"After you're older, two things are possibly more important than any others: health and money." — Helen Gurley Brown
Whether or not his impending three-game suspension precludes him from the Cleveland Browns' 2012 starting lineup, Scott Fujita last made over two-thirds of his starts in the 2008 season. Additionally, the Browns have taken palpable measures to fill in the multitude of cracks in a run defense which finished third from the NFL's bottom in 2011. Expect youngsters like Emmanuel Acho, James-Michael Johnson and Kaluka Maiava to audition for a role in the Browns' revamped run-stopping scheme under Dick Jauron.
Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson clearly represent long-term pieces of the Browns' 4-3-shaped puzzle, but Fujita's inability to stay on the field—let alone stop the run—augurs poorly for the veteran linebacker's chances to win back his spot.
The Browns acquired Fujita off the comedown from his championship season with the New Orleans Saints. Like only the Cleveland Browns know how, they signed a mediocre player at the absolute zenith of his professional value, signing a B-list starter to an A-list contract at the end of his prime.
In event the Browns desperately and obviously miss Fujita through the first three games, the 11th-year man out of Cal could walk right back into his old office. But should any of the young pups grow into a nasty dog during Fujita's Goddell-prescribed sojourn on the sidelines, good luck telling Jauron—or anyone from Medina to Erie, PA, for that matter—to bench a dangerous young linebacker.
Signing a 30-year-old zero-time Pro Bowl linebacker to a three-year, $14 million contract constitutes precisely the kind of acquisition the Browns looked to avoid reenacting in their milquetoast 2011-2012 free agency period.
In a division where linebacking has defined franchises like Pittsburgh and Baltimore for over a decade—where defenses consume running games at the rate sophomore fraternity brothers consume low-quality suds—the Browns' defensive backfield, along with the rest of the roster, has resembled the revolving door scenario typical of dysfunctional franchises.
The outcome lies entirely outside Fujita's hands by nature of the suspension: should the young players seize the opportunity, Fujita survives. If the Browns struggle early, he will find his coaches and teammates relieved to see him rejoin the mix. At 33 with a three-game window to lose his job, Scott Fujita has every reason to worry—and that's before considering his own performance.
Phil Taylor's injury could influence the outcome of this particular position battle in no small way; the big man out of Baylor could have anticipated regular double and triple teams, and now the Browns' linebackers can expect to encounter a greater percentage of their opponents' blocking power.
Whether or not Johnson, Maiava or Acho can usurp Fujita's position at outside linebacker in the first three games of the season, outside linebacker remains one of the few question marks on the Browns roster. Additionally, the Browns managed to upgrade at nearly every other need in the 2011-12 offseason. Should none of the above report to the defensive backfield on opening day or in week four, the Browns will need to invest a higher draft pick to replace Fujita than a mid-rounder.
A situation where one's fate lies entirely on the performance of an opponent, especially when that opponent is a teammate, represents a veritable nightmare to a well-paid veteran like Fujita: without the suspension, Fujita could lock up his spot like the seasoned pro he is. However, the three-game window could be just the opportunity one of his young competitors need to slam the door on the popular linebacker's long career.
With or without Fujita, the Browns must turn this weakness into a strength. While his suspension certainly is unfortunate, Fujita's age, effectiveness and contract situation combine to paint the largest question mark on the defensive side of the ball. Can Fujita earn himself a one-year contract extension and a swan song with the Browns, will the young guns take over, or can we all expect to be searching "2013 NFL mock draft outside linebackers" all spring? Time will tell.
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