After a blazing start, the pursuit of defensive excellence will now proceed at a slow crawl for the Cleveland Browns. After completing a major face lift on the line, which brought Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers to Cleveland, the team now is now expected to be prudent in their pursuit of additional talent.
At this point, the Browns will be looking for depth along the defensive line, as well as in the linebacking corps and cornerback Although the acquisitions of Williams and Rogers dramatically changes the face of the defensive line, the players slotted behind the two linemen now need to be a concern for the organization.
Teaming with holdover linemen Robaire and Shaun Smith, the top-four players in the rotation are now engraved in stone and should provide a solid boost to the team's run defense. After that, though, the Browns are faced with a lot of youth and inexperience.
Due to these potential issues, the Cleveland front office continues to explore options to solidify the Browns defensive line. In the coming days, the Browns will meet with former New York Giants first-round draft selection William Joseph, and are maintaining a dialogue with one of their own, Ethan Kelley, a free agent coming off knee surgery.
Whereas the deficiency along the defensive line has been addressed, another questionable facet of the front seven remains untouched. Depth at outside linebacker is a concern, as starter Willie McGinest could be heading into his final season, and Antwan Peek has battled nagging injuries. More importantly, the Browns have not been able to secure an outside pass rushing threat in free agency yet. One of their immediate targets, Travis LaBoy, opted to sign a deal with the Arizona Cardinals after visiting with the Browns over the weekend.
Due to a competitive market set by teams willing to offer truck-loads of guaranteed money (which the Browns did in their pursuit of Williams and Rogers), the team is losing the battle for available upper-tier talent at the linebacker position.
With the perceived impact players at the position off the market, the Browns front office is now looking for a "fit". These might be marriages of short-term mutual convenience with players who can help and who will receive one or two-year contracts.
Case example: outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock. The Cardinal free agent visited with the Browns on Wednesday and departed Cleveland without an offer.
Blackstock, a three-year veteran, fits the mode of player the Browns are on the market to land at this point. He is an aggressive, athletic player with the ability to make plays off the edge of the scheme. What makes Blackstock attractive is his desire to get in the right situation, where he has the ability to show what he can do on the field. Throughout his time as a member of the Arizona Cardinals - and notably during the 2007 season - he was second on the depth chart behind Calvin Pace. Pace recently inked a deal with the New York Jets to the tune of over $40 million dollars.
Like a previous Cardinal free agent-turned Cleveland Brown, Jamir Miller, Blackstock is looking for a team which will let him display his talent. Brad Blank, Blackstock's agent, told The Orange and Brown Report that the outside linebacker seeks an opportunity to go to a team which will provide him the opportunity to compete and have a role. As it is for the Browns, the right "fit" is important for many of the players remaining on the free agent market, such as Blackstock, who has also received interest from the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins.
While Blackstock remains an option for the Browns, the Cleveland front office has also had dialogue with the agent for Pittsburgh Steelers free agent outside linebacker Clark Haggans. Haggans has not been in for a visit with the Browns and there is a belief the Steelers are open to retaining the veteran linebacker in a reduced role. Haggins could provide the Cleveland defense an experienced player at the outside linebacker position, but may not be regarded as the physical presence and significant pass rusher type the Browns seek.
In the days, weeks and months to come, the Browns will continue to entertain options to address depth at outside linebacker. Additional questions remain at the inside linebacker position, both around starting quality and depth on the inside.
Let's not forget the Browns dealt starting cornerback Leigh Bodden in the Shaun Rogers trade, which leaves a void of veteran leadership and presence at cornerback as well. Despite the Browns being extremely high on the abilities of second-year players Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald, the team's lack of a capable veteran presence on the roster would seem to go against the philosophy of head coach Romeo Crennel.
The first week of free agency had undeniable impact for the Cleveland Browns. But it is the days to come which will determine if the tean can solidify the defense for the challenges and expectations which lie ahead.