Cleveland Browns: Massive changes at defensive tackle
By Joel W. Cade
As the Cleveland Browns open camp in less than a week, changes to the defensive scheme under Gregg Williams will dictate the state of the defensive tackle position.
The Cleveland Browns have invested heavily in the defensive tackle position over the past few seasons. The previous regime brought in Danny Shelton, Xavier Cooper and Jamie Meder.
The current Browns front office brought in Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley. With all this investment, it would seem that defensive tackle would be the most stable position on the team.
However, constant scheme changes have left the Browns with a roster full of defensive linemen who were drafted for different schemes. Some lineman were drafted to play the 3-4 scheme while others were drafted for the 4-3 scheme.
Yet, some would argue that scheme is irrelevant given that NFL defenses play nickel (or five defensive backs) for a majority of defensive snaps. The argument goes that while playing nickel, a majority of defenses use four defenders on the line of scrimmage with two linebackers.
The argument makes sense if one is only counting defenders in the box. While playing nickel, there is usually six players in the box and five players playing defensive back. But the assignments and responsibilities of those six defenders can vary greatly. In sum, not all nickel packages are created equally.
The difference in nickel packages comes back to the base scheme the nickel package emerges from. Most nickel packages in the NFL are an outgrowth of their base package. For example, a 4-3 base team will run a nickel package based on 4-3 principles and vice versa.
Thus, the argument that scheme is irrelevant due to the prominence of nickel packages in the NFL fails to recognize that nickel packages are an outgrowth of the base defensive scheme. Can NFL defenses change schemes while in nickel? Yes. But de facto, NFL teams run their nickel package off their base scheme.
Related: How many draft picks make the roster?
Returning to the discussion of defensive lineman. The Browns have roughly four spots open for defensive tackles heading into the season. They have five serious candidates for roster spots.
Danny Shelton was drafted to play the 3-4 nose tackle position. That position is basically a big body who commands double teams. This position would be similar to a 1-technique in the 4-3 scheme.
But, Gregg Williams is famous for his single gap attacking defense. Unless Williams changes his scheme to accommodate him, Shelton will need to develop the ability to penetrate and cause disruption. He did this in college and should be able to transition to this style of defense.
Prediction: Danny Shelton is a roster lock.
Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley were both drafted in April to fit Gregg Williams’ scheme. Both have the ability to play an attacking 1-technique and they did so in college. Thus, they could both serve as backups for Danny Shelton. However, Ogunjobi and Brantley can both penetrate in a single gap system. This makes them prime candidates to play the 3-technique position this season.
Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams has defined the ideal role of a three technique. He is quick off the ball, he can rush the passer from the inside position and he holds his gap against the run. Donald made his mark on the league playing in Gregg Williams’ defense for the Rams. It is conceivable that Brantley or Ogunjobi could fill the 3-technique role and serve as a 1-technique in Cleveland for Williams.
Prediction: Both Brantley and Ogunjobi make the roster.
Which leaves Xavier Cooper and Jamie Meder.
Cooper was drafted by the prior regime to play a 5-technique in former Head Coach Mike Pettine’s 3-4 Hybrid defense. Coming out of college, Cooper was heralded for his quickness off the ball. He has shown that quickness at the NFL level but it has yet to translate to enough production to see the field for more than a backup role. This camp will be crucial for Cooper. But between him and Meder, Cooper has the most translatable skills from a 5-technique to a 3-technique.
Prediction: Xavier Cooper is on the bubble but makes the team as a 3-technique
Jamie Meder is the player on this list who may have lost the most by a change in scheme. Meder is the prototypical nose guard for a 3-4 scheme. Williams could find a role for him as a 1-technique run stopper and space eater. However, Meder’s fit in Williams’ attacking single gap schemes is a question that will have to be resolved in camp.
Prediction: Meder fails to make the cut, unless he can adapt his game.
All told, the defensive tackles who can play a 1 and 3-technique for Gregg Williams style of defense would be Danny Shelton, Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley. On the bubble are Xavier Cooper and Jamie Meder.
Next: Projecting the 53-man roster
With camp only a few days away, the defensive tackle position battle will be fun to watch.