The Browns just finished another double-digit loss season and questions abound throughout the roster. Are the Browns heading in the right direction? Do the Browns have a core to build around?
The OBR is breaking down the Browns current roster position-by-position. In the sixth in the series, we will take a look at the defensive line.
Similar to the offensive line, the Browns defensive line has the potential to be a dominant unit. The Browns used their first-and second-round draft choices last April to draft defensive linemen in Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard. Both played the entire season and were honored for their performances as being named to the Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers Association All-Rookie team.
With Taylor and Sheard to go with Ahtyba Rubin, the Browns have the makings of a strong front four. Rubin has emerged into one of the top players on the roster. His hustle all over the field is infectious and he should provide a solid example to Taylor. Rubin was second on the team with 83 tackles and also second with five sacks, which is impressive for an interior defensive lineman. Rubin is started to be talked about in terms of being a Pro Bowl player and that bodes well for the future as the Browns just extended him to a long-term contract.
Sheard is possibly already one of the top five players on the Browns. His 8.5 sacks were impressive as a rookie he led the team in that department. He also forced five fumbles as he seems to have the strip sack down to a science. Sheard had 55 tackles on the season to go along with the sacks.
Taylor showed flashes of brilliance, but was inconsistent. He had some games where he really was a factor and others where you didn't know he played. Taylor had 59 tackles with four sacks. He should get better this off-season and give the Browns a good one-two punch in the middle in stopping the run.
Jayme Mitchell was targeted as one of the big free agent signings by Heckert, but did little to show he was the pass rusher that the front office imagined when they traded for him in 2010. Eric Mangini might have had reason to not play Mitchell when he was acquired, despite the 3-4 schematic. Mitchell was beaten out by Emmanuel Stephens, but re-captured the starting role when Stephens went to injured reserve. Mitchell had just 34 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Mitchell was moved from left end to right end in the second game of the season and didn't ever seem to be comfortable with the switch.
Scott Paxson showed some pass rushing ability in the preseason and did a good job stepping in when injuries took their toll. Paxson had 21 tackles and one sack, but he collaborated with Brian Schaefering and sacked Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger suffered a high ankle sprain that lingered the rest of the season.
Schaefering has proven to be a versatile player who made the transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3. He has been a valuable player that can be plugged into the rotation on the line. Schaefering had 29 tackles and a half of a sack on the sack against Roethlisberger.
Stephens replaced Mitchell as the starter at right end but tore his pectoral muscle in his third start and was placed on injured reserve. Stephens had 17 tackles before he went to injured reserve. It's hard to tell how far Stephens will progress in the off-season after being snagged off the Falcons' practice squad early last season.
Auston English was bothered by a knee injury after he was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad. He had four tackles.
Marcus Benard was counted upon to be a key pass rusher but he went ‘Evil Knievel' in a motorcycle accident and was lost for the season. He did have three tackles and half a sack before he was injured. The Browns will have to decide soon if they are going to try and re-sign the soon to be free agent. They chose to pay the remainder of his salary after the motorcycle crash when they weren't obligated to so it seems to reason they will try to retain him.
Brian Sanford played in five games and had five tackles.
Kiante Tripp was placed on the active roster but did not make any tackles.
Bottom Line: Three fourths of the front four appears to be set with Rubin, Taylor and Sheard. Mitchell was a disappointment after being switched to right end. Stephens showed some promise, but it's uncertain if he can be the long-term solution at end.
Benard has shown the ability to rush the passer but his future is in question after his accident. However, at best, Benard is viewed as a situational pass rusher. Several of the young players received valuable playing time this season, which could provide depth in the future.
On the surface, it would seem the Browns could use an upgrade at right end either in free agency or in the draft.
(Next: We'll take a look at the linebacker position).