While the NFL is still stuck in a labor abyss and players are enjoying an extended vacation, the OBR staff took the opportunity to engage in a roundtable discussion regarding some of the more intriguing Browns' storylines heading into the 2011 season*.
*Assuming such a thing occurs.
What follows is the first in a series of questions posed to OBR writers. Today's topic regards which recently drafted rookie will have the most immediate impact on the 2011 team.
Because of the situation with the NFL lockout, many of the Browns draft choices appear to be in line for immediate playing opportunities, particularly the top two picks. Although, I wouldn't be surprised if as many as four draft choices end up starting at some time in 2011.
Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are being counted upon to immediately step in and play. This is obvious because of where they were picked, but also because the Browns are switching to the 4-3 defense and they don't even have the numbers to play the position.
Coupled with the fact there has been no free agency thus far to plug holes with veterans, the top two rookies appear to be locks to step in and play immediately. On the down side, the rookies haven't had a chance to practice or work with the coaches in the new system. Defensive line seems to be an easier leap from college to the pros and with the Browns desperate for pass rush help, Sheard could emerge quickly at end.
Don't be surprised if Greg Little plays a lot as a rookie at wide receiver. The coaching staff insists that Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and the rest of the Browns' receivers are adequate. However, by drafting Little as high as they did, it shows they think there is room for improvement. Owen Marecic also seems to be in line to start at fullback by default if Lawrence Vickers isn't re-signed. The Stanford product is tough and hard-nosed and will likely play a lot as a rookie.
Out of necessity, the Browns selected a defensive tackle and defensive end in the 2011 NFL draft. This necessity and the lack of a free agent player signing period to date only emphasizes the importance of this Browns draft.
Phil Taylor (DT) and Jabaal Sheard (DE) figure to be fixtures within the Browns defensive scheme for years to come. For a team such as the Browns looking to stop the run and rush the passer, the tandem of Taylor and Sheard will get every opportunity to develop in Dick Jauron's defense.
The lack of depth along the defensive line puts the two rookie draft picks in the spotlight. While both players come with some questionable issues in their past, the Browns are extremely high on both players. Furthermore, both players were specifically targeted by the Browns prior to the draft, only lending credence to the scouting evaluations the Browns placed on the pair.
In a perfect world, Taylor and Sheard step in and become solid contributors for the Browns. However, the present state of the league prohibits the much-needed coaching rookie players generally require.
A new defensive scheme will be implemented, sooner or later due to the labor issues surrounding the league and players, the only certainty is Taylor and Sheard wil be in uniform at some point.
While Sheard and Taylor gain most of the immediate probability at starting or playing a role of importance, WR Greg Little could easily become a major component in the Browns offense. Little was selected in the second round of the draft and may have been a first round selection if not for a suspension which cost him the 2010 college season. With the precarious state at the position currently within the roster, Little will get every opportunity to get on the practice field and expedite his developmental process.
With two consecutive 5-11 seasons, the Cleveland Browns had holes throughout its roster. In the 2011 draft, general manager Tom Heckert took steps toward plugging those holes by drafting a run-stopper on the defensive line, a pass-rushing defensive end, a big-target wide receiver, a bone-crushing fullback and an athletic right tackle, as well as long-term projects at tight end and defensive back.
Among those players, which one has the best immediate playing potential? This may seem too easy but it has got to be the Browns' first-round pick, Phil Taylor.
Since 1999, the Browns have simply not stopped the run. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Browns have not ranked better than 23rd since the return and their average slot is 28th out of 32 teams.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore have routinely run through the Browns defense. No need to relive Jamal Lewis' 295-yard day in 2003, is there?
In order to at least double those five-win seasons, it begins by winning within the AFC North. To win within the AFC North, the Browns need to be stout against the run. It sounds simple because, well, it is.
Taylor is expected to be paired with Ahtyba Rubin at defensive tackle in the Browns' new 4-3 scheme. With two immovable objects in the interior, it can clog up an opponents' running game, which is something the Browns' defense desperately needs to do. Taylor, 6-foot-3, 337 pounds, has shown he can be the force his senior season at Baylor (62 tackles, 38 solo, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks and one forced fumble).
Taylor has lofty potential thanks to his God-given size and athleticism and his natural ability to be a run stopper. It is because of those traits, he has the best immediate playing potential.
The easy answer as to which 2011 draft selection of the Cleveland Browns has the best immediate playing potential would be the team's first round choice, Phil Taylor of Baylor. However, the current makeup of the roster may actually skew the answer towards defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who was chosen 16 selections later at the beginning of the second round.
While the Browns will transition from a 3-4 base defense into new coordinator Dick Jauron's preferred 4-3 front, the team is already littered with mediocre defensive tackle talent behind the likes of Ahytba Rubin. Taylor will be quickly paired with Rubin to dictate what an offense can do against the Cleveland Browns' latest incarnation of its defense, but prior to this occurring he will be asked to "earn" his position more so than Sheard as a result of what is already on the roster.
Plus, the former Pitt end presents a more valuable skill set in which Cleveland is greatly lacking, the ability to get to the quarterback. The roster is barren with talent that can do the same. Thus, it's very likely Sheard is handed a starting job previous to Taylor, although both will be likely be named starters prior to the season eventually beginning.
This isn't a knock on Jabaal Sheard, but exactly who else is going to play defensive end for the 2011 Browns?
With the likelihood of the labor impasse further complicating free agency, the Browns – along with most other teams – are going to have lean on their 2011 rookies. In Cleveland's particular case, the shift to a 4-3 alignment has devastated the team's already shaky depth along the defensive line – leaving only a few options.
However, Sheard should prove to be a solid fit in Dick Jauron's defense. At the least, Sheard will play more of a run-stopping role along the left side of the Browns' defensive line – until the Browns can find a viable right-side end. In time, Sheard could develop the kind of pass-rushing ability to play either position, but in 2011 the Pittsburgh product should instantly get the call to help improve the team's long-suffering run defense.