Personnel Needs: Defense

Mark Leonard provides the second part of his analysis about the off-season priorities for the Cleveland Browns. We got several email requests for this type of look at the team over the off-season. Hope you enjoy it!

"Easier said than done."

There is a cliche' with which we are all familiar. Far easier to identify and articulate a specific issue than to remedy it.

Hence, hearing Browns' GM Phil Savage proclaim run defense and the absence of a consistent pass rush are the club's two most serious problems---slightly ahead of red-zone offense---represents the smallest of steps toward rectifying any of them.

Even the most casual of Cleveland Browns' fans is likely aware it will be their front seven receiving primary focus when contemplating personnel additions. Plainly, it is not overstatement to say the team needs a DL better than its best, Orpheus Roye, recently re-signed, and a LB better than its best, Andra Davis, who was recently extended for five more seasons.

Then the club needs to find one more of each comparably as good as its current leaders.

Easier said than done.

The team also needs an athletic pass-rusher for the final LB slot, an experienced NT and a prototype enforcer for SS.

Somewhat less can be lived with if mere improvement is desired, but nothing less if genuine contention is to be achieved.

That statement is especially true in a division as physical and improving as the AFC North --- one which pinned three of the Chicago Bears' five regular season losses on the NFC North's Divisional titlist, incidentally.

Ten wins would have been enough for third place in the AFC North this year.

Once free-agent signings commence, a process certain to impact everyone's draft objectives, bidding could be fast and furious for the sport's available difference-makers. The Browns, under Savage's guidance, figure not to be involved.

Instead, the guess here is prudence and restraint will rule the day. Despite the reportedly available salcap sum of over $20 mil, the anticipated focus will not be so much on those who've made names for themselves---individuals typically expecting to get paid for past achievements---as upon those on the come, those with remaining upside, those whose price tags leave room for several more of their ilk.

It is suspected, as well, that many of those with a wealth of options may not look fondly upon relocating to NE Ohio. Money may not be enough. There has been a lot of losing here lately. The weather is notoriously lousy, second only to the Pacific Northwest for sunless days. The endorsements are modest. The city's profile is neither glamorous nor alluring. Perhaps these factors will prove inaccurate or irrelevant.

John Abraham, Julian Peterson, the high-profile cornerbacks, anybody over whom there may be a profound bidding war---forget about 'em.

Nonetheless, Savage and Head Coach Romeo Crennel, while valuing the presence of veterans, are probably focusing on assembling a collection capable of long-term contention---not one so dependent upon experienced quick-fixes that construction will require layers of off-seasons to complete.

The true breadth of their talent-evaluating skills will be measured and on display this off-season. It should be no other way.

The most likely location for experienced hands figures to be at NT and ILB.

Truly strong teams are solid from inside to out. Run defense starts inside and up front. Raw youngsters have tricks to learn before they're ready to impact consistently where the action really is. Eventual starters will be drafted at both these spots, probably within the first four rounds, in fact. But the starters from whom they'll learn will come via free agency.

Most necessary is a block-absorbing NT, one who enables the LB-dependent system to function. His role is under-rated but he keeps the 'backers clean and discourages between-the-tackles rush attempts. Accomplishing those two elements of fundamental defense better permits the unit to dictate to the offense, instead of the inverse being true. There is no pass-rush if down-and-distance is determined by the opponent.

At NT an old-head could fit. Crennel has employed Ted Washington, now with Oakland, and Keith Traylor, who's with Nick Saban in Miami, to buy time before Vince Wilfork was drafted and ready in NE. Savage won his ring in Baltimore pairing Sam Adams with Tony Siragusa. Both men know the uncompromising necessity of power and size inside. 

There is some respectable promise being nurtured on the roster currently, but someone to figuratively hold the fort has been needed since the gentlemen arrived to right the organization's ship a calendar year ago. Washington, Traylor and Adams might all be made available prior to Opening Day, but possibly not til after June 1. Each is on the downside of ancient, a point GB's Grady Jackson is approaching. At 33, he's more viable, but his experience is in the 4-3.

Therefore, fellas like Kendrick Clancy (NYG), Larry Tripplette (Indy), Russell Davis (Ariz), Ryan Pickett (StL), Lionel Dalton (KC) and Ma'ake Kemoeutu (Balt) will be examined. The last two were signed by Savage when all were Ravens. A third for whom as much is true is Anthony Weaver, but he is a LDE.

