BEREA — Defensive backs coach Mel Tucker could’ve applied for a job in the circus after last season. He became an expert in juggling (personnel) and using smoke and mirrors to keep the injury-ravaged cornerback spot afloat.
While Tucker’s effort got him noticed — the Browns managed to rank 15th against the pass and he’s considered a future defensive coordinator — he and the Browns are hoping for a 2007 season with a lot less drama.
“Last year we had a number of injuries at the corner position,” general manager Phil Savage said Saturday. “Other than Leigh Bodden and Daven Holly, who came on board last summer, it’s an all new group of corners.
“I think it’s a critical area that really has an impact on whether you win or lose in this league.”
The 2006 camp opened with high hopes for the corners. Veterans Gary Baxter and Daylon McCutcheon were back healthy, and Bodden had emerged as a legitimate starter in 2005. The hopes were quickly dashed.
McCutcheon had a “routine” knee scope and hasn’t played since. Baxter missed three games with a left pectoral injury, then tore both patellar tendons and is trying to make a historic comeback.
When Bodden missed seven games with nagging ankle injuries, the Browns were officially in desperation mode. Holly and Ralph Brown were forced into starting roles, and neither had been with an NFL team as of July.
This edition of camp went much more smoothly.
Bodden continued to recover from offseason ankle surgery and said he’s ready to go. Holly kept up his ballhawking ways and will be the nickelback. Free-agent signee Kenny Wright battled a groin injury early, but brings a veteran presence and 56 starts in eight seasons.
Then there are the rookies.
Second-round pick Eric Wright is the biggest upgrade from a year ago. Many experts considered him a first-round talent, and the Browns traded a couple of picks to move up to take him. Wright never looked out of place in four preseason starts and secured a starting spot for the regular season.
Fifth-rounder Brandon McDonald finished the preseason with a flourish, intercepting two passes vs. Chicago, including a 2-point conversion try. He’s got good athleticism and could be an asset on special teams.
“Last year we were getting free agents, basically off the street, to come in and play,” said coach Romeo Crennel, who also had to use safety Brodney Pool at corner on occasion. “Now, it looks like we have some ability on the team. It looks like the depth at that position is going to be better.”
Brown, who didn’t sign with the Browns until August last year, was a heady player but overmatched. Asking him to cover Cincinnati’s T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the slot in Week 2 wasn’t fair, but the Browns had no choice. When the injuries kept coming, Brown started four games. He wasn’t re-signed after the season and hooked on with Arizona.
The other emergency fill-ins will provide the next layer of depth this year.
Holly started 12 games, tied for the team lead with five interceptions, scored two touchdowns on returns and compiled 56 tackles. Jereme Perry, an undrafted rookie last year, will be looked at as a safety, but played corner last year and appeared in 12 games.
“He has made a lot of improvement and progress from this point last year,” Crennel said of Holly. “He has played in games for us, so that experience is valuable to us. We know that he can go in and play.”
In today’s NFL, and especially against division rival Cincinnati, three corners aren’t enough. Teams use a lot of four-receiver sets, and injuries are always possible.
The Browns should be better prepared this time around.
“We have a lot of young guys who are fast and athletic,” Bodden said. “If we do stay healthy, we will be a strong point in the defense.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.