Heading into the training camp portion of this summer's training regimen, the Browns defense should be the strength of the team. Going into a third season in the same system, the Browns defense looks to bounce back after it struggled with injuries in the defensive backfield and inconsistency along the defensive line last season.
Despite some additions to the defensive line in the off-season, Todd Grantham's unit remains a concern heading into training camp. A perceived strength on the defensive side of the ball, the linebacker corps absolutely must continue to improve and, further, display the consistency expected in a high caliber unit.
To be successful, the Browns defense first must improve upon the run defense, where the team ranked a limp 28th in the league during 2006. While the majority of attention is on the defensive line as a key part of this glaring deficiency, the linebackers play a significant role in the state of the run defense.
Kamerion Wimbley, D'Qwell Jackson, Andra Davis, and Willie McGinest are the expected starters in the Browns base 3-4 defense. This is the same group of players which started the majority of the 2006 season.
While the players and scheme are the same, vast improvement in this area may still be in the offing.
Wimbley and Jackson performed well in their 2006 rookie campaigns, with Wimbley providing the Browns with their only consistent pass rush presence, registering 11 sacks. Though undersized, Jackson was a steady influence on the inside until suffering a turf-toe injury, which sidelined him late in the season.
"Wimbley and Jackson run well and display the ability to shed blocks and get to the ball carrier. There is no reason to doubt either player will continue to improve, but most importantly, display continued consistency," former Browns' linebacker and special teams ace Brant Boyer told the Orange and Brown Report.
Despite the promise of Wimbley and Jackson there are still reservations regarding the play of veteran OLB Willie McGinest and (potentially) ILB Andra Davis.
At 35 years of age, McGinest is a shell of the player he once was and the 2006 season did nothing to disprove the notion his career is nearing it's end. McGinest after registered four sacks and was not a significant presence on the field.
During the off-season, the Browns signed outside linebacker Antwan Peek in free agency to provide more of a pass rushing threat from McGinest's OLB spot and depth to the roster. Peek, a perfect complimentary player in the 3-4 defense, has the ability to line-up at either outside linebacker position. In the 2007 season, Peek could very well spell McGinest and become a designated pass rusher, teaming with Wimbley to provide explosiveness coming off the edge of the defense.
Second-year inside linebacker Leon Williams is primed to push Jackson and Davis for playing time. Filling in for Jackson late last season, Williams displayed the ability to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage. This one-time long shot is quickly developing into a quality player... his presence should only improve the depth and competition at inside linebacker.
At inside linebacker, Andra Davis has been a constant for the Browns since being drafted out of the University of Florida in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft. Arguably, Davis has been the most recognizable member of the Browns defense over the past five years due to his ability to make tackles.
However, racking up tackles in numbers can be misleading. In this case, the question is how far downfield the tackles are ultimately made.
Davis has been consistent, but Crennel and Grantham's scheme is predicated on making plays at or near the line of scrimmage, not five yards downfield. Laying this responsibility solely on Davis' shoulders would be foolish, as the defensive line play has been below average for most of his career with the team. In an era where we talk about gap responsibility and lane integrity, though, there's still a concern.
"Far too often, Browns' inside linebackers either fill the wrong gap or are slow in correctly recognizing the play, which results in positive yardage for the opposition," a former Browns' defensive line coach tells the Orange and Brown Report. "In the case of Davis, he is athletic enough to play on the inside and has proven this. Without average to above average play coming from the defensive line, especially against a power rushing team, he struggles... but the guys upfront (defensive line) must contain and maintain."
If the addition of talent along the defensive line improves interior play like the Browns front office hopes, the Browns' linebackers should have the opportunity to make plays, which should only equate to growth for the team's linebackers.
"You have to see what is going on. You need to know where the play is going and want to make the play more than the other guy. Out there (on the field) it is you against them, you have to want it," the late former Browns' inside linebacker Eddie Johnson once told the Orange and Brown Report.
It is only fitting that the Cleveland Browns defense could now be in position to want it more than the other guy.
Next up will be a look at the defensive backs and an overall projection for the Browns defense.