For ILB, Minnesota seems poised to cut loose 3-4 advocate Sam Cowart, a prolific tackler who has performed strongly both inside and out. At 6-2 245, the 31-year-old Florida State product would look good aside Davis inside and figures to have plenty left in his tank. He is a leader who has followed Ted Cottrell from Buffalo  (where both worked under 3-4 guru Wade Phillips) to the Jets and then the Vikes. It is surprising he's so often looking for contracts; then, too, he always finds a starting job and keeps on ranging sideline-to-sideline, as he did in the Metrodome vs. the Browns Week 12. 

The Chargers have Lorain native, Elyria Catholic/Ohio State product Matt Wilhelm listed as a restricted free agent. A senior leader in both tackles and influence with the 2002 National Champs, Wilhelm is another groomed by Phillips (Marty Schottenheimer's D-Coor) but he's been buried out west behind Donnie Edwards and Randall Godfrey.

Wilhelm is chomping at the bit for a chance to bust out and is ranked by as free agency's 46th-best talent, despite being a career non-starter.  At 6-4 245, he has the run-stuffing size Cleveland covets. Additionally he brings the intelligence, instincts, football-aptitude too often scarse here but otherwise characteristic of Crennel's defenders.

Local flavor aside, Wilhelm would be an astute acquisition, with Matt Stewart a reasonable exchange. More than one ILB addition is recommended, however. Derek Smith (31) of SF and/or Nick Greisen (NYG), who performed respectably in a late-season stint, are others who'd satisfy decently. (Note: Smith was re-signed by the 49ers)

The edge is the place for youth and speed. Barring a deal-up motivated by the inability to fill the delicate OLT spot by resigning LJ Shelton or an approximate---a very unlikely eventuality---Cleveland's April 29th initial draft selection figures to bring quickness and explosion off the corner, one of the scheme's primary attacking positions. Chaun Thompson could factor situationally.

The guess here is the draftee's starting OLB partner will be Colts' third-year DE Robert Mathis, who'll convert to a Greg Lloyd-like role in Crennel's 3-4. With Indianapolis having too many free-agent concerns to corral all its horses, Randy Lerner's money should easily make retaining Mathis an Indy impossibility.

Check out Mathis' 2005 numbers: In approximately 20 snaps per game, Mathis recorded 10.5 sacks. He forced six fumbles and recovered three. He generated 17 QB hurries and 18 special-team tackles, 15 of which were solos. This is the profile of not only a true football player, but a playmaker, regardless of what is asked of him.

The Alabama A&M product is modestly-sized at 6-2 235 but is just the kind of gem Crennel and D-Coor Todd Grantham could polish into a keepsake. ranks all available free agents and the only non-starter out-ranking Mathis---who comes in at 31, by the way---is deposed Saint DE Darren Howard (14), who likely lost his spot only after it was determined he'd be allowed to test the market.

In a perfect world, Savage finds Virginia OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Buckeye LB AJ Hawk, Oregon NT Haloti Ngata or Texas safety Michael Huff waiting for him at 12. Or he converts that choice into the pair belonging to Denver, numbers 22 and 29, where he might land both Bobby Carpenter (OLB) and Donte Whitner (SS) from Ohio State. Browns' fans are quite aware theirs is not a perfect world.

The thinking here is Carpenter will be a superior pro than either DeMeco Ryans (Alabama) or Chad Greenway (Iowa), both of whom are projected to go within the top 15. Greenway is most often linked to Cleveland, not only for its positional neediness but possibly because Savage is tight with Greenway's Iowa head coach, former Browns' OL tutor Kirk Ferentz.

Vets who might satisfy on the strongside ahead of that initial draftee and kid holdovers Nick Speegle and David McMillan are GB's Na'il Diggs and Jax's Akin Ayodele. Diggs is another from OSU, while the 6-2 251-pound Ayodele is known more for his rush abilities than his coverage.

Mathis could factor on the strongside, too, if Carolina's highly-regarded Will Witherspoon is indeed allowed to test the market and is outbid for. He's a weaksider who's capable in all facets of the position and is, therefore, unlikely to escape the Panthers' claws.

Before leaving considerations relative to LB, it has been somewhat under-reported but worth acknowledging Crennel's Patriot LB corps consisted almost exclusively of former collegian DL pass-rushers: Willie McGinest, a DE at USC, Mike Vrabel, a DE at OSU, Roosevelt Colvin, a DE at Purdue (as was Ayodele) and Tedy Bruschi, a DT from Arizona. Each developed with the responsibility of making difference-making plays for his respective program. Each is familiar with crashing and collapsing a pocket while relentlessly disrupting enroute to the ball.

This is a way to say: "Past can be prelude." The pattern has been established and could be honored through imitation here. Therefore, don't dismiss the candidacy of yet another Buckeye, Medina's Matt Kudla, who played LB in high school but was forced to DE by an uncommon class of stellar Columbus linebackers. Either on the strongside or inside, Kudla could re-convert and factor as a pro. He led OSU in sacks, is strong at the point, instinctive, tough, heady, relentless and coachable. He'll be a player in this league.

Were all these positional needs---NT, ILB, both OLBs---addressed successfully via free agency and the draft, the club might have enough to get by with its holdover DEs, especially now that the very professional Roye has re-signed. 

Ideally, the 3-4 DE is a run-stuffer first, one who holds blocks like a NT but can also slip them to execute tackles, a proficiency Roye personified. He will also collapse a pocket occasionally. In 2005, Cleveland's DEs did little of the latter.

Holdovers Alvin McKinley (co-leader with four sacks) and Nick Eason were adequate. Youngsters Simon Fraser and Andrew Hoffman have some promise. Newcomer Darryl Campbell could be a smaller, younger, cheaper Roye. His career is getting a delayed start due to a knee injury he suffered working out for Savage at Notre Dame in 2004.

Backed appropriately by able linebacking and assisted by a quality NT, this contingent might be sufficiently stout; but it lacks quickness, disruptiveness, slash and flash. Then again, those qualities are rarely found in a 3-4 DL. Such a combination of skills---size, power, speed, quickness, instincts, hunger---usually only exist in elite specimens taken in a draft's first half-hour. They're available maybe once per generation. How many Reggie Whites have we seen? LeRoy Selmons? Richard Seymours?

So, it is deployment, schemes, timing, a clever blend of individuals which produces impact from a 3-4 DL. Identifying a few young vets miscast in others' 4-3s is the likeliest course in a circumstance such as Cleveland's.

Packer Cletidus Hunt might be worth a look. His employer has tired of his holdouts. He spent 2005 on IR after filing a protest over being released when injured. GB teammate and Canton McKinley/OSU product Kenny Peterson is an RFA who can be active and create pressure. The Rams' immensely-disappointing Damione Lewis, the 12th overall selection in 2001, might rediscover his collegiate quickness used situationally as a 3-4 RDE.

The strength of the Cleveland D is its secondary, and that is more than a relative assessment. It is primarily responsible for the club's success defending its red zone. There is depth at CB and free safety. Brodney Pool should emerge as the best of the latter group, possibly causing Chris Crocker to rejoin the former. What is most missing is a genuine SS, a role Crocker tried valiantly to fill during the team's 6-10 '05 campaign.

Crennel and his mentor, former Browns' head coach Bill Belichick, typically employ an elite SS to spearhead their deep secondaries. Bill's one quality first-rounder in his five drafts here produced an NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the late Eric Turner. In NY, the duo drafted another challenger from UCLA, Shaun Williams. In NE, Lawyer Milloy eventually gave way to Rodney Harrison.

Some affiliated with the Browns, if only as fans, are hopeful 2004 second-rounder, Sean Jones, will regain his pre-injury fluidity and manage the post. But a former prep quarterback, which Jones was when he arrived on the Georgia campus, rarely evolves into a physical presence defensively---particularly if he's shown no such inclination heretofore.

Whitner, who played in Columbus for and heavily credits current Browns' DB coach Mel Tucker with his development as both an athlete and a man, would be ideal. He has all the qualities, including superb speed and football sense. Hence, the deal-down---or the Huff---fantasy.

Others argue for Gary Baxter to convert from CB, but to avoid that is why he left Baltimore to sign with Savage. It is not reasonable to expect the GM to turn on his prized recruit this early (four games) into his Cleveland career. Tennessee's Tank Williams might be the best-available, all things considered, though stealing Chris Hope from the Steelers---something someone in the division is expected to do, incidentally---would constitute a four-way achievement. It would damage all three rivals' hopes while bringing another rising talent to a needy roster.

Williams is a  big (6-2 225) thumper out of Stanford, where he played OLB. So, his nose for the ball, smarts and toughness can be assumed. He is another entering the prime years of his career.

Milloy may be let loose by Buffalo, but not likely before June. His best days are behind him but his leadership is strong. 

However easier said than done the reconfiguration of the Cleveland Browns' defense may seem, it is a do-able task. But it will fully measure the collective talent-assessment and recruiting skills of Savage, Crennel, Grantham, Lerner and their coaching staff. With so much money available to spend and so much precious opportunity to extend, this may be the year it actually gets done.

Look for it to be tried in much the same manner Mark Shapiro rebuilt the Indians into contention, with reasonably affordable, up-and-coming youngsters emerging together into their primes. Wouldn't that be exciting?

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