The Cleveland Browns have created a potent starting defensive line, so the focus shifts to whether or not they have the group that can go to the Super Bowl.
With the additions of Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon, the Cleveland Browns have transformed their defensive lines into one of the better starting fronts in the NFL. The factor that could keep them from becoming a great overall defensive line is what happens when those front line players are tired or hurt.
This was a major factor for the team last year and, while the team is better equipped this year, they still have room for improvement and should continue adding with the goal of eliminating a point where the opposing offense gets a reprieve.
A reasonably safe number to shoot for with the starting defensive line is around 70 percent of defensive snaps. If a team can get even lower than that while getting excellent production, that’s pretty ideal. So if the Browns can get 70 percent from Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson, they should be kept pretty fresh, able to deliver the impact the Browns need from them.
The other 30 percent is the issue and that’s assuming everyone is able to give them a full season. At defensive end, the Browns are in good shape currently. Genard Avery had an excellent rookie season attacking off the edge and it’s not entirely clear what the Browns envision his role to be.
They have at least hinted at the possibility that he could be a factor at SAM linebacker in addition to playing on the edge. The goal should be to have the Browns in defensive looks with three linebackers on the field as little as possible, but Avery could be in for all of those. That might impact how many snaps he’s able to play as an edge player, but it’s just unclear what those numbers will look like.
Theoretically, if the Browns view Avery as a full-time edge player, they could work out a rotation where they mix up the rotation with Garrett and Vernon so that a combination of those two or Avery is on the field almost every play. From a pure pass rushing standpoint, that’s pretty ideal.
Emmanuel Ogbah is still on the team, though the rumors persist on how long that will continue. Injuries have really hampered him the past two years. Playing through a high ankle sprain all of last year after suffering a season-ending broken foot to end 2017 in which he was having an excellent season. If he is retained for this season, he is someone that is an excellent run defender and just needs to take another big step forward as a pass rusher.
He needs to figure out how to shed blocks more effectively. It would also help if he could avoid getting blocked in the first place. Too often, he gets stuck on blockers. While it allows him to drive the opponent back and help teammates make plays, he’s not making enough for himself. So for now, he remains in limbo but seems like he could be a really nice rotational player.
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That leaves Chris Smith, Anthony Zettel and Chad Thomas. Two of those players have shown a pulse thus far and are worth discussing. Zettel got very little opportunity under Gregg Williams, but when he was allowed on the field, the results were pretty good. When he was a starter for the Detroit Lions in 2017, he produced 6.5 sacks. It seems like there should be a productive middle ground as a fourth or even fifth edge player.
Chris Smith can play on the edge, but his value has always been more on the interior over the course of his career. This will be worth keeping an eye on under Steve Wilks as to where they try to utilize him. His box score hasn’t been great there, but his rate for generating pressure has been substantially higher inside.
At their best, the Browns have the means and the opportunity to keep two excellent pass rushers on the field for every snap of the game. Four or five deep, they appear to be equipped to go a long way. That’s a fantastic situation to have. If they can find a way to improve it, it could be even better, but they are currently operating from a position of strength.
The interior of the defensive line is a little more of a concern. Sheldon Richardson is a massive improvement from last season, but the depth behind Richardson and Ogunjobi is sketchy. The remaining players on the defensive interior include Trevon Coley, Carl Davis, Devaroe Lawrence, Brian Price and Daniel Ekuale. Best case scenario, maybe one but more likely zero would make the final roster in favor of better options.
Chris Smith can help with the interior, though he’s a pass rush change up as opposed to a full service option in the case of an injury. Myles Garrett can also slide inside and should be used in that role to up the athleticism in obvious pass rushing situations.
However, sub packages only go so far and when it comes to real depth throughout a game or in case of an injury, there’s little if anything there. The ability to play the run and provide an impact is virtually nil if Ogunjobi and Richardson aren’t on the field currently. Maybe someone else on the roster is a surprise, but that’s not something the team can bank on heading into 2019 and this really bit the Browns last year.
Given the salary cap situation, the answer is unlikely to come from free agency. Short of someone willing to play this season for the Browns for an incredibly small salary, the draft appears to be their best avenue. Small, cost controlled assets that balance out a heavily paid front line that will only get more expensive the next few years.
The draft doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least the Browns would have more talent to try to find the right combination to address that weakness on the inside. Finding that answer to the 30 percent of plays on the interior as well as staying away from major injuries and the Browns could have a defensive line that is good from start to finish. Opponents never get a real chance to breathe and there are always players on the field that can make plays.
If the Browns can do that, they will a defensive line that can potentially get them to the Super Bowl.