Strategy in the NFL draft can be a tricky thing. It is a synthesis of available players and team needs. Every aspect of every part of the decision is a variable. There may be several players that could be considered "best available". As a player is considered numerous factors come into play. Is he injury prone? Is there any sign of character issues on or off the field? Is the player smart enough to deal with increased complexity at the next level? Is he an elite athlete or can he become one? Also, a given team will typically have several needs to fill. How do they prioritize these needs? Is a speedy pass rusher more important than an impact defensive back or a freakishly talented wide receiver? Let's take a look at why the Browns should select a defensive end with their first pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
ESPN recently had an interesting article on the power rankings of pass rushers. Though some of them are outside linebackers, half are defensive ends. The interesting thing about this list of players is that with very few exceptions, they are all on contending teams. So is it necessary to have a great pass rusher in order to be a contending team? There is no doubt that pressure on the quarterback is a very important characteristic of a top defense and a top defense is almost a guaranteed ticket to the post season and beyond--just ask the Ravens.
The Browns have been playing a 3-4 defense and so, in effect, have been playing with a different kind of defensive end. Ends in this scheme are typically converted tackles designed to clog up the middle and stuff the run. The 4-3 features athletic, agile pass rush specialists. The current Browns roster lists only two DEs: Titus Adams and Derreck Robinson. Adams was a 7th round draft pick who has spent a lot of time on practice squads and Robinson was an undrafted free agent when he entered the NFL in 2005. A couple of Browns linebackers may have potential at DE namely: Matt Roth and Marcus Benard. Roth has decent sack production and good size for the position but Bernard, while successful at getting to the quarterback, is a bit undersized at DE and may be pushed around a lot by offensive tackles. So looking at the Browns roster and knowing that the scheme is about to change, there is a definite need for one or more likely two prototypical 4-3 defensive ends.
When it comes to sacks, the Browns performance last year was in the bottom quarter of the league. They also were near the bottom when it came to passing touchdowns allowed. But the Browns were firmly in the middle on most of the other passing defense statistics such as percentage of completions and passing yards allowed while they excelled against the run particularly in the scoring category. So there is some low-hanging fruit here that a high-performance DE might collect to bring the entire defense to a new level.
Having established that there is definitely a need for DE's on the Browns, there are some compelling reasons to pass on one at the 6th pick. First, this year happens to be one of the better years in a long time for defensive linemen. There are fully 8 first-round-eligible ends and one or two are bound to fall into the early second round, so it may be possible to pick up a very good DE in the second round and maybe even lower in the draft. