Around this time last year, Browns rookie linebacker Alex Hall played his season opener against Mars Hill, a tiny Baptist school in North Carolina.

On Sunday, he'll line up against the Dallas Cowboys.

Sometimes the only way to test the water is to jump into the pool.

"Yeah," Hall said. "I did a cannonball."

Because of a season-ending knee injury to linebacker Antwan Peek, Hall, a seventh-round draft pick from Saint Augustine's (N.C.), will get more playing time than he expected as Cleveland opens its 2008 season against the Cowboys.

Peek, who battled injuries last season with the Browns, tore the patellar tendon in his right knee during practice on Wednesday, a damaging blow to a Cleveland defense that ranked 30th overall in 2007 and will have its hands full in Week 1 against Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, Marion Barber and company.

Peek's loss is significant since he was being counted on to improve the Browns' weak pass rush. Cleveland recorded just 28 sacks last season, tied for 26th overall in the league.

The Browns re-signed Shantee Orr, waived last week, to replace Peek. Orr is expected to be in the rotation at linebacker and play special teams on Sunday.

The 28-year-old Peek had just returned to practice this week after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on July 31. But while running during his Wednesday workout, he planted his leg and his knee gave out. Browns coach Romeo Crennel said the injury happened on a "freak play" and said Peek had an operation to repair the tendon on Thursday.

"It's tough to replace a guy like him," said center Hank Fraley, a team captain. "On and off the field he's a great guy. In the locker room, he's always helping others and he's working with the offensive tackles all the time on the pass rush. It's hard to see a guy like that who has trained so hard to get back on the field. To lose him that way so early in the season, it hurts.

"Everybody pretty much stopped when we heard it was Peek. It's just sad. He's such a great worker. It's tough to lose his leadership, too."

With Peek out, the Browns will turn to Orr and Hall to pick up the slack. Hall has been a pleasant surprise for the Browns, who spotted him at the Division II level and thought enough of his talent and upside to take the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder with their last pick in this year's draft.

"I've got to step it up," Hall said.

Third-year linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, whose sack total dropped from 11 as a rookie to four last season, is confident Hall will contribute.

"In preseason, he showed poise for a young guy," Wimbley said. "I think he has the ability to play in the NFL or else we wouldn't have kept him. He definitely showed some signs of being a good player."

Since April, Hall has had to adjust to a new city, the Browns' defensive playbook and all that encompasses being a first-year player.

"It's been a lot," he said. "The last couple of months have been pretty whirlwindish."

Hall smiled when he was asked if there were any other NFL players from his alma mater.

"No," he said. "Just me."

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