Cleveland Browns need to think defense in free agency and draft
Posted by Kris Knox on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 · Leave a Comment
The Cleveland Browns are once in the process of yet another massive overhaul, and once again, Browns fans are left hoping that the transition will result in a quick turnaround.
It hasn’t worked out so well in the past, which is one of the main reasons (aside from Jimmy Haslam’s purchase of the franchise) the Browns are entering 2013 with a new coaching staff for the third time in five years.
The difference this time is that new head coach Rob Chudzinski inherits a young roster brimming with talent and potential, especially on the offensive side of the football.
While the jury is still out on quarterback Brandon Weeden (and on Colt McCoy, for that matter) the rest of the offense appears to be in good shape. Cleveland will return a solid offensive line anchored by perennial pro bowler Joe Thomas, a serviceable running back duo in Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty and a trio of young receivers in Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin.
Perhaps more importantly, the core of young players on Cleveland’s offense appear to fit offensive coordinator Norv Turner‘s power run/vertical pass system perfectly.
It is also a core group that figures to be supplemented through free agency. The Browns will have an estimated $45.6 million in cap space, and thanks to the league’s new salary cap floor policy, the team will be forced to spend a large portion of that. Of course, with the possible exception of adding a veteran receiver, tight end and possibly another quarterback, the Browns probably won’t have plans on chasing too many offensive players.
With new coordinator Ray Horton looking to make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense, the Browns are likely to spend their money (and subsequent draft picks) on the defensive side of the ball. It isn’t just a good idea, it is a necessity, as the transition isn’t going to come easy.
In fact, many fans have questioned whether the move to a 3-4 should even be attempted at all. The Browns’ defense wasn’t stellar by any means in 2012, but it wasn’t awful, either. Former coordinator Dick Jauron fielded a disciplined unit that played well enough to keep the Browns in most contests.
There’s also the question of personnel. After spending two years trying to build a roster capable of running the 4-3, several of the team’s most productive defenders are going to be in store for big changes, or looking for a new job in the near future. The defensive line was a team strength in 2012, but in 2013 will likely be more of an afterthought as Horton moves to build his defense around a strong linebacking corps.
Defensive linemen like Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Billy Winn, John Hughes and Jabaal Sheard will be forced to adapt, or will be forced to move on. Defensive end Frostee Rucker, last years prize free agent acquisition, has already been released.
Of course, having a surplus of promising linemen does carry one benefit. The Browns will be able to focus their attention on the rest of the defense during free agency and the draft. For Horton’s 3-4 system, that means targeting linebackers.
Finding a complement to starting cornerback Joe Haden and a playmaking safety to pair with T.J. Ward will also be a priority, but acquiring linebacker depth will be the name of the game. Outside of starting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (and possibly outside linebacker Chris Gocong if he can return healthy), the Browns don’t exactly have a stellar group to build a 3-4 base defense around.
Do not be at all surprised if the Browns use several of their draft picks in April (including the sixth overall) on the linebacker position, specifically on the outside, where the 3-4 typically calls for a dynamic pass-rusher. Players like Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree or Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, who at 6’4″, 255 pounds, could conceivably convert to linebacker, are potential first-round targets.
There are a few talented linebackers slated for free agency, like the Cowboys’ Anthony Spencer and Baltimore’s Paul Kruger. However, a player like Shaun Philips, who has spent his entire career with Turner’s former team, the Chargers, may be a more realistic target. Both Spencer and Kruger are expected to be retained by their current teams. Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith and Houston’s Conner Barwin are two other possibilities.
The Browns have a handful of options, if looking to upgrade the secondary via free agency. Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes, 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Bills safety Jairus Byrd are just a few of the top players slated for free agency. Of course, with teams placing an increasing premium on pass-defenders, expect a watered-down market after teams make extension offers and use the franchise tag to keep their top playmakers in the secondary.
Again, the Browns will have plenty of money to spend this off-season, and if they hope to make a quick and successful transition to the 3-4, they will be wise to make the most of it. Horton and Chudzinski have both talked about fielding an aggressive, attacking defense, but that will only happen if they can find a way to field the right personnel.
I guess another Warmack will come around in the next decade but, I'll probably be looking from another planet by then. Man, him and the rest of that young OL opening holes for Richie! If only. As you can see some of the players named have already been lock-up by their respective teams like Jarius Byrd, Buffalo.