The Cleveland Browns selected the physically-gifted defensive end Courtney Brown with the very first selection in the 2000 draft. With the third selection in the 2001 draft, they picked heralded defensive tackle Gerard Warren. Checkbook and pen in hand, the team eagerly pursued linebackers Dwayne Rudd and Earl Holmes, defensive backs Robert Griffith and Percy Ellsworth, and linemen Orpheus Roye and Kenard Lang.
The team's best defensive player in the post-betrayal era, however, has been none of those players.
Linebacker Jamir Miller has been the brightest spot on the Browns defense since he fell through the free agent cracks into the team's lap in 1999.
Signed initially to a one-year contract, the Browns front office was delighted to sign Miller to a contract extension as they watched most of their defensive moves implode during their horrific first year. Quickly establishing himself as a leader on the field and in the locker room, Miller seemed to get better the longer he was in a Browns uniform.
The linebacker's best year was 2001, a season in which he recorded 13 sacks and over 100 tackles. Partially as a result of the up-front pressure applied by Miller and others in the Browns front seven, the team's lightly-regarded defensive backfield suddenly emerged as ballhawks, with rookie Anthony Henry leading the charge with 10 interceptions.
Miller's stellar performance on the playing field, however, has never resulted in much publicly-displayed respect from the team's executives.
Head Coach Butch Davis never seemed to warm up to his best linebacker. Prior to the 2002 season, as Miller entered the last year of his contract, the player began positioning for a new deal and Davis positioned the team as being able to move on without him. Davis offered his opinion that the linebacker was the benefactor of a defensive scheme created by since-departed defensive coordinator Foge Fazio and displayed little enthusiasm for a contract extension.
The team's bargaining position with Miller became unassailable when he suffered an achilles tear early in a 2002 exhibition game against the Vikings. Miller was placed on injured reserve and the season and talk of a big-dollar contract extension evaporated. After allowing an unpayable roster bonus to be added to the contract early in 2003, the team was able to unceremoniously dump the linebacker without any significant debate or backlash.
As the team's perception of his likely asking price has decreased, Davis has talked in more positive terms about his skills and bringing him back to the club. The team's strategy, as espoused by team President Carmen Policy, has been to allow Miller to test the market in order to set his price.
The Browns have clearly felt that the remainder of the league would view a return from injury as problematic and that Miller would come back to the team and sign for a cap-friendly amount. As Miller has taken a backseat to other free agent linebackers, such as Takeo Spikes and Roosevelt Colvin, the Browns strategy seemed to work out beautifully.
Come back home, Jamir. We hope you've learned a valuable lesson.
Something seems to be happening, however, on the way to a happy low-cost ending for the Browns. As top-tier linebackers such as Spikes and Colvin have signed deals, a number of teams looking for potential bargains have begun to turn their attention to Miller.
Each of these clubs offer interesting opportunities for a player with Miller's background and ability to play with both linebacker and defensive end. Kansas City offers a potential playoff contender and player-friendly head coach Dick Vermiel. The Bucs, who have opened up over $2.5 million in cap space with a renegotiated contract with Keyshawn Johnson, offer the opportunity to play for a Super Bowl champion and be part of a dominating defense.
The Ravens give Miller an chance to line up on the same field with Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware, and possibly chase the quarterback from the position previously occupied by Mike McCrary. The Ravens would also offer an opportunity to play with fellow 1999 defender Corey Fuller and tear up his old club. Twice. Each. Year.
Counting the Browns, at least four clubs are now publicly seen as being interested in Miller. As a purported financial wizard, newly secure team president Carmen Policy should be fully cognizant of the laws of supply and demand.
There's still a chance that the Browns strategy will Miller will pay off, and that the team will get him back at a bargain price. As the free agent period develops, however, there are signs that it could backfire on the team and they could lose the best defensive player of the expansion era.
If the notion of Jamir Miller lining up with Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware doesn't alarm Browns executives, I would strongly recommend therapy or shock treatments.
By the end of the 2003 season, we may all need them.