Browns Sign Free Agent Linebacker Earl Holmes

BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Linebacker Earl Holmes signed a five-year contract with the Cleveland Browns on Friday, strengthening a rush defense that was third worst in the league last year.

Holmes, whose deal with Cleveland is worth a reported $17.5 million, led Pittsburgh in tackles the past three seasons. He had 97 solo tackles last year, when the Steelers had the league's best run defense.

The Browns allowed 138 yards rushing a game last year. Only the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings gave up more yards on the ground.

"Earl Holmes is a tenacious, tough, aggressive linebacker," said Browns coach Butch Davis. "He has been highly productive for the last three years on a very good Steelers' defense. His talent and leadership will continue to strengthen our defense."

Holmes, 28, started in 79 of 81 games while in Pittsburgh, playing inside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense.

With the Browns playing four linemen and three linebackers, Holmes likely will replace Wali Rainer at middle linebacker. Rainer had just 34 solo tackles as a starter last season.

Holmes' chances of re-signing with Pittsburgh faded after the Steelers gave All-Pro linebacker Jason Gildon a five-year contract worth $23 million. The Steelers also signed John Fiala, who replaced Holmes in the AFC Championship game.

Holmes missed that game against New England with a knee injury sustained when a teammate jumped on him to celebrate a fumble recovery. But tests conducted at the time showed no ligament or cartilage damage.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)