Outside the Perimeter: Veikune is Vital
David Veikune
OBR Columnist
Posted May 7, 2009


Mark Leonard offers some much-needed critical thinking to the Browns situation at linebacker in this week's installment, outlining exactly how important David Veikune is to the 2009 Browns, and much more...

 

To the best of my knowledge Veikune is not Tongan for "savior." But the young man from Hawaii, the club's third second-round draft selection, is most assuredly a key addition to the 2009 Cleveland Browns and possibly its most critical individual defensive performer.

Think about all of that, keeping in mind he was a complete unknown to most NE Ohioans until ten days ago.

David Veikune played DE collegiately for the Rainbow Warriors, was thought to have been drafted (52nd overall) as an edge-rushing OLB but suddenly figures prominently as a starting strongside ILB candidate, arguably the most essential of the run-stopping assignments in the typical 3-4 NFL defense. It had been the slot occupied for most of the past seven years by the steady but unspectacular Andra Davis, who now draws paychecks from the Denver Broncos.

Veikune has drawn praise from new head coach Eric Mangini for his capacity to quickly grasp defensive schemes, as well as for his non-stop motor, intensity, hustle, scrap and football instincts, among other qualities. Solidly-built at 6-2 257 and athletic enough to drop comfortably into coverage, the Alaskan-born Veikune was not only the first defender drafted by the new regime of Mangini and GM George Kokinis, but appears to be the only draftee with much chance of starting on that side of the ball. Given how chronically weak has been the New Browns' D, especially against the run, it would therefore seem reasonable to acknowledge David Veikune just may be carrying considerable hopes upon his unproven rookie shoulders.

(To interrupt this story briefly, it may interest to know today's Canton Repository displayed an unofficial poll asking fans to identify a positional unit most in need of further fortification. No telling how many fans had voted at the time the piece was experienced, but every unit registered some percentage of fan concern---except for LB, which carried an incomprehensible zero votes.)

It has been commonly expressed that former NYJ ILB Eric Barton figures to be an upgrade over Davis as the presumptive regular aligning inside next to D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland's leading '08 tackler. But last week's installment detailed how ill-fitting Barton was on the strongside for Mangini in New York, a condition corrected once Michigan's David Harris arrived from Michigan as an '07 second-rounder. What should also be recognized about Barton vs. Davis is Andra was signed by the Broncos on Day Two of free agency this spring, while Barton remained unemployed for nearly a month longer.

While that may not constitute conclusive evidence that Barton does not, in fact, represent an improvement over Davis, it does suggest Denver's new Def-Coor Mike Nolan preferred Davis in the 3-4 he was hired to install for first-year head coach Josh McDaniels.

Minimally, those two paragraphs should invite fans and prognosticators to lay off talk of Barton being a certain or certifiable upgrade.

Having said all that, the time has arrived to ponder: "If Veikune is not Cleveland's starting SILB---or at least its foremost hope at the position---who will be?"

Beau Bell, who was former GM Phil Savage's identified vision for the role, not only had his inaugural NFL campaign marred by a persistent knee condition warranting surgery, but he is reportedly afflicted with a learning disability, precluding his meeting Mangini's professed preferences. At the very least, it would seem to follow Bell will less quickly process and master Mangini's instructions and specifications.

Leon Williams returns for season four, but is still trying to distinguish himself from marginality, having once again failed to unseat Davis himself last summer. While it had been true former coach Romeo Crennel was slow to trust his kids and gave every start of last season's 4-12 campaign to the free-agent-to-be Davis, it is also true Williams had been given countless opportunities to claim the job.

Williams might, indeed, get himself coached-up and/or fully manifested in the systems designed by Mangini and new DC Rob Ryan, but it is more likely he'll continue to be as close to becoming released as realized.

Meanwhile, fourth-rounder Kaluka Maiava should be expected to complete the six-man ILB assemblage. But he's likeliest to function situationally, at least at first, and is moreso a weakside challenger, thereby reducing the battle at SILB to the demonstratively-limited Barton and the newcomer Veikune, only one of whom has youth and upside in his favor.

This is the logic that argues for Veikune being the paramount prospect of defensive improvement for Cleveland's Browns in 2009. 

Alarmingly, if fan forums and post-draft feedback can be at all indicative of regional sentiment, franchise followers and commentators seem to be fairly oblivious to the dearth of proven talent among the Browns' LBs. Not only has most analysis focused upon WR, it seems not to occur to many how genuinely unsettled the club is concerning the unit most integral to success in the chosen scheme. Leave the concept of impactful difference-makers aside and challenge yourself to recite the projected starters, bearing in mind simply knowing a player's name does not necessarily qualify him as a viability.

Barton, for example, has already been discussed and diminished in Davis' former role, but strongside outside backer Willie McGinest's slot is no better satisfied. Another former Jet, David Bowens, has seemingly been designated for the duties, but the ten-year vet has started but 22 of his 132 NFL contests, 15 of those way back in 2004. He's started but seven since, though five came last year under Mangini in NY---that handful his second-most for starts in his extended career. In brief, think "stopgap" at best when contemplating either Barton or Bowens.

The still-raw Alex Hall returns, of course, perhaps having added the much-needed ballast, strength and football awarenesses necessary before he can be responsibly envisioned in a fulltime shot. There is also Titus Brown, possibly exemplifying the inverse of the earlier-stated misconception---the name not known who just might be a real player.

David Holloway, who finished on last season's practice squad once Brown had been elevated to the varsity, also returns, as does Kamerion Wimbley, the weakside OLB and former number-one pick whose emergence may be Job One for Ryan and his assistants this summer.

