Most of the defense’s weaknesses were addressed except one
As the Browns were preparing for the NFL draft that came and went last weekend, the two most glaring needs to fill were defensive end and cornerback.
GM Andrew Berry had already addressed in free agency linebacker, defensive tackle, offensive swing tackle, kicker, kick returner, third wide receiver and safety. Going into the draft, Cleveland had nine picks and none of those selections were necessary to start right away.
But defensive end and cornerback were very glaring “need” positions. It was assumed that Berry would address one of these in Round 1 and then select the other in Round 2.
That didn’t happen.
The cornerback conundrum
DC Joe Woods played the 4-2-5 in over 67% of defensive plays last year. That means his defense must employ either three cornerbacks or three safeties on the field. Or, if one of the two linebacker spots is actually a safety, then either three corners/three safeties hit the field or two corners and four safeties are utilized.
Regardless, this defense needs a ton of defensive back help.
At the safety position, the Browns are set with Ronnie Harrison, free agent John Johnson, veterans Sheldrick Redwine and Jovante Moffatt, last year’s second-round pick Grant Delpit, plus practice squad holdovers Montrel Meander and Elijah Benton.
The cornerback situation is quite a bit different.
Denzel Ward was manning the left corner while Greedy Williams was supposed to anchor the rightside. Problem was, Williams was injured in practice the same day that Delpit ruptured his Achilles tendon.
Williams’ injury was much different though. He felt a jolting shock in his shoulder while making a tackle. Thought at first to be just a stinger, he iced it while trying to console his new teammate Delpit who were both in the training room. Williams’ entire shoulder was numb. After two weeks of still numb and sore, he had visions of another injury the year before when he pulled a hamstring and missed four games in his rookie season.
Electromyography tests were done every couple of weeks in an attempt to get the muscles in that shoulder to fire, but each week nothing was happening. Finally, he was designated to season-ending IR with axillary nerve damage.
Veteran Terrance Mitchell was called upon to take on that rightside cornerback position opposite Ward. Kevin Johnson, M.J. Stewart and Robert Jackson saw quite a bit of action. They all had their moments with good and bad play, but none would provide solid answers going forward. In the off-season, Johnson signed with Tennessee while Mitchell is now with Houston.
The big question remained: would Greedy be capable of coming back to the field without any more injury issues? Now a two-year veteran, he has sustained two injuries in two years and only suited up for 12 games total.
Also on the roster is A.J. Green and Brian Allen Prior prior to the draft,. Green was on the practice squad last season while Allen has been in the league since 2017 and subsequently cut four times, been a member of someone’s practice squad four times while Cleveland is his sixth NFL club.
Pro Bowler Ward has had injury issues of his own since being drafted in the first-round of the 2018 NFL draft: hip sprain, concussion Grade 2, concussion Grade 2, thigh hamstring strain, Injuinal Groin pull Grade 1, and Injuinal Groin pull Grade 2.
So, if Woods is expecting to have a bevy of cornerbacks in order to fulfill his expectations of three cornerbacks on the field, he must have three quality guys to suit up. Why run the 4-2-5 with three substandard athletes posing as prime depth?
Greg Newsome was listed on most draft expert’s Big Board as the third or fourth best cornerback behind Jaycee Horn, Patrick Surtain and Caleb Farley. Some Big Boards listed Newsome Number 3 after Farley’s health concerns.
In the first-round, it was either defensive end or cornerback, and Newsome was sitting there. Berry then took the former Northwestern star athlete. Now, Woods not only has choices, but he has the answer already fulfilled in case Greedy falters or adds to his injury history.
Defensive end run
Like all NFL clubs, GM’s have their Big Boards set up with players they would love to be able to draft. Most teams use “red stars” on their boards as a reminder.
With the pandemic, GM’s, scouts and coaches had very little access to being up-close and personal with players this past year. The Combine was canceled, Pro Days had major restrictions, and virtual meetings can only tell you so much on a video monitor.
The Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl were two of the few avenues that these players were available for meet-and-greet – although with restrictions on their own.
One of the players that the Browns had targeted in this year’s draft was defensive end Payton Turner of Houston. Before being invited to participate in the Senior Bowl, Turner was projected as a mid-to-lower third-round selection. A very versatile player who can inside or out, Turner was amazing all week against some of the nation’s best offensive linemen. He was unblockable and proved to be a serious pass rusher with a red hot motor.
After that great week at the Senior Bowl, Turner was now upgraded to a mid-to-late second-round choice. The Browns had pick #59.
The problem was, the New Orleans Saints grabbed Turner with the 28th pick in Round #1. Then, at the end of that round there was a run on defensive ends with the final three slots: Gregory Rousseau, Jayson Oweh and Joe Tryon. The only one that remained was Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari who went with the 50th pick.
