Cleveland Browns: Defensive Big 3 earn low marks


The Cleveland Browns have been a disappointment on defense for years, and their Big 3 are not drawing national praise.

The Cleveland Browns invested heavily during the off-season in their defense in an attempt to fix the problems that have continually plagued the team.

After finishing near the bottom of the NFL in just about every important statistical category in 2015, the Browns purged numerous veterans – among them starters Tashaun Gipson, Donte Whitner, Randy Starks and Karlos Dansby – and used six of their league-high 14 selections in the 2016 NFL Draft on defensive players.

The team also jettisoned under-performing defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil (who shockingly landed a job with the San Francisco 49ers) to bring back Ray Horton for a second tour of duty in Cleveland. Horton brings with him a defensive philosophy that allegedly wants to “hit the quarterback coming off the bus,” and he will tell you all day how good his defense is going to be; just don’t look to closely at the results.

It remains to be seen if (or when) all that work will be off on the field, but it has left at least one person unimpressed in ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, who crafted a list of each NFL’s team defensive triplets and, just as they did on the field in 2015, the Browns are bringing up the rear.

Related: Are the Cleveland Browns offensive Big 3 the NFL’s worst?

For the Browns, Barnwell tapped cornerback Joe Haden, linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Desmond Bryant as the Browns big three:

"And so, sadly, the Browns finish at the bottom of the offensive triplet rankings and the bottom of the defensive triplet rankings. Years of disappointing first-round picks and questionable free-agent signings have left the Browns bereft on the defense. They have a legitimate No. 1 cornerback on the roster in Haden, but the former Florida star was riddled with injuries last season and may not be ready for the start of the 2016 campaign. There’s still time for players such as Danny Shelton and Justin Gilbert to develop under a new coaching staff, but there’s little to be enthused about on defense for Cleveland."

We want to argue with Barnwell about his choices and ranking but … we really can’t at this point.

When healthy Haden is the best player in the secondary – and possibly on the defense – and there is no other choice. Tramon Williams is talented much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and the rest of the secondary, outside of K’Waun Williams is filled with a grab bag of mostly interchangeable parts at the moment.

The same can be said of Kruger, who had a disappointing season in 2015 after posting a career-year in 2014. He should bounce back, although it is worth noting that he was ineffective the last time he played in Horton’s defense. Outside of Kruger, the linebacking group is filled with average free agents in Demario Davis and Justin Tuggle, and the unproven in Nate OrchardJoe Schobert, Scooby Wright and Emmanuel Ogbah.

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Move down to the defensive line and the story repeats itself, as behind Bryant is one veteran in John Hughes and a group of youngsters in Danny Shelton, Jamie MederXavier Cooper and Carl Nassib.

When you look at the that list of players, however, you find one area where Browns fans can take exemption to Barnwell’s conclusion that there is “little to be enthused about on defense for Cleveland.”

Go through the roster and you can easily find at least 14 players with three years or less of experience who may find roles on defense this year. It is that young talent, rather than aging veterans, that give fans reason to be enthused.

Barnwell’s rankings may be correct as the Browns defense is more potential than production heading into the 2016 NFL season. But if that potential can start coming together on the field this fall, this is little doubt the Browns should be moving up the rankings in short order.

Next: Is E.J. Bibbs a breakout player in 2016?

What do you think Browns fans? Is the defense trending in the right direction and poised to be better than many expect in 2016?