So, here’s how the defensive line looks in our 3-4 scheme: Starks at right defensive end, Shelton clogging up the middle, and Desmond Bryant at left defensive end. John Hughes, Jamie Meder, Armonty Bryant, and Xavier Cooper are right behind the three starters on the depth chart. When you look at this group of guys, you see toughness as well as finesse which I believe will be exceptional at stopping the run this season.
Since Randy Starks was signed, I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. He is not one to be overpowered by big running backs and will lay waste to quarterbacks. He has an awesome ability at reading plays, too. I think he could be the perfect addition to the defensive unit; just an excellent free agent signing by the Browns in the offseason. We’ve had issues with getting to opposing quarterbacks before, and that’s Randy’s specialty.
At nose tackle, we have Danny Shelton. Normally I don’t pump up how well first year players will do as a lot of them often struggle in their first professional season. I can’t ignore what I’ve seen from him already. He’s an absolute beast and requires two men to take him down at any given play. Joe Thomas even had trouble blocking him in practice. What Randy Starks is to quarterbacks, Danny Shelton is to running backs. He will eat even the biggest one for breakfast and stuff him before he makes it to the line of scrimmage. If there is a human equivalent to a wrecking ball at a construction site, it’s Danny Shelton. Keep your eyes on him this year.
The subtraction of Billy Winn via trade certainly hurts because he was a big-bodied guy with unexpected quickness. Still, we’ve got Hughes and Armonty Bryant who are capable of being plugged in at any time and are still young enough to take it to the next level. I especially like Armonty; he possesses some real explosiveness and can catch offensive tackles off guard. Jamie Meder had a very impressive preseason and I am dazzled by how strong he is. He’s someone running backs do not want to run into. Also, look for rookie Xavier Cooper to make an occasional appearance. He was the fastest defensive lineman at this year’s draft combine which prompted the Browns to draft him.
Overall, I’d say the Browns defensive line is a deadly mix of pass rushing and run stopping. We have guys that can contribute to both and we have guys who are specialists at one or the other. There was a legitimate problem in stopping the run last season and we failed to sack enough quarterbacks. Look for both problems to be fixed this year.
To round out the rest of linebacker corp is Craig Robertson, Barkevious Mingo, Tank Carder, and Nate Orchard. Robertson has been a productive guy with Cleveland for some years now and he’s someone that will punish you for taking offensive risks. He’s gaining a reputation of being able to force the ball into our hands. I’ve been a staunch supporter of Mingo for some time and I feel that he’s a solid contributor who’s unfairly being compared to his first round draft status constantly. The potential is certainly there for him to take it to the next level, and with how potent our defense is, I expect that teams will simply overlook his ability to rush the quarterback. He’s due for a breakthrough season at some point and I think it could be this year.
Tank Carder has been with the special teams unit for a while and I expect we’ll see him there still. He’s an intense player with skull crushing hits and should see some action as a linebacker against the tougher offensive lines. We drafted Nate Orchard this past offseason in the second round and from what I’ve read about him, he was a tough guy for linemen to contain. He maintains a tendency to get to the quarterback quickly but he could use some improvement against running backs.
Our linebackers are deadly and will be almost impossible to contain on blitz plays. They are a great one-two punch with our defensive line when it comes to attacking the quarterback-- however, we could use some improvement at stopping the run at this position. Our defensive line will have to stop the run as much as possible while the linebackers zero in on the pass rush.
At free safety, Tashaun Gipson is garnering a reputation of being an elite defender. After a jaw-dropping six interceptions last year, he earned his way into the Pro Bowl. Simply put, you do not throw to anyone when our secondary is covering them, and you especially avoid whoever Gipson is watching. It seems like the Brown have a knack for finding undrafted players to excel and he is a prime example. At the other cornerback is Tramon Williams, whom we signed from Green Bay to replace Buster Skrine (who we’ll see on Sunday). Tramon is a little bit older and I liken him to Sheldon Brown when he played here. Tramon isn’t done playing yet and will be an adequate corner and a great mentor, along with Joe Haden, to our young sophomore corners.
Our other cornerbacks consist of Pierre Desir, K’Waun Williams, Justin Gilbert, and Johnson Bademosi. Desir is kind of a project at the cornerback position and could eventually become a legitimate defender. He requires some more fine-tuning in his defensive game at this point. Last year, K’Waun Williams exploded onto the scene as an undrafted rookie and wrestled playing time from Skrine and Gilbert. While kind of small for the cornerback position, he’s an intense player. He will defend anyone, no matter how much larger they are, and found some success doing so last season. Bademosi has been mostly a special team’s player during his time with the Browns and I don’t see that changing. There is too much depth in front of him in the secondary for him to see regular playing time. He’s a freak athlete with explosive speed and is able to make tackles in open space---while those are good traits, that kind of stuff is better-suited for special teams.
Now it’s time to address the elephant in the room: Justin Gilbert. As last year’s first round pick, he has not lived up to expectations whatsoever and would have been cut from most teams by now if he wasn’t picked so early. He’s been shown to be lazy and apathetic on the field and has endured some troubling off the field issues (most recently, a road rage incident with another driver in which he crashed his Dodge Challenger on a Cleveland freeway). You just can’t ignore that there is something going on with him. While he has great physical abilities and has the potential to be a stud corner, he’s just really struggling mentally. This could be a make or break season for him, but there is hope in salvaging Justin. He has some of the best mentors in the entire NFL in Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, and they will do their best to right the ship with him. I think the Browns should be cautious about playing him right now, but should give him some minutes here and there. He’s got some work to do to earn the trust of coach Pettine, but with enough time and mentoring, we could see the first rounder live up to his hype.
All in all, the secondary for the Browns is scary good and will make teams pay for relying on the pass game. I’m looking forward to seeing our guys dismantle offensive plays and give opposing coordinators nightmares.
The Browns traded a late round pick to San Francisco for punter Andy Lee. While former punter Spencer Lanning was certainly qualified, Andy Lee just might be the best punter in the entire NFL. People hate to get excited about players in “not as important” positions, but a good team never stops improving at any position and Cleveland has really improved with Andy Lee. A three-time Pro Bowler with 43,468 total punt yards under his belt, Lee shows that one of the more underrated positions in football can be the most useful. He is unbelievably skilled at placing his punts precisely within the end zone and twenty yard line, pinning teams in their own territory. At 33 years old, he’s still pretty young for a punter.
There you have it. From the looks of it, our defense is one of the more formidable ones in the NFL and our special teams unit is much improved from last season. Week One’s opponent, the New York Jets, aren’t exactly a high powered offense so it will be a great matchup for our guys to get their feet wet.