The Cleveland Browns interior defense will be hard-pressed to stop the run, based on what we saw last year.
The Cleveland Browns defensive interior, as presently constituted, simply does not match up well against the likes of Joe Mixon (Bengals), J.K. Dobbins (Ravens), or Najee Harris (Steelers). With all the attention focused on the quarterback position this season, it’s easy to forget that the Browns have to play defense this season.
However, like it or not, the Browns do business in the AFC North, and it is a rough neighborhood in which the local residents still believe in running the football.
If you believe Pro Football Focus, the Browns have only one defensive tackle who played at the level of an acceptable backup last season, according to their published guidelines. That would be Sheldon Day, who was given a grade of 64.7, although he did not have enough snaps (234) to be considered a starter.
Every other defensive tackle was graded in the 40s, which is far below the level of an NFL starter. In fact, the Browns DTs graded out so poorly that it is questionable whether any of them can remain in the league in 2022. PFF grades for the entire Browns defense were compiled by Scott Patsko of Cleveland.com, which you can check out for yourself.
Last year’s starters, Malik Jackson and Malik McDowell, were not retained. Jackson is still a free agent, and McDowell is trying to get his life together after suffering a serious relapse over the off-season.
Taven Bryan is coming over from Jacksonville to plug one of the holes on the line. Bryan has started 17 games in his four-year Jacksonville career. He has a reputation for being a much better pass rusher than a run-stopper.
Yet he too is rated as replaceable by PFF, although in previous seasons he has been better overall. Linemen are notoriously difficult to evaluate because no one is ever 100 percent healthy and from season to season the player’s capabilities really do change.
Who will be the Cleveland Browns starting DTs?
Currently, Cleveland’s penciled in Bryan and Jordan Elliott as starters. Day, former Buckeye Tommy Togiai, and rookie Perrion Winfrey from Oklahoma are also available. Given that none of the veterans performed at an acceptable level last season, these jobs are totally up for grabs.
Based on the disappointing performance of the veterans, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see Winfrey start as a rookie.
For the most part, the Browns defensive tackles are on the light side — Bryan (291 lbs), Elliott (302 lbs), Day (293 lbs), Togiai (296 lbs), and Winfrey (292 lbs). — and are a little better at rushing the passer than playing the run.
However, Cleveland is also bringing two undrafted free agents to camp, both of whom seem to be rather stout individuals. One is Roderick Perry, who is 6-foot-2 and 315 pounds.
Pay special attention to undrafted free agent Glen Logan, who played at LSU at six-foot-three and 298 pounds, but who apparently bulked up to 339 pounds for his Pro Day workout if we are reading the numbers right. That’s getting into the range of former Brown Danny Shelton, who used to dictate traffic in the middle of the field.
Based on the size of these fellows, especially Logan, it appears that the Browns may be looking for a nose tackle who could anchor a three-man front, allowing a 3-3-5 rather than a 4-2-5. If you believe in the theory that you play your 11 best players, the Browns actually have three really good linebackers.
They may not have four really good defensive linemen. If they can find a big guy who can totally plug up the middle of the field like Shelton used to do, it might not be very exciting, but the third linebacker might do some serious damage. Heck, let’s see if Jabba the Hutt is a free agent and sign him.
Let’s be blunt, Cleveland seem to be headed to having two liabilities on the front four, unless they can find two players who can really step up this summer. If they can find one acceptable big man to allow them to shift to a 3-3-5, with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney flanking the big man, I’m all in.
The Browns have truly superior linebackers in lieu of poorly graded defensive tackles. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Anthony Walker are the likely starters in the 4-2-5. Behind those two, they have Sione Takitaki, who is a bone-crushing run-stopper. The Browns also like Tony Fields II and Jacob Phillips.
Roster spots for longshots Willie Harvey, Jr. and Silas Kelly could possibly be justified if the Browns have three starting linebackers rather than only two.
Lest anyone in the front office forget, the Browns have to stop Joe Mixon of the Bengals, who is an inside runner. Ditto for the Ravens, who are returning three running backs from injury (J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill), signed a free agent (Mike Davis), and drafted a rookie (Tyler Badie).
Plus they still have Lamar Jackson ready to rock and roll and they have three new offensive linemen. They are serious about running the ball again.
Pittsburgh will run the ball all day long with Najee Harris. They are either going to start Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback or else rookie Kenny Pickett. Either way, you know they need to run first.
For now, however, 4-2-5 is still Plan A. Perhaps one or two of the young tackles will show significant improvement. However, if nothing works out during summer camp, a trade or waiver claim, or possibly two, may be in order.
The front office accumulated so many wide receivers that they will not all fit on one NFL roster, but they neglected defensive tackle. In a year in which the quarterback position is unsettled, it is still very possible to win with a strong running game and a dominant defense.
That dominant defense still needs to shut down the running game with the big boys up front. Other than the Deshaun Watson soap opera, defensive tackle is the number one concern going into summer camp.