BROWNS BEAT: Lang, Gardner due for breakout year Sunday, July 6, 2003 Steve Doerschuk Repository sports writer BEREA -- For some high NFL draft picks, that elusive breakout season forever remains somewhere over the rainbow.
The colors are fading for linebacker Barry Gardner and defensive end Kenard Lang. Could this be the year these two key Browns find the magic lights?
"I'm definitely thinking that way," the 26-year-old Gardner said.
Lang, 28, seems less sure he hasn't already broken out.
"I feel I played fine last season," Lang said. "I had 61⁄2 sacks (official team stats say 51⁄2 ). I was close to getting other sacks. Shoot, if I can make those extra sacks, who knows? I might be in the Pro Bowl."
Regardless of how their pasts are evaluated, it's clear the Browns need them now. Gardner must apply experience and talent to a linebacker corps with no incumbent starters. Lang must help a baffling defensive line take a quantum leap.
Heading into training camp, Defensive Coordinator Dave Campo reflects the concerns surrounding both units.
"I'd say we have some solid guys up there," he said in a tepid overview of the defensive line.
On the linebackers: "All I can tell you is we are going to be fast. I don't know if we can tackle. I have no idea what we're going to do."
Lang already has found his pot of gold. Before the 2002 season, his former college coach, Butch Davis, signed him to a five-year, $17 million free agency deal, featuring a $3.4 million cash bonus.
There was a run on defensive ends in 1997. The Bengals grabbed Florida State's Reinard Wilson at No. 14 overall. With the 17th and 18th picks, the Redskins and Oilers tapped Miami (Fla.) teammates Lang and Kenny Holmes. With the No. 21 selection, the Jaguars got Notre Dame's Renaldo Wynn.
None has gone to a Pro Bowl.
In six NFL seasons, Lang has 27 sacks. Michael Strahan, a former No. 40 overall pick, had 221⁄2 in a single season.
Lang will not use injuries as an excuse for his unspectacular first season in Cleveland. He was slowed by a high ankle sprain and a pulled groin but missed just one game, mostly playing left end.
"I wouldn't say it's just about staying healthy," Lang said. "Just be more consistent."
Lang has a loud personality that earned him the nickname "People's Choice" in Washington. He was elected as one of the team captains last year, but he wasn't always sure he should speak up.
"I didn't want to step on no toes," he said. "Now here I am in my second year, ready to let it all hang out."
Gardner wasn't ready to let it all hang out when he became an Eagles starter his rookie year. His play was so-so, and he has spent most of the last three years as a backup. The Browns got him at a relative bargain rate in free agency.
Gardner was drafted out of Northwestern in 1999, four picks after the Browns made wideout Kevin Johnson the top choice of Round 2.
Asked if he senses a breakout year for Gardner, Davis only would say, "It's time."
The 6-foot, 248-pound Gardner seems bright, upbeat and eager.
By now, he said he does not think of his career in terms of what a former second-round pick was supposed to have become.
"I want to win," he said. "That's pressure enough. I prepare myself every day to be a starter. I can't help us win from the sidelines."
Both Gardner and second-year pro Andra Davis went through minicamp at middle linebacker, with Davis drawing animated praise from Butch Davis.
"Barry can play any position," Campo said.
He could wind up as the starting strong-side linebacker, with second-year pro Kevin Bentley, also from Northwestern, on the weak side, and Andra Davis in the middle.
The Browns have parted ways with 2002 starters Dwayne Rudd, Earl Holmes and Darren Hambrick. Jamir Miller, a 2001 Pro Bowler, has retired. If a fifth-year hopeful cannot start in Cleveland, chances are it is not going to happen.
"It's a great situation," Gardner said.
Gardner seems to be laying low, as if preparing to sneak up on a breakout year.
Lang does not know how to lay low. He has exhorting his teammates to go for the downs.
"I never think playoffs. Or just winning our division," he said. "That's chump change. I want that big prize at the end."