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Browns Hope Facelift On Defense And Special Teams Sticks

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As the likely starter opposite Joe Haden, rookie cornerback Leon McFadden will be counted on heavily to hold up well in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's aggressive 3-4 defense. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.
As the likely starter opposite Joe Haden, rookie cornerback Leon McFadden will be counted on heavily to hold up well in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's aggressive 3-4 defense. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images.

The defense of the Browns – at least their scheme – is changing once again. There are also major changes on special teams for the first time in a long time and, in one particular regard, for the first time since the team returned to the field in 1999. So fans are going to have to pay close attention to who is doing what as the Browns begin getting ready in earnest for the 2013 season with these training camp practices.

After two years of being in a 4-3 defensive look under former coach Pat Shurmur, Cleveland is going back to a 3-4 alignment under new boss Rob Chudzinski. The 3-4 was utilized from 2005-10 under coaches Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, but this one is much different in that it will employ an aggressive, attacking style that will force the action rather than react to it. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton likes “big men who can run and little men who can hit.” It will be interesting to see how many of those types of players he finds.

On special teams, Phil Dawson – the only kicker the Browns have had in the previous 14 seasons of the expansion era – is gone after being allowed to sign with the San Francisco 49ers in free agency. Kent State product Josh Cribbs, who arrived in 2005 as an undrafted rookie and developed into the best returner in team history and one of the best in the NFL, also was not retained. He signed in free agency with the Oakland Raiders.

Maybe Cribbs and Dawson – two of the best and most popular players at any position Cleveland has had in quite some time – can get together sometime during the preseason and do lunch since only a bridge separates their new employers. In the meantime, the Browns will try to move on without them, although it won’t be easy.

Here are five keys for the club on defense and special teams:

1) In this corner …: The Browns have their shutdown cornerback in Joe Haden. But they need a competent corner to play opposite of him. The guess is that it will be rookie Leon McFadden, a third-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. That’s the role for which he was drafted. But playing cornerback as a rookie in this league is the defense’s answer to playing quarterback. In short, it’s extremely difficult and youth is usually not served at those two spots. As such, there are no givens that McFadden will step into the job. But if it’s not McFadden – at least at the start – then they have to find someone else who can do the job. They can’t go through another year like 2012 when they were regularly getting beaten on that side of the ball.

2) Safety first: Cleveland has a similar situation at safety. T.J. Ward is entrenched at the strong-side spot. But there is a good-sized hole at free safety. Tashaun Gipson, who started three of the final six games there last season, would seem to have the edge. However, the coaches like rookie Jamoris Slaughter, so he will get a shot as well. But the Browns aren’t likely to start two rookies in the secondary – that’s just too risky – so if McFadden wins the job at cornerback, then Gipson would seemingly be a shoo-in at free safety. And that might not be a bad way to go.

3) Stand-up guys: The Browns believe that first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and veteran Jabaal Sheard, both of whom played with their hand on the ground last year as defensive ends, will be able to make the switch to standing up as outside linebackers in the 3-4. We’ll see. It may not happen right away, but Mingo should be able to do it eventually because his actual role at LSU – getting after the passer -- really wasn’t that much different than what the Browns are asking him to do now. But Sheard, while athletic, may not possess that kind of versatility. Based on the way he played for the Browns the last two seasons – he was very good -- he seems more like a 4-3 end than a 3-4 outside linebacker. Any 3-4 defense is built around active and productive linebackers – especially on the edges – so the club has to come up with a couple of impactful players there.

4) Putting their best feet forward: The Browns have to replace both their kicker and punter from a year ago. They will dearly miss Dawson, the last member of the 1999 expansion team still playing in the NFL. He had developed into the best kicker in the league and had bailed out the struggling offense with his booming field goals countless times over the years. The scary thing is that even with Dawson’s productivity – he missed just two field goals in 31 tries last year and scored over 100 points (116) for the sixth time in his career – the Browns still couldn’t score nearly enough. So now what will they do without him? Good question, one for which there is no easy answer. The favorite would seem to be Shayne Graham, a 35-year-old former Cincinnati Bengal who has kicked at newly-named FirstEnergy Stadium and in the AFC North. As such, he won’t melt under the pressure of trying to fill Dawson’s big shoes. Conversely, the Browns won’t miss P Reggie Hodges, who averaged just 41.8 yards per kick in 2012.  The search for his replacement appears to be wide open. T.J. Conley and Spencer Lanning are young and inexperienced. Look for a veteran to be signed at some point if either one of them struggles, which could well happen.

5) Many happy returns: Sure, Cribbs slowed down a little bit the last couple of years, but he was still pretty good, as evidenced by the fact he averaged 12 yards per punt return and 27.4 yards on kickoffs in 2012. Now the Browns are counting on Travis Benjamin who, as a rookie last year, had just six returns – three on punts and three on kickoffs. He returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown and averaged 25.3 yards on kickoffs. He might be the fastest player on the team but, at only 175 pounds, he’s not very big. Will he be able to withstand all those big hits and still hold onto the ball?