As we head down the home stretch to the 2015 NFL Draft, Cleveland Sports Zone continues its Top 5 position fits series with a look at the defensive line for the Cleveland Browns.
Considered one of the strongest positional units prior to the 2014 regular season, the Browns defensive line severely underperformed and was riddled with injuries throughout the year, so much so that the likes of Jamie Meder and Sione Fua saw the field in the season finale against Baltimore. Fortunately for Cleveland, the only defensive lineman lost to Free Agency was seven-year veteran, Ahtyba Rubin.
Whether it’s to add depth or playmaking ability, the Browns will need to use the NFL Draft to bolster a line that finished dead last (32nd) in rushing yards per game in 2014.
Defensive Linemen Currently on the Roster:
Calvin Barnett: 2014 Undrafted Free Agent
Desmond Bryant: 2013 Free Agent signing
John Hughes: 2012 3rd Round pick
Ishmaa’ily Kitchen: Claimed off of waivers in Sept. 2012
Jacobbi McDaniel: 2014 Undrafted Free Agent
Jamie Meder: Added to Practice Squad in 2014, elevated to active roster in December
Randy Starks: 2015 Free Agent signing
Phil Taylor: 2011 1st Round pick
Christian Tupou: Added to Practice Squad in 2014
Billy Winn: 2012 6th Round pick
Of the players currently on the roster, Bryant (wrist), Taylor (knee), Hughes (knee) and Winn (quadriceps/toe) all suffered injuries last season, with the last three all missing significant time. Coincidentally, Taylor, Hughes and Winn are also the longest tenured defensive linemen on the roster. Successful returns from injury are the key to a successful Browns defensive front in 2015, as head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil are counting on those three to provide stability in the trenches.
In a media session last month, Pettine hinted at moving Taylor from defensive end to nose tackle in his hybrid 3-4 scheme. In this role, Taylor’s 6’3” 335-pound frame will be asked to take up space, typically taking on two blockers to free up the linebackers, and force the run to the outside. Anticipating a slight loss of mobility due to his knee recovery, this could be a smart move for Taylor, as they say in sports, “you can’t teach size.” If no other nose tackle is signed and/or drafted, Kitchen will backup Taylor in this spot.
Hughes and his fresh, four-year, $14.4 million contract extension will battle free agent acquisition Starks for the starting spot in the 3-technique, with Winn adding quality depth behind them. Starks, the 11-year veteran, was brought on board to provide run-stopping ability and veteran leadership to this young group, as well as add durability to the recently-injured crew, having played in no fewer than 14 games in each of his 11 seasons.
Bryant has proven to be a solid addition since joining the Browns in 2013, recording 80 combined tackles including 8.5 sacks, and is likely not in danger of losing his starting job as the 5-technique. The others – Barnett, McDaniel, Meder and Tupou – will be fighting to make the final roster.
When healthy, Taylor, Hughes and Bryant can be very productive; however, their recent injuries cast doubt on the durability and future outlook of the defensive line. By adding Starks, the Browns have added a proven iron man, but his age doesn’t ease the future uncertainties for this positional group. Considering the makeup of the current roster, all signs point to the Browns adding an interior defensive lineman in the upcoming Draft. Here are five prospects to keep in mind as Cleveland is on the clock this weekend:
Danny Shelton, Washington, 6’2” and 339 pounds, 1st Round Projection
A true nose tackle, the senior racked up 208 total tackles, including 24 for a loss and 11.5 sacks in four seasons at Washington, three of which he was a starter. Shelton is the defensive tackle the Browns have been most linked to as the Draft approaches. Several mock drafts have Cleveland selecting him with the 12th pick, shoring up the run defense with their first selection. The first impression of Shelton is “Whoa!” as his rounded frame looks ideal for a plugger in the middle. He’s a massive man, looking wider than he looks tall, but this frame helps him stand his ground and gain leverage on taller offensive linemen.
Shelton possesses a powerful bull rush and does exactly what you think he’d do – plug the middle. Unfortunately, in the games I watched, he doesn’t have many moves other than the bull rush. At times he tries a swim or side step, but more often than not knocked himself off-balance, failing to have the quickness to make up for the lost step. Shelton does a good job tracking plays down sideline to sideline, which is impressive given his size, but I’d rather have him make more plays between the tackles. While he was double-teamed often, I noticed he was able to be handled by a single guard or center without issue.
If you can’t tell by the previous paragraph, I think Shelton is one of the more overrated defensive line prospects in this year’s Draft, but with the Browns being linked to him as much as they have this off-season he deserved a mention in this article. He’s received considerable praise from national analysts and reportedly dominated in passing and rushing drills during the Senior Bowl, but I stand by my opinion of what I’ve seen on tape. The Browns have certainly done their homework on the former Husky, having met with Shelton at the Senior Bowl and hosting him for a private workout at the Browns headquarters in Berea. We’ll find out on Thursday whether there’s fire behind the smoke.
