Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett’s impending debut offers optimism

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 10: Tight end Josh Hill #89 of the New Orleans Saints blocks defensive end Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half of a preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 10: Tight end Josh Hill #89 of the New Orleans Saints blocks defensive end Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half of a preseason game at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns selected Myles Garrett first-overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he’s yet to debut. When he does, his impact will be immediate.

Sitting at 0-4 to begin the 2017 season and having won just one of their last 23 games (dating back to 2015), the Cleveland Browns aren’t exactly a breeding ground for optimism. There was undoubtedly hope coming into this season with three incoming first-round picks and an influx of talent that stretched further. However, the results have been the same, opening the campaign with four-straight losses and some tough-to-stomach quarterback play from rookie DeShone Kizer.

Of course, saying that Kizer is the primary issue for the Browns misses the point entirely. The problems that this team currently faces are numerous and stretch to both sides of the ball. Jabrill Peppers has been a problem at safety when put into coverage situations. An offensive line that appeared to have elite potential hasn’t been that to this point. Hue Jackson’s play-calling has been more and more problematic. The list goes on.

However, one of the more disheartening realities entering Week 5 of the season is that No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett has yet to make his regular season debut. After going through the preseason, the Texas A&M product suffered a high-ankle sprain four days before the regular season opener. He’s been recovering since and progressing as hoped, but he’s still yet to take the field. And despite him having not played a regular season snap yet, his absence from the defense is evident.

Coming into the season, Pete Smith detailed how Garrett’s presence would impact the defense. The short of it is that having a pass-rusher of his caliber makes quite literally every other players’ job easier and allows other defensive pieces to slot into better positions to succeed. However, the injury occurred a little more than a week after that post was published. Thus, we’ve yet to see what the rookie does to change the complexion of the Browns defense.

The good news for Cleveland — both the team and fans alike — is that his debut appears to be nearing, though not yet set in stone. He practiced twice last week, a positive sign of his progression. Now, according to Zac Jackson of The Athletic, Jackson said that he “hoped” the No. 1 overall pick could make his debut in Week 5 against the New York Jets.

More from NFL Spin Zone

When you look at what Garrett was able to do in his three preseason appearances, it was hard not to get excited. According to Pro Football Focus Edge, he played 68 snaps and graded out as the seventh-best edge rusher across the league. Per PFF Elite, he notched seven pressures when rushing the passer, but was also effective in stifling the run. The latter part is critical as many perceived that as the weakest part of his game coming into the professional ranks.

Perhaps the most important and promising part of Garrett’s preseason performance was the consistency that he displayed. His numbers weren’t bolstered by one big showing, but rather a persistent high-level of play. Again per PFF Edge, he never graded lower than 80.6 in any of his trio of outings, and was the highest-graded Browns player in the ever-important Preseason Week 3 game.

With Garrett out of the lineup due to injury, though, the defense has struggled in almost every facet of the game. However, they’ve been particularly bad as it pertains to their pass rush. PFF’s Mike Renner noted on Twitter that the Browns are blitzing at the highest rate in the NFL through four games. Without Garrett on the field, it makes sense as to why defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would blitz that often, an attempt to generate pressure without an elite single player to do so. The concern, though, as noted by Renner, is that Cleveland simultaneously ranks last in the league in pressure rate:

Indeed, that is unbelievably bad. This defense is blitzing out of necessity trying to get after opposing quarterbacks, but even that isn’t working. As a result, a secondary that has played well outside of Peppers is put in a bad position where they’re asked to spend an eternity in coverage while opposing quarterbacks aren’t being hurried at all. That’s a recipe for disaster — or, you know, getting lit up by the likes of Jacoby Brissett.

More from Cleveland Browns

Emmanuel Ogbah, Nate Orchard and Carl Nassib have assumed the role of playing on the edge in Garrett’s absence, and all have been as ineffective as the aforementioned pressure rates would have you believe. According to PFF Edge, Ogbah ranks 72nd, Nassib 74th and Orchard 83rd among edge defenders in terms of pass rushing grade. That’s the picture of ineffectiveness.

Thus, the need for Garrett to enter the fold is dire at this point, especially when you consider that the Colts and Bengals offensive lines are both notoriously questionable this season, but still kept Cleveland’s rush at bay.

When Garrett does make his debut, be it in Week 5 or not, there will be renewed hope for the Browns after the first four weeks of the season have chipped away at any preseason optimism. The offense will still have its problems as Kizer will likely continue to struggle and Jackson will likely continue to fall short as a play-caller. However, the design of this team was always for the defense to start making strides this season and for the offense to be the next phase of development.

Next: 2018 NFL Mock Draft: Barkley supplants Darnold at No. 1

Obviously that hasn’t been the case to this point, but Garrett will change that. He’ll make his counterparts in Ogbah, Orchard and Nassib more effective with the attention he demands. His presence will allow Williams to dial back the blitz calls, alleviating the burden put on the secondary. As a result, the defense should be able to perform like they’re the strength of this team. At 0-4, Cleveland needs the boost the rookie will provide sooner rather than later both for their on-field effectiveness, and to continue the optimism about a team still in the heart of a rebuild.