In summary, this is not a unit of personnel fans should be taking for granted, particularly not in a division which also includes both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Some discovery among the undrafted free agents---possibly Jackson State's Marcus Benard or Houston's Phillip Hunt---may play his way into the mix; but it appears more likely Mangini, Kokinis and Ryan have set themselves up oddly going into their first go-round together.

This is more of the logic that argues for Veikune being the most essential of additions, quite a remarkable reality for someone few knew existed less than a fortnight ago.  

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Both Barton and draft-day acquisition Kenyon Coleman, like Ryan, spent time in Oakland. In fact, Barton was drafted (in Round Four out of Maryland) by the Raiders and started as a 4-3 OLB in their Super Bowl vs. Tampa. But the players were both gone by the time Rob came over from Bill Belichick's NE staff to coordinate the D in 2004.

Ryan's Raiders ranked tenth last season vs. the pass, yielding 201 yards per game. They were also tenth with 16 INTs and thirteenth with 32 sacks. 

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Veikune's 35 reps bench-pressing 225 at the combine were the most among LBs, dwarfing the 22 times Bengals' top choice Andre Smith managed, though the latter is a 337-pound OT. Oklahoma's similarly huge ORG Duke Robinson, who shares with Smith the reputation of being an elite road-grading run-blocker, pushed up that bar but 19 times.

The Repository's Steve Doerschuk opined in today's podcast: "Veikune was drafted so high because the team thinks he can adapt inside." Let's sincerely hope so.

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Last week's piece attributed to ESPN's draft coverage two profoundly-indicting remarks against the Browns. Also heard from Steve Young was this comment applied to the Buffalo Bills: "Like the Browns, they are under-performing their talent."

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During a pre-draft conference call, Palm Beach Post writer Brian Briggance shared research revealing only 14 of the 39 WRs drafted in Rounds 1-3 since 2004 impacted within 2-3 years. Mike Mayock speculated this is because the newcomers are suddenly challenged to adjust to the absence of a free release and because the pro game requires of them to read and decide against defenses when on the move.

Mayock also slotted Georgia QB Matthew Stafford, who eventually was chosen first overall, for somewhere between picks 12 and 20. Conversely, USC passer Mark Sanchez was heralded for accuracy, footwork, consistent decision-making and the ability to make every NFL throw.

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Pittsburgh went into the draft with 12 veterans in the final year of their contracts. Seven starters are 30 or older. Meanwhile, the Browns were picking in the top seven for the seventh time in their 11 years of rebirth.

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The Lions had a single INT from members of their secondary last season. It belonged to since-departed former Brown Leigh Bodden.

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DE Simeon Rice and DT Wendell Bryant, former teammates in Arizona, are both trying to resurrect dormant NFL careers, begging for tryouts around the sport. Bryant hasn't played since 2004, having battled both drug abuse and depression. Rice, never noted for his run defense, hasn't played in two seasons, sidelined with shoulder woes.

Jumbo ORT Mike Williams, once the fourth-overall selection out of Texas by Buffalo, found his way back into the sport, thanks in no small part to former Longhorn teammate Derrick Dockery, who recently returned to Washington from Buffalo. The two had become workout partners once Williams resolved to trim his weight and attempt a return to NFL competition, with Dockery inviting Williams to live in his DC-area home.

Williams signed with the Skins just before the draft. He's likely to receive a legitimate shot an unseating longtimer Jon Jansen, who has begun to work at center. The Skins also inked former Titans' wideout Roydell Williams, who missed all of last season recovering from an '07 knee injury.

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Note to Chidawg:

Thanks for the kind welcome to the OBR, as well as for the invitation to debate your speculations following last week's submission.

However, I'll stand behind what I wrote in conclusion: "The brass has made its decisions...they are ready to move forward...so must fans and critics."

In short, there is no point in continuing to speculate what might've been, what should've been, what could've been or why those options did not manifest.

I do not agree, however, that LB "can wait until next year's draft" or that Barton "can always be upgraded." After all, whereas there is always a plethora of WRs and RBs available off the street at any given moment, there is no surplus yard for starting-caliber LBs. Consider how both Drew Bennett and Mike Furrey have been linked to the Browns during the interim, but how few ILB candidates were available for acquisition this entire off-season.

To settle "for whatever OLB is available at 52" is to prize WR enhancements over LB ones, a decision I would always challenge. Note how Baltimore supposedly went into the process desperate for WR assistance but chose none whatsoever. Meanwhile, their already-scary D added both OLB Paul Kruger and ILB Jason Phillips.

Clearly a difference in philosophies and priorities. Time will tell whose approach was more inspired, but history favors the Ravens'.

Massaquoi was supposedly on Dallas' list for choice 51; they dealt out of Day One once Cleve nabbed Mo at 50. Was Cleveland also trying to keep Mohamed from Baltimore? Who knows?

And, I reiterate, two selections the Browns bypassed were acquired for future number-one picks between choices 36 and 50, with a third dealt for by NE. While this proves nothing, it suggests value was missed and possibly compromised.

Lastly, if I'm going to "troll for depth and developmentals," I'm doing so not at CB or LB but at WR. When was the last time Baltimore had a big-play WR target? Or the Eagles? Or NE before Moss?

Unless the strategy now transforms Braylon Edwards into two LBs---say, Mathias Kiwanuka and Clint Sintim?--- what was done in Round Two is not easy to reconcile. But we must accept it and move forward.

At any rate, I did not want you feeling ignored, so chose to respond (to what you'd written in the Tap Room) in this manner. I trust it will suffice. Thanks again for welcoming me and thanks, too, for supporting our favorite pro football team since 1963.


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