Eddie Goldman, Florida State, 6’4” and 336 pounds, 1st-2nd Round Projection
Another pure nose tackle prospect, Goldman is leaving Florida State after his junior season, having totaled 62 tackles in his two seasons as starter, including 12 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Similar to Shelton, the Browns hosted Goldman for a private visit in Berea, immediately projecting him as a potential selection at No. 19 or No. 43.
Goldman plays faster than one would think a 336-pound defensive tackle would. He is very strong at the point of attack, using a combination of bull rush, swim and rip moves. Because he prefers being aggressive with a first move, he’ll sometimes find himself in poor position to clog the gap, leaving an open running lane for the ball carrier. When he chooses his side correctly, he quickly disrupts the action in the backfield and has the quickness and strength the make the tackle.
He has a high motor and pursues with passion, not giving up until the whistle blows. There are times when he gets beat off the line by the blocker, but he works hard to push back, rarely losing ground. He’ll need to work hard at the next level to make himself a more valuable three-down defensive lineman, but he could find himself in a good position to develop in Cleveland.
Carl Davis, Iowa, 6’5” and 320 pounds, 2nd Round Projection
A red-shirt senior, Davis didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet in his four years (two as a starter) totaling 94 tackles, including 14.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks, but he has the body and athleticism to improve on his production. Davis didn’t perform the bench press during the Combine, but he out-performed Shelton in every other testing category. He’s a physical freak that shows flashes of greatness; however, it’s his inconsistency that scouts are worried about.
Like Shelton, Davis reportedly had a phenomenal showing throughout Senior Bowl week, proving difficult to block one-on-one and consistently putting pressure on the quarterback. Some analysts said his Senior Bowl performance was worthy of first round consideration, whereas his regular season performance warranted second and third round grades. Reading this makes me believe he’s a “play when I want to” kind of guy, something he would need to change at the next level. An NFL team will surely take that risk with his blend of size, strength, and quickness.
Looking at the game tape, Davis gets a good jump off the football and uses his arms well to keep distance between himself and the blocker. He doesn’t shed the block that often, rather choosing to keep them at bay and read the backfield. With this technique he doesn’t get free to make many plays in the backfield, but he instead moves laterally and attempts to contain the ball carrier between the tackles. Davis often has the pleasure of taking on two blockers, limiting his individual tackle total, but creating more opportunities for his teammates. I do find that he doesn’t show enough urgency play-in and play-out, oftentimes standing up at the snap and losing leverage. It’s unfortunate, because when he does give his all, he’s nearly unblockable. He projects as either a nose tackle or 3-technique in a 3-4 system.
Grady Jarrett, Clemson, 6’1” and 304 pounds, 2nd Round Projection
Another bowling ball of a player akin to Shelton, Jarrett is a squatty defensive tackle that can clog up the line and create pressure in the backfield. In four years at Clemson, Jarrett racked up 144 total tackles, including 29.5 for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He’s also a bit of an iron man, having never missed a game due to injury since his high school days.
With his lack of height and length, Jarrett relies on quickness off the snap and powerful lower body leverage to drive blockers off the line. His shorter arms make it difficult to wrangle a ball carrier with one arm if necessary, something taller prospects like Davis can get away with. He does a great job of penetrating the line, disrupting plays in the backfield, and has good enough agility to stop and redirect himself in pursuit. Like Shelton and Anderson, Jarrett has relentless effort which allows him to make plays sideline to sideline.
Having participated in a private workout with the Browns, Jarrett has obviously been linked as a potential selection for Cleveland. Having been projected as more of an inside gap tackle for a 4-3 system, Jarrett would likely fit as a rotational nose tackle or 3-technique in Pettine’s defensive scheme.
Henry Anderson, Stanford, 6’6” and 294 pounds, 3rd-4th Round Projection
Anderson played at Stanford where he played both the nose tackle and 5-technique roles in the Cardinal’s 3-4 scheme; however, he projects better as a 5-technique in the NFL. In four years at Stanford, Anderson totaled 142 tackles, including 32 for a loss and 17 sacks. He has great quickness off the edge, despite his size, and relies on this quickness and arm movement to beat blockers. Scouts praise his on-field intelligence and relentless pursuit.
On film I immediately notice two things about Anderson: he finds himself consistently in the backfield and he has a non-stop motor. He has a bevy of moves which he varies play-to-play, and uses them all effectively, getting himself in great position to make a tackle. The problems arise when he gets to that point. Anderson’s aggressiveness gets the best of him once in a while, over-pursuing the ball carrier after his initial move, failing to record a sack as the quarterback steps up into the pocket or the running back makes a cut against the grain. I also noticed that he finds himself on the ground, which in most cases seems to be a result of his body getting too far in front of his feet, but will also get tripped up by lineman once in a while as he pursues around the edge.
Anderson has the benefit of already having above-average hand use, not allowing blockers to get a clean shot on him, which will intrigue many teams looking for a player ready to step in on Day 1. He could use more strength at the point of contact, but this is easier to improve during training camp and off-season workouts. He wouldn’t necessarily fill the role of run-stopper the Browns are looking for, but Anderson would help improve the depth and versatility of the defensive line.
Check out More of our “Top 5 Positional Fits” for the Browns in the 2015 NFL Draft!