The pass rush in Cleveland has been an ugly situation for years. Since what was ultimately a career ending injury for Jamir Miller after a 13 sack season in 2001, the Browns have struggled to find a feature rusher or a unit that put fear into the hearts of opponents. For those who need reminding, it is now 2013. Aside from the start of Kamerion Wimbley’s career, Jabaal Sheard has been the most promising addition since Miller with 15.5 sacks in his first two years with the team. The Browns made the smart decision of giving him help by completely revamping the cast around him through the draft and free agency in hopes of putting together a unit that can attack from a number of angles. The combination of talent, a creative scheme, and an aggressive mindset should make a big impact right out of the gate with this group as well as the front seven overall.
Jabaal Sheard’s stat sheet was relatively similar from his rookie to his sophomore campaign; in fact he was better in the box score as a rookie. The reality was that Sheard was a better player this past year, especially as a run defender. As a rookie, teams were not planning to stop Sheard until he started making an impact. In his second season, offenses shifted their scheme to counter Sheard, especially as a pass rusher. Due to the fact that the Browns had little in terms of a pass rush on the right side of the line, teams were able to shift their protection and double team Sheard at will with little or any fear of giving up pressure on the right side. Juqua Parker and Frostee Rucker were able to take advantage on occasion and chipped in ten combined sacks but some of the credit should go to Sheard. If the Browns can bring pressure from other areas of the defense, especially from the other side, it will only make Sheard’s life easier and enable him to be more productive.
Sheard was a terrific fit as a left end in the 4-3 and while the 3-4 will be an adjustment, he has the talent to do it and has far more experience rushing from a 2-point stance than many realize. The idea that the Browns would trade Sheard because of the scheme switch was absurd. Sheard makes next to nothing this year on his contract and should he be a complete disaster, the Browns could easily move him and still get a good deal out of it next year. The Browns and Sheard are getting a completely painless try out for a year in this scheme. Nevertheless, Sheard should be able to be a good player in this scheme and while he will play more as an outside linebacker, he is going to see time in a three point stance as well. When the Browns move to an even front, Sheard will probably be a guy who moves down to the end spot and it is not impossible to see him at a few other spots as well, depending on just how creative the coaching staff wants to get with the players.
Paul Kruger was signed from Baltimore after the best season of his career in what the Browns desperately hope was a hint of more to come. Kruger played on a talented pass rushing unit with the Ravens including Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw. He is a high motor rusher that gives the defense a number of options. Kruger will obviously spend time as an outside linebacker and as a defensive end, but it would not be a total surprise to see Kruger and Sheard at a defensive tackle spot on long passing yardage downs or as an inside linebacker. Because of the fact the Browns have so many pass rushers, they can be extremely creative with how they want to line them up, keeping them fresh, and just how many they want to put on the field.
The signing of Kruger gave the Browns a legitimate set of outside linebackers to play the run as well as be able to get the quarterback, but Kruger’s signing was extremely important when it came to the draft and made the selection of Barkevious Mingo a much better and safer decision. Mingo was selected as an undersized, super athletic player who immediately steps in as one of the fastest and most explosive on the defense. Having Kruger and Sheard in the fold before selecting Mingo was an extremely smart decision, because it enables them to Mingo to develop in a similar fashion as Aldon Smith did with the San Francisco 49ers. Mingo can put all of his efforts into being the best possible pass rusher as a rookie year and then expand his game out as the team feels comfortable. It also means that Mingo can be used more of a wildcard and really put him in the best situations to succeed and disrupt the opposing offense. They can give him simplified roles and put him and just let him go all out after the quarterback with his incredible explosiveness and athleticism. If Mingo ends up ahead of schedule, the coaching staff can adjust as necessary, but the reality is a team can never have too many pass rushers, so a unit including Sheard, Kruger, and Mingo could be the best the Browns have had since they came back.
While Mingo is not ideally sized in terms of his weight for the NFL yet, he is not the twig some make him out to be nor was he an average player in college. For LSU, Mingo played the power end position in the 230lb range, going up against players that had almost 100lbs on him on a weekly basis and holding his own. The most notable difference was when LSU played Alabama and Mingo was giving up over 100lbs to D.J. Fluker, the Tide’s right tackle. Despite the difference, Mingo gave Fluker plenty to think about throughout the game and played well. The assumption would be that Mingo would get run over because of his size, but that simply never happened whether against the Tide or the amount Florida ran against them while avoiding running at Mingo. He needs to continue adding weight but he does not need to just put it on to give fans a warm and fuzzy feeling. Mingo should continue putting bulking up the way he has been, which has been a natural process that has never hurt his athleticism or speed; the areas that make him special. The weight will come, but it may not be on the timeline some fans will be hoping for and he will probably always have that lean look but until he is getting run over or the lack of strength becomes a problem, it should not be a concern.
