthing the Browns did in the off-season was to try to establish offensiveconsistency by building a running game. They signed Pro Bowl-alternate guardEric 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 theline. Cleveland followed by picking up discarded Ravens running back JamalLewis, who'll be looking to rejuvenate his career.
> If Savageknows what he's doing, this will be a good team, and maybe a very good one--in2009. The Browns just might have five of the most important positions on thefield covered for the long term in Quinn, Thomas, corners Bodden and Wright andpass-rushing outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. All are 25 or younger. Boddenand Wimbley had breakout years in '06; you may not have heard of them, butthey're on their way to becoming premier players. Cleveland also may have agame-breaking wide receiver, 2005 first-rounder Braylon Edwards, who had 61catches last year, but he's been plagued by injuries and off-field issues (atorn right ACL; flare-ups with staff and teammates) since being drafted. If theBrowns really are living right, and all six pan out, they'll be contenders foryears. If two or three of those players go in the tank or Cleveland doesn'tcontinue to build successfully around them, this will continue to be the Pigpenof football franchises.
Lewis should helpbridge the gap to respectability. After rushing for 2,066 yards in 2003 (thesecond-highest single-season total in NFL history) and gaining a solid4.3¬†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 andbone 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-solid239¬†pounds and early on surprised the coaches and personnel staff with aburst they didn't expect from him. "I know I can be a dominant runner againin this league," says Lewis, 28. "I'm making cuts I haven't made inyears 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'tseen in a long time." It'll be up to the line, and eventually Quinn, tomake sure Lewis isn't battered into submission before this team gets good.
On defenseCleveland still is too stopgap at too many positions. Defensive tackle TedWashington played 48.5% of the defensive snaps last year and could play as manythis year--at age 39. The Browns were 2-7 in the last two months of the seasonand got strafed for 22 points or more in seven of those games. They're hopingbetter coverage and consistent pressure from Wimbley can be the start ofsomething good, though the run defense must significantly improve on the 4.4yards per carry it allowed in '06. In fact, the Cleveland defense has not beenunder 4.0 for a season since the reincarnation of the team in 1999, a horriblestreak of generosity against the run.
Opponentsoutrushed the Browns by 59 yards a game last year, and until that changes, allthe shouting for Quinn to take over the starting job will drown out the realissue: The Browns simply have to run better and stop the run better. "Weknow we have to knock people off the ball, and stop getting knocked off theball, in order to win," says coach Romeo Crennel. "But that's usuallywhat you need to get done on a team that hasn't been very good for awhile."
If the Browns arethis 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'tbe around to oversee Cleveland in the long term; he's not even the one whobrought in new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the choice of Savage. Butthe coach from the Parcells-Belichick school can get things headed in the rightdirection. "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 gamethese days.--P.K.
WITH 2006 STATISTICS
COACH ROMEO CRENNEL (10-22 in NFL), third season with Browns
JAMAL LEWIS (NEWACQUISITION)
CHARLIE FRYE (NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 5"
SETH MCKINNEY*(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 2"
ERIC STEINBACH(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 6"
JOE THOMAS (R)(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 6"
ROBAIRE SMITH(NEW ACQUISITION)
ANTWAN PEEK (NEWACQUISITION)
ERIC WRIGHT (R)(NEW ACQUISITION)
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD4-12 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 31/23/31 DEFENSE 29/15/27
23 at Oakland
7 at New England
28 at St. Louis
11 at Pittsburgh
18 at Baltimore
2 at Arizona
9 at N.Y. Jets
23 at Cincinnati
30 SAN FRANCISCO
NFL rank T12
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .508
Games against playoff teams 5
Instant access to the latest and best Browns stories, stats and blogs fromacross the Web, handpicked by SI's editors.
THE KING 500
The first-rounder got smoked in his first week of practice by linebackerKamerion Wimbley, who made him whiff in a pass-rush drill. "That was a moveI never saw in college," Thomas says. But schooled in the pro technique andwith 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 manalready," says Lewis. "He's not going to get pushed around."
AN OPPOSINGTEAM'S SCOUT SIZESUP THE BROWNS
> I laughed when I saw the fans anointing BradyQuinn after one game in the preseason--against Detroit backups playing aprevent defense. He's NFL-smart right now after playing for Charlie Weis, buthe'll need to get the right side of that line solidified before he'll haveenough time to be good in the passing game. . . . How can you like a defensiveline starting three guys who'll be 30 during the season? They made a goodsigning in [restricted free-agent] Shaun Smith, who might be the kind of bigbody you build around at the nose. . . . I still can't believe the team withthe biggest defensive-lineman need in the league didn't draft one on the firstday. . . . I'm still not convinced Kamerion Wimbley is a good two-waylinebacker, because he gets pushed around against the run. Very good passrusher, though.
MATTHEW EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE
carry on Lewis is once more running with the burst and power of a workhorse back.
THOMAS E. WITTE