Coming into the 2013 season, one of the strongest areas of the team should be the defensive line. Not only does it have talent on the starting group but has quite a bit of depth that could make big contributions. They have a significant number of options in terms of how they want to line them up and which personnel to use in different packages. It is still not entirely clear how the team is going to lineup, but between the addition of Ray Horton and the players they have, there is definitely reason to be excited about what this group could possibly do this coming year.
The key of the defense is going to be Phil Taylor, who is not only a first round pick coming into his third season but is going to be playing the nose tackle spot. As the keystone to the defense, Taylor needs to be able to clog up the middle and demand double teams to protect the linebackers behind him. Other than the fact he will be lined up over the center more than he was last year, little is going to change for him in terms of responsibility but if they are going to use a lot of odd man fronts, his mistakes will stand out more.
Taylor is a terrific talent with a great combination of size and impressive athleticism who can periodically blow up plays, but he is inconsistent in terms of effort as well as results. Taylor is legitimately athletic enough to play the 5-tech end spot or a tackle in this defensive scheme and it would not be surprised if he had some reps at those areas in addition to the nose. There are plays where he would be dominant and situations where he would get tired and worn down slightly. Having a legitimate rotation and hopefully a more competent offense should help him to stay fresh and active, but he needs to step and make more plays. He is the key to the run defense and this is an area that has got to improve to at least the top half of the league if they are thinking about getting into the playoffs this year. The talent is there, the depth helps and hopefully the scheme benefits him, but it is time for Taylor to put it all together and be the player he was drafted to be; and he should.
One of the better, more underappreciated players of the past several years has been Athyba Rubin. The former sixth round pick is a consummate pro that just puts in a lunch pail, blue collar effort every week, never complains, and just lays it out on the line. He also has played a ton of snaps over the past couple years. In a 3-4 set, he is likely to play at one of the end spots but he does have the ability to play inside at the nose or as a tackle if they want to employ to an even front. He never makes a peep; not when the media made the stupid speculation about trading him or moving positions. Rubin gives the Browns a number of options with how they want to line up because of his experience and versatility, even though he is still only 26 years old.
The addition of Desmond Bryant is one of the least heralded moves of the offseason for the NFL but it is an important one for the Browns. While fans may not be overly thrilled with his arrest or the mug shot attached, Bryant was a good player for the Raiders and should make a fantastic transition to being a 3-4 end. He has the combination of length, athleticism and strength that teams who run the 3-4 are always looking to play on the end. In addition to his play as an end, Bryant stands out as one of the guys who should kick inside and rush the passer from an even front as a tackle. He is big enough to not get a team killed against the run with the size and experience having been a defensive tackle previously while possessing the athleticism to get after the quarterback from the inside. And with the athleticism they will have on the outside, it could be a nice combination.
One of the pleasant surprises of the 2012 season was the play of rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn. Winn was a sixth round pick who fell due to concerns about his effort level and consistency and responded by having one of the better rookie years out of all the defensive tackles. While Winn played well in the 4-3, there are those who feel that Winn is actually better suited for a 3-4 scheme. He gives the Browns the first man off the bench as another athletic end option who can kick inside and rush the passer on passing downs. Whether he plays next to Bryant or across from him, that combination could become a familiar one as the season goes on because they have such complementary skill sets.
Winn’s emergence last year was great and often defensive tackles really come into their own in their second seasons, but it was a smart move to bring in Bryant and keep Rubin as well. First, the defensive line can never have too much talent and Winn’s rookie contract is peanuts right now with the Browns having a ton of cap room. If he continues to play well and really breaks out this year, great, but should he have problems adjusting, they have options. While Winn could and hopefully will be a good player, they are able to ease him in and use him in situations that allow him to excel because of the amount of players who can contribute and depth on the roster.
The other rookie who was drafted with Winn is John Hughes. Hughes was picked in the third round and he was a virtual unknown by even the most involved draft analysts. Hughes showed some flashes of what he could be but needed continued development. In the scheme last year, he was a big, plugger who could come in and provide a break for Taylor and Rubin. In the scheme they want to use this year, he could be an intriguing utility player. He could spell Taylor at the nose, help as a 5-tech potentially in a bigger front, and even be used on a big man front to really clamp down on the run. Whether short yardage or just a way to try to dominate the middle of the field, the Browns could pair up Hughes with Taylor. The move would put about 650lbs over the guards, allow linebackers to fly around and potentially force teams to try to run outside where the Browns have more speed than in previous years. Hughes is intriguing because he shows some impressive explosiveness for someone his size. It will be interesting to see how he looks in training camp.
One of the players who was a nice surprise in preseason last year was Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, the nose tackle from Kent State. Kitchen is going to be on a roster somewhere, but the numbers may not work out for him in Cleveland with this scheme. In the 4-3 scheme, they could afford to keep a number of tackles and he was a guy who came in and did a decent job in limited opportunities. In a 3-4 scheme, he is a nose tackle only in addition to potentially coming in as a second tackle in an even front. He is too short to play on the outside as an end in this scheme, which is why he could ultimately get pinched. Kitchen’s future may hinge on Hughes being able to contribute as an end so they are not forced to cut Kitchen to keep another rotational end. Kitchen stands out as a guy the Browns would like to keep around, but he could end up being higher on another team’s depth chart if they are not able to hold onto him.
Much more attention has been put on Armonty Bryant than anyone was hoping for at this point in the process. He had baggage coming out of college which is why he was available in the seventh round. Whatever slack he had coming in has already been used up, so while it made no sense to cut him at the time of his DUI arrest, it could be a factor in retaining him after camp. There is no doubt that Bryant has legitimate talent and athleticism and even though he was playing against lower level competition and got away with moves and plays that would never work in the NFL, his athleticism jumped off of the tape. If he can keep it together and look good in camp, he could be a nice pass rushing option off of the edge as a defensive end. He is somewhat of a project but in obvious pass rushing situations, he could be a nice weapon to send at the opponent. Bryant brings a nice amount of athleticism and speed and combined with guys like Bryant, Winn, Barkevious Mingo, Jabaal Sheard, and Paul Kruger, the Browns could have a tremendous group of pass rushers.
The Browns have a number of younger guys who will be trying out in camp including some familiar names like Brian Sanford and Paul Kruger’s brother, David. Unless there is an injury or Armonty Bryant is cut, it seems like it would be extremely difficult for any of the others to make the final roster, but one of them could end up on the practice squad, though Sanford is no longer eligible. If the Browns do have a cut somewhere, it would likely be an end that is kept and Sanford might be the first call on that front unless there is a pleasant surprise in camp. This fact alone may represent significant progress for the Browns as rather than hoping for a surprise from an unknown player in camp, they are working on developing the group they have and are happy with the unit overall.
The defensive line may not be quite as good as the offensive line right now when it comes to the starting unit, but it can absorb a loss due to injury far better. The good news is that both lines appear to be in position to be strengths, which is something for which is progress. There is still a lot of unrealized potential that needs to come through for this unit to be as good as they should be, but they are a deep, talented, and maybe most importantly, young group. Desmond Bryant is the oldest member of the unit at 27 years old. In addition, the Browns have the ability to go as big or as small as they want depending on the situation, which allows the defensive staff to be extremely creative with how they want to attack the opponent. The AFC North has a tremendous group of defensive lines within it and it is nice to see the Browns making an effort to really compete with that group. Depending on how they evolve this year, they could end up as low as fourth or as high as second of the division with everyone looking up at the Bengals. It should be a positive throughout camp and the battles up front in practice could be tremendous.