Though mostly quiet during the first stage of free agency, the Browns were active shoppers on the defensive end market. The front office quickly dispatched failed experiment Jayme Mitchell and brought in two players to strengthen the position group.
The squad and its fans certainly hope new right end Frostee Rucker thrives in his starting role and Juqua Parker is similarly effective as a rotational sub. However, the team would be wise to look to the draft again for another pass rusher: one who could rotate in and help mask some of the vets' deficiencies.
Unfortunately, the Browns were rebuffed by one of their top targets, versatile pass rusher Jeremy Mincey. The defensive end scoffed at the idea of coming to Cleveland, instead signing a new 4 year, $27.2M deal with the Jaguars. It's yet to be determined whether Mincey is worth that kind of moolah, but it is easy to see why the Browns were interested in his services.
Mincey possesses an intriguing skill set: he's a disruptive three down defender who can both set and threaten the edge. In addition, he can kick inside and be disruptive as an interior pass rusher. He deployed that diverse skill set effectively last year against AFC North offenses, having especially good games against Cincinnati and Baltimore. He would have been a welcome addition to a Browns defense that needs a pass rush complement opposite left end Jabaal Sheard. Indeed, with his steep contract demands, the team would only have signed him if Heckert and company considered him the answer at RDE.
Striking out on Mincey forced the Browns to go in a different direction, one with more moving parts and looming questions. After fielding the league's third-worst run defense last year, the Browns smartly went out and signed a solid run stuffer in Frostee Rucker. The former Bengal possesses quick, active hands, which he deftly uses to keep blockers off his frame. He's also quick to locate the ball, leading to him notching more than a few tackles for loss. Rucker should be an early downs upgrade over Jayme Mitchell, as well as a better run stopper than what Jeremy Mincey would have offered.
However, it's unclear how effective Rucker will be as a pass rusher. Last year, the big man was taken off the field on third downs. With his good strength, Rucker does flash the ability to overpower linemen, as he did against Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe, but he lacks the flexibility and closing speed to turn the corner against quality offensive tackles. Consequently, when he deploys his outside speed rush, he's rather easily escorted past the pocket.
The best way to get pass rush production out of Rucker may be to take him off the edge. In 2009, the Bengals moved Rucker inside on passing downs. In that role, he could out-quick slower guards, like he did while facing Browns right guard Rex Hadnot. Ultimately, the Bengals opted to stop using Rucker as a nickel defensive tackle, but the Browns may consider deploying him in that role. In addition to better harnessing his skills, kicking Rucker inside would give the Browns' mammoth defensive tackles much-needed breathers from the action.
Rucker's lack of dynamic edge rush ability makes him a less than fully rounded complement to Jabaal Sheard. To add more of a pass rush presence, the Browns brought in former Eagle d-end Juqua Parker. Unsurprisingly, the 33-year-old plays with a veteran's savvy. He's very good at anticipating the snap count, leading to him often being the first lineman off the ball. For that reason, he was able to be fairly effective last year. While his sack total did decline, he still managed to disrupt the action; according to
Pro Football Focus, Parker registered an impressive twenty total quarterback pressures in limited playing time.
Nevertheless, there's reason to question whether Parker will be as disruptive this year. It's tremendously difficult to project whether 30+ year old pass rushers will be able to sustain their high level of play; they're constant candidates to have their performance fall off a cliff. Perhaps that reality is reflected in Parker's contract, which reportedly maxes out at a fairly modest one year, $3M deal if he reaches all of his bonuses. If his play declines, the team will have missed on a rather low risk investment. On the other hand, if he loses some of his only above average explosiveness, the squad will be left with a pass rush void that Frostee Rucker may not be able to fill.
With that in mind, the Browns would be in better position if the team added another edge rush threat. While Marcus Benard could be the answer, an early round rookie would be a sound investment in case he is not. With Rucker handling run down duties, a rookie would be able to be eased in as a situational pass rusher. In that role, he could keep both Sheard and an aging Parker fresh. And in the long run, he could develop into the type of every down RDE that the defense may still lack.