Mingo, more than anyone else, could be a player that moves around the defense from outside linebacker to defensive end to inside linebacker. The Browns can use him as a joker type player and rush him any number of different angles or just exploit his speed and athleticism as they see fit. Having the unit around him makes it so he can have a bigger impact as a rookie and could enable him to load up on sacks. There are people who look at his stats and say he is not a good pass rusher. The reality is that in the LSU scheme, Mingo was continuously used to play in a contain role to stop the team from being exposed by mobile quarterbacks. He was rarely really let loose to rush the opponent until the bowl game against Clemson. In that game, LSU let him loose and constantly let him attack and he was clearly the most dominant player on the field. The other thing that hurts Mingo and what he needs to really work on is breaking down in the backfield as he simply overran a number of sacks last year. If he simply makes those plays, he would have had double digit sack numbers. While Mingo is still developing, he is not just a super athletic prospect but a good football player that needs to continue to refine his game and take the next step in the NFL. In his first year especially but with a guy like Horton, expect to see more of the impact player that took over that bowl game and less of the contain defender that left many scratching their head last year.
Those three guys are going to be the most featured players on the pass rush but the Browns also brought in Quentin Groves as a free agent from Arizona. Groves came to Cleveland after Ray Horton was added to the staff because Horton was the coordinator for the Cardinals where Groves when he had his best year as a pro this best season. Groves is a good depth player that can come in and rotate to allow the Browns to keep their guys fresh, but he will make his fair share of plays as well. It would not be a surprise to see Groves contribute on special teams and then chip in four or five sacks in a rotational role, which is perfect for what the Browns need from him. Although it might say more about the Cardinals than it does the Browns, arguably the best pass rushing outside linebacker for the Cardinals should be no better than the fourth on the Browns.
Those guys are the top four pass rushers the Browns will keep as outside linebackers but the Browns still have Emmanuel Stephens and Auston English on the roster from last year along with Hall Davis and Kendrick Adams this year. It is possible and probably likely that none of these players will make the final roster and will be competing for a spot on the practice squad. Perhaps the Browns can find another player like Marcus Benard who was able to chip in a nice number of sacks when the Browns got him as an undrafted free agent. In either case, the outside linebackers group is going to be an extremely competitive and fun group to watch in training camp as well as preseason. While they are unlikely to show too much in terms of the diversity of their scheme in preseason, they could give some hints of things to come.
The other factor of this whole defense that will play a key role is obviously Ray Horton, the defensive coordinator. The Browns are going to run a hybrid defense that shows elements of the 3-4 as well as the 4-3. Like with the defensive line, the pass rushers could be moved around and put in unique positions to create pressure. There was a lot of push back on the idea of taking a pass rusher at six because he would technically be a backup. Not only are there more than enough snaps to go around for everyone but it stands to reason that Horton will find ways to get more than two of them on the field at once. Kruger, Sheard, and Mingo are the guys that stand out in that scenario but it is all going to come down to getting the best eleven on the field in a given situation. If the Browns can stop the run and put teams in obvious passing situations, Horton will be in position to throw all kinds of looks at them. They could an even front with Sheard and Kruger on the ends Mingo as a floating linebacker who can drop into coverage or go after the quarterback. It would not be a surprise to see Kruger or Sheard kick inside to tackle with the other two as ends in situations where the opponent has to pick up a ton of yards or if the Browns are protecting a lead late. Mingo could see some time as a stand up end also known as the Leo backer or have one of the three end up playing some inside linebacker. As long as the players can learn it and execute, Horton could have some unique opportunities to create chaos and create pressure. Going through this year, Horton is going to be graded heavily on what he is able to do with the pass rush considering the talent the investment there, which is something he is fully aware and will be working that much harder to accentuate.
There is a significant amount of pressure on this group to perform as well as the front office and coaching staff who put them together. Combining them with what should be a talented defensive line group, the Browns have the chance to have devastating front seven in the making. Aside from depth and competition, this unit should be done. The Browns should not need to make a significant investment in a pass rusher for the next few years. It is incredibly important that the Browns have a good pass rush this year because of the state of their secondary which has talent but is still unfinished. If all goes according to plan, the Browns will have a unit that is extremely competitive with each other which should cause them all to raise their level of play. They will hopefully be keeping track of their sacks with each other, racing to beat each other to the quarterback and having fun with the impact they can have. For the first time since the move, the Browns have a unit where the pass rush is not almost completely dependent on one player making the impact. The Browns could legitimately surprise their fans with where the pressure comes from and who is making the big play with legitimate threats at a number of spots. Having a group with what should be four talented pass rushers with three who could be franchise players, the pass rush has to be a strength immediately and should only get better with experience. As good as this group looks going into camp and how good they could and should be, maybe the most interesting factor that remains to be seen is that while they are the group that will be responsible for creating the most pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they will not be alone and the Browns have guys who can attack from other areas as well.