In the months leading up to the NFL draft, many teams rely on cloak-and-dagger measures to protect their interests. Teams disparage draft prospects, all with the intent of swaying the player selection process.
Heading into the off-season, the Cleveland Browns, through their personnel and scheme evaluations, determined solidifying the run defense, improving the pass rush and anchoring the offensive and defensive lines were necessities going forward.
The Browns, however, did not participate in the ruthless end of the business. In what may come as a shocking revelation, they covered the bases. Relying on their experience and instinct, they sought football players, not measurable athletes who raise the bar for miss potential.
This was the case, according to a Browns rival executive and long-time friend of the OBR. This core philosophy led to the selection of nose tackle Danny Shelton in the first round of the draft.
Why is the Shelton selection important? Coming off a season in which they were a league worst in yardage against, the Browns quickly pointed to this deficiency as an area of utmost importance if the team was going to improve in the 2015 season.
“Danny Shelton was easily the best nose tackle in the draft,” the executive said. “He is powerful and does much more than simply take up space. This young man has the ability to not only anchor the interior of a defensive line, he is sneaky quick and very strong.
“(Shelton) was the perfect pick for the Browns and coach (Mike) Pettine. He needed a defensive lineman who could maintain the spot. I believe he got that player in Shelton.”
Signing veteran defensive lineman Randy Starks added a proven, versatile presence along the line. Even though Starks’ numbers appear to be in decline, he is believed to be a fit for a Cleveland defense that lacked consistency within the unit.
But does the selection of Shelton and addition of Starks change the complexion of a Browns defense that struggled with defensive ends and linebackers crashing the edges of the defense and being out of position?
“What you will likely see from their (Pettine/Jim O’Neil) defense is players reacting freely, knowing the assignment, understanding the change/responsibilities without having to think through the play,” the executive said. “They struggled with some injury issues a season ago and have improved their core.
“(John) Hughes was a player we thought would develop into a good lineman and he has. He’s strong at the point and versatile. They have good pieces in place and Pettine knows how to use them.”
The Browns used three of their initial four draft picks (Shelton - NT, Nate Orchard - pass rushing OLB and Xavier Cooper - pass rushing DT) on the defensive side of the ball, which is considered the strength of the team.
All things considered, including the quarterback situation, did the Browns truly address their needs to improve upon what was once a promising 2014 season?
“Those young guys are going to help them get to where they are going,” said the executive. “That team wants to put pressure on the opposition. The Orchard kid can flat-out rush, not only the quarterback, but the run off the edge.
“Xavier Cooper is also a player we liked. He has a dynamic first step, his hands are active and he plays angry. He’ll show he can play end in time, but he immediately will be an interior lineman with the ability to penetrate.”
And the QB position?
“They’re hinging their hopes and that is their true weakness,” the executive said. “ The problem for them this off-season was there was little really available to significantly improve their position and they made the right move swapping out (Brian) Hoyer for (Josh) McCown.
“While McCown is viewed as a journeyman, he’ll provide stability internally and they’ll structure their play to the way he played in Chicago.”
At worst, the Browns appear to have addressed the elements they evaluated as needs on the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, they remain the great unknown.
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