Free agents may make a bigger difference than you think
So what did the Browns do that is going to change the run defense?
The most important difference comes at defensive tackle, where Andrew Billings plugs up the left defensive tackle position, which was the biggest hole last season.
No kidding, Billings grades at nearly the same level as Richardson as far as run defense is concerned, while Ogunjobi was graded much lower at run defense than at pass-rushing or coverage. Yet Billings is not an every-down player. He was on the field for about 61 percent of the Bengals’ snaps in 2019, so he’s much more likely to be part of a rotation.
That’s exactly what the Browns want. They can use Billings on the run-heavy downs and bring in Ogunjobi in passing situations when they want to turn up the heat on the quarterback a little. With Billings on the line, it takes away the automatic mismatch on the line which allowed a team like Baltimore to automatically dial up five yards whenever they wanted it.
This is huge.
Similarly, at defensive end, Adrian Clayborn at age 32 can still be a devastating rotation player who can make Garrett and Vernon even better. However, Clayborn is thought of as a pass-rushing specialist. Second-year player Porter Gustin may the best run-stopping prospect in camp (except that they are not actually in camp).
We are hearing that although Browns are still going to make extensive use of the 4-2-5, but they are going to use three linebackers on first down and short-yardage (2nd and 4, 3rd and 2 and so on), and that is going to make it a little harder to run at will.
We don’t know who the linebackers will be, but in the 4-3, it might be Sione Takitaki, B.J. Goodson, and Mack Wilson to start the season.
If you are a fan of Pro Football Focus, both Takitaki and Goodson grade significantly higher than Schobert versus the run.
As mentioned previously Wilson’s work was probably good enough to earn him game day snaps, but not necessarily solidify him as an every-down player.
He may get some challenges from the young players this season. In a sense, he is fortunate that the preseason is in disarray because that might allow him to retain his starting job to at least start the season.
In long yardage, the Browns are likely to play a nickel or a dime with Kevin Johnson and one of several choices among defensive backs.
The Ravens present special concerns because of Lamar Jackson, who is probably a 4.3 guy and does not run in a straight line. Using Joe Schobert, who ran 4.76 at his combine 40-yard dash, makes no sense as spy-backer, but might be a great job for J.T. Hassell, who ran a 4.38 at his Pro Day and can play both linebacker and safety. Hopefully, we will not see a 4.76 player matched up against Lamar Jackson again.
I think Hassell is the ideal spy-backer for Lamar Jackson. I think the Browns need to slow down the Ravens’ running game, and if means offering Jackson a chance to win through the air, so be it.
To really be competitive, however, the Browns needs some help from the rookies as well. It seems that there are several players who are suitable to become rotation players at first, just learning part of the playbook at a time.