The Cleveland Browns spent a large part of their off-season working to fix one of the biggest problems that has plagued the defense for years.
And if they didn’t get it right, the problem will negate the defense’s biggest asset.
In 2014 the Browns were last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, 27th in yards per carry, and 28th in runs of 20-plus yards. Opposing teams ran the ball 500 times on the Browns last year, and on 87 of those rushes they gained eight yards or more.
While the club has worked hard over the past two drafts and free agency periods to build what may be one of the top secondaries in the league, it won’t mean anything if the Browns can’t figure out how to stop the run come the fall. Factor in that the Browns will be facing six teams that finished in the Top 10 in rushing – Seattle, New York Jets, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Kansas City – and the task may seem a bit daunting.
The three newcomers will join the incumbents on the defensive line – Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Billy Winn, Desmond Bryant and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen in an attempt to stop being every running back’s favorite opponent.
In addition, the roster currently six more players at the defensive line position: Armonty Bryant (although the team has talked about using him as an edge rusher), Jacobbi McDaniel, Jamie Meder, Tory Slater, Christian Tupou and Dylan Wynn.
So that gives the Browns 14 players at a position where they only kept seven last season. While it is possible they could keep eight defensive linemen in the wake of last season’s injury woes, seven once again seems like the right number here, meaning there could be some tough decisions as the club works it way toward the final roster.
“You feel much better now when you realize you have so many more options,” head coach Mike Pettine said about the situation. “You don’t go into a game holding your breath thinking, one guy we can’t afford to lose is this guy, and next thing you know that’s the guy the trainers are running out to see. I’ve said it before, no sympathy cards get sent out amongst coaches when guys get hurt. You have to be able to withstand the attrition during the season.”
Pettine showed last season that draft position means nothing come game day, but the Browns didn’t select Shelton to do anything but help plug up the middle. At 6-foot-2 and 339-pounds, Shelton is a player born to play in the AFC North Division, one who can be a disruptive force on the defensive line. He’s a lock to make the team.
The same can be said for Cooper, the club’s third-round selection, as the club will look to him as a pass rusher.
“I think (Xavier’s) different than anything we have (with) his ability to get off the ball,” Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said. “I think he’s going to cause offenses a lot of problems, especially in the pass game.”
Starks should also make the final cut after the Browns brought the free agent in from Miami on a two-year contract. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Starks gives the Browns another big body, veteran experience, and versatility, as he can play either end or tackle when the Browns line up in a 3-4 defense.
Among the holdovers from last season, Desmond Bryant and Hughes are the first two that should secure roster spots. Bryant has been a solid player joining the Browns as a free agent in 2013, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Browns would give Hughes a four-year contract extension in the off-season just to release him a few months later.
That leaves three players for would potentially could be just two roster spots.
Taylor hasn’t consistently played like someone who was a first-round draft pick in 2011, and has battled injuries in two of the past three seasons. After only playing five games last season, Taylor would seem like a candidate for a final cut. But he also carries a $5.4 million contract that is fully guaranteed, so it seems likely that Taylor will be this year’s Ahtyba Rubin, a veteran who the Browns let play out his contract before (potentially) allowing to walk away in free agency.
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Which brings us to Kitchen and Winn.
The Browns gave Kitchen a second-round tender offer in the off-season when it would have been easy to just let him go. After all, Kitchen was an undrafted free agent out of The Kent State University in 2012 who the Browns signed after he was waived by Baltimore. Would anyone have noticed if Kitchen wasn’t around when training camp started?
On the other hand, Winn was targeted by the team’s website as a player with “something to prove” this summer, which could be an indication of how the team is thinking.
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Both Winn and Kitchen have played 40 games for the Browns, but Winn has made 18 starts to just three for Kitchen. In addition, Winn has three sacks to zero for Kitchen and leads in tackles, 54 to 13.
As much as we don’t want to see a fellow Golden Flash leave town, we’ll give the final line spot to Winn.
The Browns have worked hard to build a dominating secondary and are trying just as hard to create a defensive line that can put opposing offenses in passing situations.
But the defensive line is only part of the equation as the Browns will look to the entire defense to help solve the problem.
“I know a lot of people — just like they like to put sacks on an offensive line when a lot of times it’s not necessarily on them — that (think) rush defense goes onto the defensive line,” Pettine told The News-Herald. “Obviously, the fair share of blame is there, but it was part scheme, part the linebackers, the edges, secondary, improper angles, missed tackles. It’s part of it but probably not to the extent that most people would think.”
Even though Pettine is right, the defense will only be as good as the run defense allows it to be.
Who do you think will make up the defensive line for the Browns in 2015?