It's time for Week 2 of our 2010 Cleveland Browns Training Camp Preview, and this week the theme is "down in the trenches," where we'll start with the defensive line. For those of you who were expecting the fullback preview last week, I decided to hold off on that and combine it with the tight end preview forthcoming at the end of next week.
Last year, the Browns started the season with a mix of Shaun Rogers, Robaire Smith, and Kenyon Coleman on the defensive line. Today, I'll preview the players in contention for the three starting roles in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense. While this year's top three isn't drastically different from last year's top three, Rogers' status leads to some uncertainty on the line.
1. STARTING DEFENSIVE END - SHAUN ROGERS
It's almost July, and we still don't know exactly what type of punishment the league will hand to Rogers after he mistakenly brought a loaded handgun to Cleveland Hopkins Airport in the offseason. Earlier in the year, the Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi mentioned that a suspension might only be for a game or two. All things considered, that shouldn't affect the chemistry of the unit too much.
The bigger question here is whether the team will actually go through with starting Rogers at the defensive end position this season as opposed to nose tackle. The switch would stem as a result of the emergence of Ahtyba Rubin. You can certainly make a case that the Browns' defense got a little better last year when Rubin took over for Rogers (broken leg), but when Rogers is on, he's one of the toughest linemen to guard in the NFL.
Despite going through two losing seasons with the Browns, I don't question his motivation. Since coming to Cleveland, I've never gotten the sense that Rogers started "mailing it in" as he reportedly used to do during his dismal days with the Detroit Lions. Here are two few brief reasons why a switch to defensive end could benefit the Browns:
- Rogers draws double teams, but he likes to penetrate into the opposing team's backfield. That's not necessarily what Ryan is looking for at nose tackle -- someone needs to stay there and clog the line. Rogers would have more flexibility at defensive end in trying to reach the backfield.
- The Browns didn't make any major upgrades on the line in free agency or in the draft, so this season it's about trying to get the best players on the field. Right now, the top two players on the line might be Rubin and Rogers. Rubin will only play nose tackle though, so if you keep Rogers at nose tackle, you're sort of limiting the team's potential.
We might start the season with Rogers on the suspension list, but he should be back early enough and in good shape to man one of the starting defensive end positions. In camp, I think it'd also be very interesting to see how our offensive tackles (or blocking tight ends) could handle a force like Rogers. Does it create more disruption for opposing teams, or is it the type of move that offenses are able to easily gameplan for?
At the end of last season, most of you were convinced that the Browns should go through with the transition. After 500+ votes, 90% of you voted that Rogers should play DE with Rubin being at NT.
Job Security: A+ (as a starter in general)
Player Quality: A
Final Roster Odds: 99%
2. STARTING NOSE TACKLE - AHTYBA RUBIN
At 23 years old, Rubin represents the only non-rookie youth of the defensive line that seems ready to start this year. Rubin started the team's final five games last year, and he did very well in a few of those games. It was in December last year that Terry Pluto pointed out the thought of having Rubin start at NT this year. After that, I think the possibility really started to gain traction:
In the past two games, the Browns have allowed 75 yards (Pittsburgh) and 91 yards (San Diego) on the ground, a dramatic change for a team that had been being run over for 155 yards per game. The Browns believe part of the reason is Ahtyba Rubin taking over at nose tackle for the injured Shaun Rogers. They've discovered that Rubin does a better job of clogging up the middle against the run. Rogers is the better pass rusher and far more athletic. Next season, this could lead to Rubin being in the middle of the 3-4 defense with Rogers as one of the ends.
Rubin might not be an elite nose tackle [yet], but I think we saw last year that our defense can get by with solid role-players and a well-executed gameplan. That's how guys like Matt Roth and Marcus Bernard were able to make some late-season noise. Neither of them are necessarily physical specimens, but they filled the team's need for a pass rusher. Rubin can clog the middle and can defend the interior running game. If Rogers is on the end and no longer has to worry about those tiresome duties, maybe he'll let go and have a monster year.
Job Security: C+
Player Quality: B-
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. STARTING DEFENSIVE END - ROBAIRE SMITH
When Eric Mangini acquired Kenyon Coleman last season, I feared that Robaire Smith would be demoted to backup duties since he was coming off of an ACL injury. In last year's training camp preview, I stated that "given the choice between a healthy Smith and Coleman in a competition, I would pick Smith in a landslide."
Smith went on to have a pretty good season, recording 1.5 sacks and 62 tackles. He never seemed to show any lingering effects from his surgery, and I can only hope that he's gotten stronger this offseason. It almost doesn't seem like this will already be Smith's fourth year with the team, probably due to the year he missed.
Despite having only 1.5 sacks last year, I really felt that Smith played a significant role in the improvement of the team's defense toward the end of the season. He seemed to "buy into the system" and excelled in the pass-rushing department. Regarding the two starting defensive end positions, you could probably go as far as saying that Smith is more of a lock to start at DE than Rogers is, since there's a chance Rogers could remain at NT.
Job Security: A-
Player Quality: B-
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. POTENTIAL STARTING DEFENSIVE END - KENYON COLEMAN
Coleman had a few shining moments here and there last year, but I never really got the sense that he was the right fit to be in the starting lineup. His season was cut short by a knee injury, and in 13 games he recorded 38 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Coleman remains a candidate to be in the starting lineup for two reasons, both of which depend upon Rogers:
- If Rogers is suspended, Coleman fills in as starting DE.
- If Rogers stays at NT, Coleman is the starting DE.
I think we'll have to accept the first scenario, but I really hope the team is innovative so the second one doesn't have to come to fruition. While Coleman might not be the best fit as a starter, he seems like another savvy veteran who won't let his ego get in the way of his playing time. The tandem of Coleman and C.J. Mosley worked out for Mangini when he was with the Jets, and last year with the Browns I saw enough to believe the pair could be a stable force in substitution again. Combine them with some of the youngsters on our roster (coming up in Part II of the preview), and perhaps the DL won't be as gloomy as it's been in the past.
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 90%
DT Position Quality: C (Starters/Contenders Only)
NOTE: Tomorrow I will have Part 2 of the defensive line preview, where depth players Kwaku Danso, Clifton Geathers, Keith Grennan, C.J. Mosley, Derreck Robinson, Brian Robinson, and Brian Schaefering will be covered.
Year after year, I tend to overestimate the potential of the defensive line. The Browns have had difficulty finding a group of players that can even come close to matching the issues that division rivals Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens present to opponents. Looking at the tandem of Rogers, Rubin, and Smith, I'm fine with that group of players heading into the season, but will the group be anything more than average? Will they plug the line enough to prevent opposing running backs from continuing to run all over our defense? Lastly, can the unit make it together through an entire season without succumbing to injury?
My "C" grade might not make sense considering that on an individual level, none of the starters above received a grade below C+. While I like the skills that some of the players possess on an individual level, I'm still not convinced the group can perform together at a high level compared to other NFL teams. After all, Rogers, arguably one of the best in the game, has been on our team for several years now and it still hasn't made our front seven respectable enough.