In February, the Browns released three starting linebackers and a fourth who went to the Pro Bowl in 2001.
In short, the team's linebacking situation does not appear to be settled.
"We'd give up stuff in the experience aspect of it," coach Butch Davis said when asked what would happen if the team played with the linebackers the team has. "From a speed standpoint, we'd probably be faster."
Davis' statement was made with the best Alfred E. Neuman "What Me Worry" air. Davis is definitely following the Dallas model in building the Browns defense. That means build a strong defensive line and then get athletic linebackers who can run. It doesn't matter who the linebackers are, just that they fit the mold.
The Browns have three ways to address the linebacker issue before training camp -- the draft, bargain basement hunting in free agency, and relying on last year's draft.
Davis seems to be casting his lot with the three players he took on the second day of the draft. And he's doing it even though none of the three saw significant playing time as rookies.
Bentley had the most time, but it seemed to decrease as the year went on. Davis had an athletic interception in overtime against Pittsburgh in September -- "A great play," the coach said -- but hardly played the rest of the season. Taylor fought injuries all year long.
All three will be given a chance to play this season.
And of the three, Andra Davis may be the most ready to play. He is penciled in to replace Holmes, who was taken off the field in passing situations last year.
"You'd like to get guys that can play through every down and distance situation," Butch Davis said. "You don't have to be subbing guys in and out all the time. Maybe Andra Davis will give us that."
Once the draft is complete, the Browns then can survey remaining free agents to see if they can find a bargain. They found Darren Hambrick that way prior to last season, and he or another linebacker may take a similar deal this offseason.
When the Browns were drafting in the top three of the first round, as they did from 1999-2001, it was obvious there were needs and specific players they were considering. Now that they've made the playoffs and they're picking 21st, the Browns can narrow their search down to one simple idea: Best player available. Well, best player at certain positions. The Browns are not going to draft a quarterback, wide receiver or running back first. That leaves defense, the offensive line and (in a longshot) tight end. Most likely scenario? The Browns draft an offensive lineman or linebacker with their first pick, then fill in defensive needs as the draft progresses.
Linebacker, cornerback, offensive line, defensive line.
LB: The Browns purged their linebacker crew in February when they released three players and let Darren Hambrick go to free agency. The team has three draftees from a year ago as well as Brant Boyer and Barry Gardner, but could use an upgrade at the position.
CB: Corey Fuller's departure leaves the Browns with Anthony Henry trying to make the transition from nickel back to fulltime player. Henry struggled in 12 starts in 2002, though, so if a top player is available he'd be intriguing.
OL: Though the Browns ran the ball well the second half of the season, the line still could use some strength and depth.
DL: Butch Davis builds his defenses from the line back, so if a defensive lineman is on the board that can help, he'll be the selection.