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Denver's crush on Cleveland castaways baffling

When it comes to stocking the Denver Broncos' defensive line, some things apparently don't change, at least if the events of this week are any indication.

On Monday, the Broncos released defensive end Courtney Brown, the top prospect taken in the 2000 draft, but also one of the most star-crossed players in recent NFL history in his tenures with Denver and Cleveland. And less than 24 hours later, apparently because they had dipped below their self-imposed quota of onetime Cleveland front four players on the roster, the Broncos signed former Browns tackle and unrestricted free agent Alvin McKinley to a four-year, $8 million contract.

It extended the Broncos' inexplicable fixation with former Cleveland defensive linemen, as McKinley, amazingly, became the eighth one acquired by Denver since 2005.

The Browns-to-Broncos roll call: Denver traded for end Ebenezer Ekuban and tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers, all in 2005. Signed as free agents were Brown (2005) and Kenard Lang (2006) and tackles McKinley (2007) and Corey Jackson (2005). The Broncos also claimed end Amon Gordon on waivers (2006).

Oh, yeah, the Broncos employed former Cleveland defensive line coach Andre Patterson in the same capacity since 2005, but fired him after last season. But given the addition of McKinley, and the ongoing fascination with defensive linemen who once wore orange helmets, the dismissal of Patterson must have had more to do with his own performance than that of the guys he recommended to the Denver personnel department.

In the two seasons that transpired since the Broncos and head coach Mike Shanahan began collecting Cleveland hand-me-down linemen, the Broncos ranked 15th (in 2005) and 14th (in 2006) in the league in total defense. Denver was, it should be noted in fairness, an admirable No. 2 versus the run in 2005. But in the last two seasons, Denver posted only 64 sacks, or 15 percent below the NFL average that for stretch. And the five most prominent former Browns linemen -- Warren, Ekuban, Myers, Brown and Lang -- have averaged just 31.9 tackles and 3.2 sacks during their respective Broncos' tenures.

Most important, the Broncos won only one playoff game in those two seasons, and lost the AFC championship contest at home in 2005. Eight seasons have passed now since Shanahan captured a second straight Super Bowl title in 1998, and the Browning of his defensive line hasn't exactly helped stanch that championship blackout.

Some of the locals have taken to calling the former Cleveland linemen "Brown-cos." The onetime Browns' defenders, though, don't hear their names called very often at the end of plays. Still, that hasn't precluded Shanahan and his scouting staff from gazing longingly toward the shores of Lake Erie every time Denver has a vacancy on the defensive front.

But why?

When Brown, Warren, Myers and Ekuban represented the starting unit in Cleveland, it wasn't a group mistaken for the Fearsome Foursome, the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters, or any other colorfully captioned front-four contingent. The group, which could have been tabbed as The Four Flops, authored fewer hits than the Four Tops.

The classy yet fragile-as-a-Ming-vase Brown never played a full, 16-game season after his rookie campaign, and it probably cost Broncos ownership more to ship his ponderous medical dossier to Denver than to forward his equipment. The guy clearly had more X-rays than big plays during his ill-fated career. In terms of forcing medical premiums to spiral upward, Ekuban wasn't far behind. Warren was a guy who always needed to have a fire lit under him. Myers was a classic rotational tackle and Lang is best employed as a situational pass rusher.

Individually, none of the players were stars in Cleveland, and collectively the Browns' defense did not excel when those players were there.

Yet the Broncos' staff, for whatever reason, believed it could succeed in a reclamation project aimed at transforming chronic underachievers at least into viable retreads. Two years later, the metamorphosis simply hasn't occurred. That said, this week's signing of McKinley indicates Denver hasn't abandoned that hope.

And it's in large part because the organization has registered such inarguably lowly results, and suffered such dreadful misfortune, in its selection of defensive linemen. In that abysmal failure lies the key to the influx of veteran defensive linemen. It still doesn't explain the fixation with former Cleveland defensive linemen, but it does point out why the Broncos are so reliant on imports.

Because unlike many of the NFL's best and most stable teams, the Broncos' organization doesn't choose and nurture and grow defensive linemen of its own.

And, thus, Denver seems to be forever addressing its defensive line needs in the always dicey free-agent market. That usually means throwing good money after players who are in decline. And means concentrating on stop-gap defenders to fill the void created by the lack of long-term prospects.

That glaring inability, the failure to draft players and successfully raise them up through a stable system, has been the Broncos' most notorious shortcoming in the club's recent history. The Broncos' defensive line was often like a halfway house for veteran free-agent players such as Marco Coleman, Luther Elliss, Darius Holland, Ellis Johnson and Raylee Johnson, but the situation has been even more disastrous of late.

The kind of lopsided and unhealthy reliance on free-agent linemen that Denver has demonstrated the past couple years, magnified by the Cleveland clique, can be traced to the draft failures of the past. Ineptitude in the draft and crucial injuries postdraft have created a culture of failure.

Instead of a unit manned by young talent, nurtured through the Denver system, the Broncos instead have addressed holes by spackling with free agents or trade acquisitions plucked from other teams' rosters.

Such a flawed approach, characteristically, is a recipe for failure and salary cap problems. The Broncos, it's fair to say, have suffered plenty of both in recent seasons. Since the arrival of Shanahan in 1995, the Broncos have selected 14 defensive linemen in a dozen lotteries, and the overall results have pretty much been catastrophic.

Six of the 14 defensive linemen never played in a single game for the Broncos and another appeared in just nine contests. Denver invested four choices on defensive linemen in 2003 -- Nick Eason, Bryant McNeal, Aaron Hunt and Clint Mitchell -- and none ever got onto the field for a game in a Broncos uniform. Of the four, McNeal is the only one on a NFL roster (Oakland) and Eason just filed for free agency from -- of all teams -- the Browns earlier in the month.

Of the 14 defensive linemen taken in the draft under Shanahan, only four played in more than 40 games for the Broncos and 1997 first-rounder Trevor Pryce, now with Baltimore, is the only one to appear in more than 47 contests. There are 12 defensive linemen currently on the Denver roster and just two are players whose careers originated with the Broncos. The lone Denver draft choice on the defensive line is pass-rushing end Elvis Dumervil, a fourth-round selection in 2006.

In fairness to Shanahan and the Denver personnel department, the dearth of good, young defensive linemen isn't all a factor of poor draft decisions. There have been injuries to a number of the draftees -- most notably a persistent knee problem that kept defensive end Paul Toviessi, a second-round pick in 2001 and a player who was projected as a double-digit sack man, from ever playing in a game -- that essentially scuttled their careers.

Even with the injuries, however, the Broncos should have plenty more to show for all of their draft forays into the defensive line pool. Such a deficiency has led Denver to make moves out of necessity, even desperation, and most of those gambits have backfired.

Perhaps the versatile McKinley, who primarily played end in the Cleveland 3-4 defense but figures to start at tackle in the Broncos' 4-3 alignment, will reverse the ugly trend. But, nothing against McKinley, no one should count on it.

To paraphrase the wildly popular UPS query: What can Browns do for you?

Using the past two seasons as evidence, clearly, not a lot.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.