Every red star defensive end was now off the board as pick #59 approached. So, instead of taking a defensive end on an absolute reach, Berry instead used some of his draft capital to move up seven slots and take 2020 Butkus Award winner Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who was projected in the Top-18.
“We liked the (defensive end) position group coming into the draft,” Berry said on a media Zoom call recently. “There were a number of prospects at that position who we also liked, but we are going to draft with a long-term vision for the team. And ultimately, we are not just going to pick for need or perceived need. The value has to be there, and we have to feel comfortable with whoever we are bringing into the building. But, we like our group (of draft picks).”
Defensive end depth chart?
The fact that the Browns did not take a young guy to add to the defensive end room may seem a bit of a head scratcher, but Cleveland has plenty of warm bodies to fill the defensive end positions.
Let’s take a peak at the current Browns depth chart at defensive end:
Projected starter: Myles Garrett
First backup: Joe Jackson
Others: Curtis Weaver, Cameron Malveaux
Projected starter: Jadeveon Clowney
First backup: Takk McKinley
Others: Porter Gustin
When you examine this unit, there is quite a bit of youth already with this group. Gustin and Jackson are 24-years old. McKinley and Garrett are 25. Malveaux is 26 while Weaver is only 22. Clowney just turned 28.
Everyone knows what Garrett and Clowney are capable of and Browns’ fans are having illusions of a monster pass rush. But the depth in itself is already outstanding.
And that is without adding a new guy from the draft.
Gustin appeared in 14 games last year and played well with plenty of hustle and solid run support. Jackson played in three games in 2020. Both are well-versed with Woods’ system.
But a good defense must have balance. The amount of speed added should not deteriorate the need for a stout defensive unit with the ability to adjust to what other clubs are throwing at you with their gameplan.
“It’s a balance,” Berry accessed. “Let’s take the characteristics of speed and stout, there is a bit of a sliding scale. They come in different packages so it is certainly something that we weigh on both sides of it.”
The success of this unit will surely be laid on the shoulders of Garrett and Clowney; but there are some intangibles in this group to keep an eye on.
McKinley is only with the Browns on a one-year deal. The former first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2017 had two productive seasons in Atlanta before the bottom dropped out for him. He will want to have a tremendous year in order to prove that he is still first-round material and deserving of a larger contract in the following seasons. When he was heading towards the 2017 NFL draft, The Sporting News had him ranked as the fifth-highest defensive end prospect in that class. If he produces and produces in a big way, it will not only help Cleveland but McKinley’s wallet.
Malveaux came to the Browns last November when the depth had become a bit too thin. He is still young and is hungry to make the final roster. Gustin looked like a sure-fire starter coming out of training camp last year, but settled into a backup role and played plenty. Jackson was once in the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive end rotation.
The jewel to this group just may be Weaver.
He was a solid third-round prospect coming out of Boise State and taken by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth-round of last year’s draft. As a junior, he was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player-of-the-Year and was named Two Time All-MWC. In his three years with Boise State, he had 11, 9.5 and 13.5 sacks which set a conference career mark. He also racked up 47.5 career tackles for loss.
Weaver suffered a freaky toe injury during his rookie training camp in Miami. When he took off his cleat, the toe appeared to be “dangling.” On August 24, the Dolphins assigned him to the “waived/injured list.” Instead of placing him on IR, they had simply cut ties with him. So to be in Cleveland in essentially his “real” rookie season will bring out the best in him.
Players such as Weaver and McKinley may be the basis of why Berry decided not to pursue a pass rusher in the NFL draft. Neither is needed to become the star of the defensive line. The Browns have Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney for that. In this room are Pro Bowl starters, key backups plus athletes with potential that can be developed.
Where exactly would another defensive end fit?
If these players can provide an adequate pass rush, plus support in the run game, they may allow Garrett and Clowney to get the rest they need during contests. Is that the evolution of the modern defense?
“I do not know I would go that far,“ said Berry.“ I think a modern defense really depends on your philosophy – the organizational philosophy and the coach’s philosophy. I know this, we did everything in our power to make sure that we could acquire talented players who fit the vision Kevin and Joe have for out defense. That’s really more of how we try to construct that side of the ball. “
In a 4-2-5 defense, Coach Woods requires only two defensive ends on the field but needs quite a few defensive backs at all times. He already had the safeties even before S Richard LeCounte out of Georgia was taken with the 169th pick.
Last year, it was just Ward to man the cornerback spot.
Now, with the signing of CB Troy Hill in free agency, the re-emergence of Greedy Williams, taking Greg Newsome in the first-round of this year’s draft, plus the dependable Denzel Ward, suddenly the Browns have four high-quality cornerbacks.
Read that part out loud: the Browns have four high-quality cornerbacks.
Now you know the reason why Berry didn’t take a defensive end in this year’s draft.