Cleveland Browns: Answering the question at 3-technique

Aug 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant (92) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant (92) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Every starting defensive line position is set with the exception of the 3-tech, but it’s pretty clear how the Cleveland Browns want things to shake out there.

The Cleveland Browns plan to roll out a defensive line headlined by starters Emmanuel Ogbah and Myles Garrett on the edges with Danny Shelton manning the nose. That just leaves the 3-tech defensive tackle position, which won’t be officially determined until training camp. This make this position the most important area of focus for the Browns on defense. It’s also pretty clear who the Browns want to win that spot. Those players just have to go out and do it.

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Between a return from injury by Desmond Bryant and the NFL Draft, the Browns have three players they did not have last year for the 3-tech spot. They also have former third-round pick Xavier Cooper entering his third year.

The pectoral injury that ended Bryant’s season before it started was devastating, and the Browns never really recovered. Throwing Jamie Meder in there, adding players like Stephen Paea, who barely ever played, and Gabe Wright doing nothing and that position was a massive weakness on the defense all year, which slightly diminished Shelton’s sensational sophomore campaign.

Simply put, too many couldn’t understand what made Shelton so good when the middle of the defense was getting gashed so often.

Bryant was the best interior pass rushing option the Browns had on the team even if he was an inconsistent run defender. Bryant also had a tendency to wear down over the course of the season and seems to always be dealing with shoulder issues that cost him a game or few per season.

So while some may assume that Bryant would be the natural player to be the starter for the Browns, he’s best suited to be a role player and situational pass rusher. He’s also in the final year of his contract and 31 years old on a defense with few veterans anywhere near that age.

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The best case scenario for the Browns is the trio of third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi, sixth-round pick Caleb Brantley and the aforementioned Cooper can show enough where the Browns can move on from Bryant and either trade or release him.

Bryant could be an excellent addition to a team with playoff aspirations that want another big body that can rush the passer from the interior. The Browns might be able to garner something in trade unless they opt to release Bryant out of respect the way they did with Gary Barnidge and a few others. If the Browns do opt to trade Bryant, some teams that could be good fits might include Arizona, Denver and New England.

None of that matters unless the young players step up, but it’s a little easier since the Browns basically have players that are geared toward the two different facets of the position. The first is stopping the run.

Ogunjobi was among the best run stopping defensive tackles in college football the past few years at Charlotte. He has athletic upside and can ultimately develop into someone who can be a threat rushing the passer. For now, the Browns need Ogunjobi to be effective on running downs.

Paired with Shelton, if they can effectively clog the middle, it will protect their linebackers behind them and help their edge players make an impact. If all Ogunjobi does as a rookie is help put opponents into obvious passing situations, it’s a huge success. That is where Gregg Williams can do his best work: varying up subpackages, mixing up looks and utilizing the various exotic blitzes he likes to employ.

May 24, 2017; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi (65) runs a drill during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 24, 2017; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi (65) runs a drill during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

When opponents are put in obvious passing situations, the Browns can then sub out Ogunjobi in favor of Brantley, Cooper or potentially move either Garrett or Carl Nassib inside to try to upgrade their pass rush. This is where Bryant, if retained, has the best chance of making an impact.

Realistically, this means that the Browns need Brantley and Cooper to show them enough to move on from Bryant. They’re young with careers hopefully in front of them, whereas Bryant may be nearing the end of his.

Cooper is entering his third year and it appears to be a “now or never” proposition for him, at least as it pertains to the Browns. Brantley, meanwhile, entered the league under less than ideal circumstances with a reputation for being lazy and a collegiate career of underwhelming play.

The good news is that they are coming to a Gregg Williams system that seems to be ideal for both of them. Both try to beat opponents to spot with quickness then use strength and speed to more or less finish the job. Reacting as opposed to thinking, which is what Williams wants from his defensive linemen.

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Unless the Browns keep nine defensive linemen, which is certainly possible, only one of Bryant, Cooper and Brantley will make final 53-man roster. This means they need to get as many reps from Cooper and Brantley as possible, so they can make an informed decision on how to proceed with Bryant.

This dynamic is why it appears that only Ogunjobi is truly a safe bet to make the final roster at the 3-tech. It’s not difficult to foresee a scenario where any of the other three don’t make the final roster.

The young guys show out and make Bryant expendable. Cooper just doesn’t develop and deliver on the promise he had as a draft prospect. Brantley lives down to his unfortunate reputation that resulted in his drop in the NFL Draft. None of these scenarios is outrageous or unbelievable.

What works against Bryant is the fact that in the event of a tie, it’s going to go to the younger player. In fact, even if Bryant is better, as long as one or both of the younger players keep it close, they may get the nod based on their age and the future.

The ever present X-factor in all of this is, unfortunately, injuries. The hope is all three players are and can remain healthy so the team can truly determine who the best player is. But whether it’s a serious injury or one of the younger players experiences something minor but is enough to hold back their development and their exposure to this coaching staff, it could change how the Browns have to plan their roster.

Last year, the 3-tech defensive tackle position was the worst spot on the entire defense, with no hope to change it once Bryant went down. For all of the things the Browns front office has done well, not having a backup plan there was a disaster.

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This year, the team at least has pieces that can make a big difference there and it’s a matter of proving it. If that position can at least perform at an adequate level, nothing else this defense does will have a greater impact on how this unit performs as compared to last year’s.