- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cleveland’s Romeo Crennel and San Francisco’s Mike Nolan have more in common than a belief in the 3-4 defense and having been assistants with the New York Giants. Crennel and Nolan are also the only NFL coaches heading into their fourth seasons with their teams.

While Crennel might have saved his job by coaxing a 10-6 season from the Browns in 2007, Nolan, on the rise after going 7-9 in 2006, was tarnished with the 49ers’ slip to 5-11 in 2007.

So it was Nolan who started this month desperate to improve his roster. The 49ers — who traded the seventh pick overall in April’s draft but regained the 29th choice in another deal — treated free agency like a buffet during the first few days, adding top available defensive end Justin Smith (to replace the retired Bryant Young), oft-injured running back DeShaun Foster (to back up Frank Gore) and aging receiver Isaac Bruce among their six-player haul. Last week, they added another wideout, Bryant Johnson, the 17th pick in the 2003 draft.

“We accomplished more than I thought we could,” said general manager Scot McCloughan, who cut linebacker Derek Smith and lost offensive linemen Kwame Harris and Justin Smiley to other clubs.

Still, McCloughan said the 49ers remain a draft-focused club.

“Everybody thinks are we the next Washington Redskins,” he said. “Absolutely not. We put ourselves in position to take the best player on the board. I feel really good about that.”

Crennel should feel even better. The Browns re-signed 1,000-yard runner Jamal Lewis before he hit the market and kept restricted free agent quarterback Derek Anderson with a three-year, $24 million contract. So Anderson, a huge surprise last season, will start ahead of 2007 first-round draft choice Brady Quinn again before each of their contracts balloons in 2009 and one will likely be dealt.

Browns GM Phil Savage added another weapon for Anderson in Donte Stallworth, a receiver who’ll play on his fourth team in as many years. Stallworth has just one season with more than 58 catches and has scored only 31 touchdowns in six years despite his physical gifts.

Crennel’s defense — 30th, 29th and 27th against the run during his first three seasons, respectively — should be sturdier up front with the additions of former Detroit Lions tackle Shaun Rogers (six years, $42 million) and ex-Green Bay Packers end Corey Williams (six years, $38 million). Two-time Pro Bowl pick Rogers pouted his way out of Detroit while Williams didn’t earn much acclaim on a Green Bay line that featured Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Neither Rogers, 29, nor Williams, 27, has played in a 3-4 scheme, but Crennel is still happy with a revamped line that will also include 2007 free agent signees Robaire Smith and Shaun Smith.

“It’s bigger, definitely,” Crennel said of a foursome that averages 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds.

The Browns traded their second-rounder for Williams and their third-rounder and starting cornerback Leigh Bodden for Rogers. With the first-rounder having been part of the 2007 draft day trade for Quinn, the first day of the draft will be a washout in Cleveland.

“This is actually a benefit because we know ahead of time what we’re getting in the first three rounds,” Savage said.

That’s a Redskins-like way of looking at the draft, but Savage has earned the benefit of the doubt after landing five starters plus Quinn in the first and second rounds of his previous three drafts.

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