As the Browns transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, former defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard will be transitioning to the outside linebacker position. They will also battle for playing time opposite of free agent acquisition Paul Kruger, who will line up at the other outside linebacker spot. The Browns selected Mingo with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. Expectations for Mingo are very high. Jabaal Sheard, on the other hand, has led the team in sacks in his first two seasons. The outside linebacker spot on this defense will be asked to pass rush quite a bit. But it will also require great athleticism to drop into pass coverage, something Mingo and Sheard have in spades. That’s the thinking behind the Browns asking these two defensive ends to make the switch to linebacker before the start of the season. The question is how quickly Mingo and Sheard will be able to adapt to the outside linebacker position and the answer could be the deciding factor in who will get the lion’s share of the downs once Week 1 rolls around.
Barkevious Mingo has the ideal height but is far too light for the rigors of defensive end in the National Football League. The switch to outside linebacker might just be perfect for him, as he makes the jump to the pro game. He has some experience in pass coverage but is still a very raw talent, rated so highly in this year’s draft because of his out-of-this-world athletic ability. Mingo has a decided advantage in speed and athleticism and his length at 6’4” can’t hurt in pass defense. But will he be polished enough at the start of the season for the Cleveland coaching staff to feel comfortable rolling him out right away?
Jabaal Sheard has been an excellent pass rusher with the Browns, racking up 15.5 sacks in his first two seasons in the league. He is thicker than Mingo but short for defensive end at just 6’0”, so he might also be well suited for the switch to linebacker. The concern is whether this was a good time for him to make the transition, having already shown in his first two seasons that his height wasn’t going to keep him from getting to the quarterback. Whereas Mingo was probably going to have to make the switch to linebacker for the NFL, Sheard probably could have gone on being a productive defensive end in any 4-3 defense. Sheard has all the tools needed to make the transition to linebacker successfully, but he’s never really been asked to pass cover.
It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t an all or nothing position battle for these two. Neither Mingo nor Sheard figures to be a three down player, meaning they will likely be jockeying for snaps throughout the 2013 season. It will also serve to keep them fresh and energized in both pass rush and pass coverage. Don’t be surprised to see either Mingo or Sheard start to see more playing time if the other is struggling, especially in coverage. As both are excellent pass rushers, expect the majority of the playing time to go to the individual who has been able to pick up the techniques of pass coverage quicker during the offseason. This will certainly be a spot to keep an eye on throughout the preseason.
Projected starter: Jabaal Sheard is named starter, but Barkevious Mingo grabs more and more playing time as the season progresses.