Now, to get defensive
The defense is the main argument against the Browns, where five players graded below average. The Browns replaced Emmanuel Ogbah, who was barely starting caliber by PFF’s estimation and bring Olivier Vernon over from the Giants, who is very capable and represents the largest upgrade.
Damarious Randall and Sheldon Richardson were perceived by PFF as capable but ordinary players, despite their rather hefty contracts. Christian Kirksey and Larry Ogunjobi were graded only slightly higher than the Antichrist. PFF believes the Browns have five first string players who played at a below average level last year. However, for the most part, the Browns are a young team getting better. There are no presumptive starters aged 30. Vernon, Richardson, T. J. Carrie, and Adarius Taylor are the old men on the team, at age 29. Randall will be 27 in August.
Second-year man Genard Avery will probably start ahead of Taylor. PFF for some reason did not score Avery highly in 2018, despite the fact that the Browns regard him very highly. Also, PFF lists Avery as an “Edge Rusher,” which is usually a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. This is hard to explain unless PFF feels that Avery was mostly used in extra linebacker situations (?). In any case, there is every reason to believe that the young defensive unit will be significantly improved in 2019 compared to 2018.
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The Patriots are judged to be vastly stronger defensively, at least by PFF 2018 grades, than either the Browns or the Chiefs in the AFC. Their big defensive end this year will be Michael Bennett who is coming over from the Eagles, but at age 34 he might not be quite the sackmeister he was a few years ago (63-lifetime sacks). He is paired with Deatrich Wise, Jr. who was not highly graded (77th overall). The McCourty twins and Patrick Chung are also above the magical age of 30. Mike Pennel comes over to the Patriots from the Jets and plugs up the middle, another key addition to the team.
The Chiefs may have a world class offense, but the defensive personnel was not appreciated as much. Ex-Brown Emmanuel Ogbah makes four of 22 starters who are ex-Browns, and ranked 84th, meaning he is zeroth percentile. A total of eight players were ranked at below 50th percentile. Can a team make the Super Bowl without a defense that can stop anyone?
Conversely, the NFC Rams defense would seem to be very formidable, and it is no wonder that Las Vegas likes them to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. It starts with Aaron Donald, who is the most incredible defensive lineman of this generation, but it doesn’t stop there. They’re deep on defense. Looking at their percentile chart, Clay Matthews, son of the Browns’ Clay Matthews, is the lowest ranked player. Really? If Clay Matthews is the biggest problem on your team, you’re probably pretty good. Also, the Rams have depth at OLB, so they don’t have to play the 32-year-old on every down.
Figure 5. Browns Defense, modified percentiles based on PFF. Weirdly, PFF was not impressed with Genard Avery who wasn’t even included among linebackers, so Adarius Taylor is shown as the starter instead. Sheldon Richardson’s grade does not match the huge contract he received from Dorsey and the Browns.
Similarly, Damarious Randall, T. J. Carrie, and Eric Murray are not perceived as star players. Chris Kirksey is also given a low grade, though injuries might be partly to blame. Fans might be surprised at the low number for Larry Ogunjobi, but the truth is that outside of Garrett and Schobert, the front seven did not have a good year last year.
Figure 6. Patriots Defense, modified percentiles based on PFF. The Patriots defense is graded higher than the other contenders including the Browns. However, they are a veteran team with several players age 30 or over, including the McCourty twins, Patrick Chung, and Michael Bennett.
Figure 7. Chiefs Defense. PFF is not impressed with ex-Brown Emmanuel Ogbah, among a total of eight players who ranked below the 50th percentile. The Chiefs defense is significantly weaker than the defenses of the other projected contenders. Do you suppose we might see some high scoring games from the Chiefs next year?
Figure 8. PFF loves the Rams’ defense also, though not crazy about inside linebacker Michael Kiser, nor outside backers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews. But if your worst ranking is Clay Matthews, that’s pretty good.
So, Mr. Dorsey has put together quite a squad this year. The grades from Pro Football Focus should be taken with a grain of salt, but they are consistent with the view that this squad is among the most talented in the NFL. It doesn’t mean that the Browns are for sure going to win this year, of course.
Too much can happen, and football just is not very predictable, that’s why they have to play the games rather than anoint the victor in the preseason. But put it this way — this analyst cannot think of many reasons to be a pessimist this year.
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