The decision to not re-sign Dennis Northcutt in the off-season was made knowing the Browns would have to find a punt returner for the first time since drafting him in the second round in 2000.
As it has turned out, replacing Northcutt the returner is proving more difficult than replacing Northcutt the receiver. Travis Wilson, in his second year out of Oklahoma, should emerge as the third receiver if he can hold off Tim Carter, the receiver acquired from the Giants when the Browns traded running back Reuben Droughns.
The hunt for Northcutt's replacement on punt returns is starting to focus on third-year player Joshua Cribbs. Cribbs would like to be the third receiver, too, but he is more valuable on special teams both as a returner and in coverage.
Cribbs is fielding the ball cleanly and more consistently than rookies Syndric Steptoe or Brandon McDonald. A punt slipped through McDonald's hands in minicamp Wednesday. At times, Steptoe has taken the safe but unproductive approach of waiting until the ball stops rolling to pick it up.
"Punt returning is really hard," Cribbs said. "Dennis taught me a lot and it started to come to me naturally. Having a great teacher in him -- and once I get more returns under my belt -- it should come easier. With returning punts, there's really nothing set. You have guys running at you hard and it really depends on you making the play."
Cribbs set franchise records for return yardage as a kick returner last year and as a rookie in 2005. He returned one punt for five yards as a rookie.
Last season, Cribbs returned five punts for 46 yards. One was a 34-yard return. He was shaky at times, and did not always catch the ball cleanly. There is very little wind to deal with in northeast Ohio in May and June. The conditions change drastically in November and December.
"There's a lot of competition already and we aren't even in training camp yet," he said. "I'm sitting here sizing everyone up and look to jump ahead when training camp arrives. I do, however, expect to be the punt returner when the season starts."
Cribbs, Steptoe and McDonald will all have the chance to return punts in preseason games.
Williams Staying Inside: Second-year linebacker Leon Williams will not be used at outside linebacker in training camp, even on an experimental basis. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Williams is strictly an inside backer. Williams, D'Qwell Jackson and Andra Davis will compete for two starting jobs.
Barking Babies: About 20 members of the Browns Alumni attended practice Wednesday afternoon, among them Hall of Fame receiver Dante Lavelli and defensive tackle Bob Gain, running back Kevin Mack, linebacker Jim Houston and wide receiver Reggie Langhorne.
At the end of practice, the rookies, led by Brady Quinn, separated from the veterans and announced to the Alumni in a loud chorus: "We're glad you're here!" They followed with loud barking.
Risky Tussle: A scuffle broke out, as often happens in practice when the humidity is high, between rookie tackle Joe Thomas and rookie defensive end Chase Pittman. No one was injured but coach Romeo Crennel was not pleased.
"I told both of them that if they break their hand they get fined because they're not going to be able to be out there on the field," Crennel said. "And we'll get penalized if they're fighting in the game. Don't get a 15-yard penalty. Try and be smarter about hitting guys in the helmet. Hopefully, they'll learn from that."
Grantham Gets Extended: Todd Grantham, the Browns' defensive coordinator since 2005, was rewarded with a two-year extension through 2009. The extension puts Grantham on the same time-table as head coach Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
"You can read into anything with stats, but I think the way the offense works off the defense and vice versa, and the rapport he has with the team makes him successful," general manager Phil Savage said. "He's put two years into rebuilding the team. The fact that we are a 3-4 team and he has experienced that these two years, it just made sense to keep him around. It will help the team.
"We're making a step to continuity which we are really striving to get to. He's a terrific coach, has tremendous upside and we think he has potential to be a head coach."
Grantham was a candidate to be head coach at Michigan State after the 2006 season but lost out to Mark Dantonio. The Browns ranked 27th in team defense last year after ranking 16th in 2005. Numerous injuries in the secondary and the defensive line accounted for the drop-off.
K2 Watch: Minicamp ended without tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. participating. He appears to be in great shape, but he has not fully recovered from microfracture surgery on his right knee Jan. 30. Winslow is declining interview requests until he can practice.
Jump Start Fails: Fullback Alan Ricard was released after the last day of minicamp. He last played for the Ravens in 2005. He was hoping being reunited with Jamal Lewis would energize his career, but it did not.
Quote to Note: "It's a different pace in the NFL compared to the college ranks. I'm learning a lot with everything going on. I want to get out there and win a starting role. I'm going to listen to what ever the coaches say and use that to my advantage." -- Second-round draft pick Eric Wright on playing cornerback in the NFL