After an offseason of extraordinary press celebrating the prospects of Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense, the 2011 Browns were probably better defined by a surprisingly improved defense. Veteran defensive coordinator Dick Jauron returned the Browns' defense to a more conventional 4-3 look, which offered more practical weekly game plans. While the results were still decidedly mixed, Jauron's unit showed the kind of gradual improvement that could blossom into continued success.
In most respects, Jauron's defense is symbolic of the Browns' front office rebuilding approach that focuses on adding players via the draft. The fruits of GM Tom Heckert's first two Browns' drafts include secondary talent Joe Haden and T.J. Ward and young linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard. Sheard in particular stood out in 2011 as the rookie defensive end posted 8.5 sacks and enjoyed a few moments of dominance.
Sheard's progression was unique in that he manned the left defensive end spot – which has typically been known as the "run stopping" role in Jauron's past defenses. Traditionally, Jauron's defensive ends have retained exclusive roles; however, Jayme Mitchell proved to be a complete bust at the right end spot.
Heading into April's draft, it's clear that the Browns need to add a defensive end whose primary skills lie in pass rushing. Since Sheard can now be viewed as a solid starter at one spot, another young presence on the defensive line can elevate Jauron's defense to a higher level in 2012. The assumption is that the Browns will stick to their past strategy and wait until April to find this talent.
However, what follows is a short list of available free agents who could bolster the overall depth at the position.
Williams is an impressive talent and is easily one of the league's most physically dominant players. In most cases, Williams represents a rare kind of free agent – one who is young, relatively healthy and shows the potential for further growth. However, Williams seemed to benefit from Houston's shift to Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense last season. Williams excelled until injuries derailed his season, but appears to be likely to return to what could be a Super Bowl contending team.
Also, it's probably worth noting that Williams will command an extraordinary contract – one that could reach some 30 million dollars in guaranteed money.
Mincey and Avril are more traditional pass rushing 4-3 defensive ends and each turned in a solid 2011 season. However, the biggest of free agent warnings should be attached to each, since each player's most successful season came in a contract year. Of the two players, Mincey would seem to be more of a traditional Jauron type of end. However, the talent-deprived Jaguars should be more flush with new owner Shahid Khan's cash this offseason – meaning that Mincey could prove costly to other teams.
Carter serves as the classic case of a defensive end needlessly shifted to outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. Much in the way that former Brown Kamerion Wimbley struggled to become essentially a coverage linebacker, Carter found new life playing in Bill Belichick's 4-3 system last season. However, Carter's age and recent history make him a risky bet beyond a one-year contract.
Speaking of which, in another football universe both Roth and Spencer could make a lot of sense for the Browns. Roth – who was the ideal run stuffing 3-4 outside linebacker – still seems miscast as a 4-3 defensive end, while Spencer has had moments in Dallas, but could be better served playing as a more traditional end.
In either case, both players need to wait until the 3-4 is again trendy – or at least sit tight until the Browns switch defensive philosophies again.
One of the rare lowlights of Thomas' career came in 2010, when the Browns' All-Pro left tackle was dominated by Atlanta's Abraham. Abraham, now 34 years old, is still productive – but it's hard to project the kind of continued production associated with a big free agent deal.
Assuming the Browns wait until April to address their defensive end needs, the above three players serve as a great example of the fallacy of drafting such a player. Not exactly a win-win situation, but the importance of scouting is on display here. Moss, Groves and Harvey are all either first or second round picks, but have combined for a mere 16.5 sacks over the past four years.
It's easy to forget, but Benard's star was on the rise in 2009 and 2010. Playing primarily as an end in Rob Ryan's three and four man lines, Benard contributed 11.5 sacks in parts of 21 games. Entering 2011, the assumption was that Benard would continue to progress under Jauron's watch. However, due to the complete lack of offseason communication in 2011, Benard arrived to camp too heavy for his new role. After working his way into shape, Benard later wrecked a motorcycle – which ended his season.
Like Abiamiri, a former Eagle – Benard has a history with the current front office regime and would come relatively cheap.
2011 could prove to be a model for Heckert to follow in shaping his 2012 roster. Considering how thin the Browns were at defensive end last season – and based on the decent results turned in by the defense, it wouldn't appear that any dramatic moves are forthcoming. Following Heckert's strategy of building through the draft, the ideal Jauron defensive end should arrive via the draft. If anything, a more inexpensive end could be added to bolster depth.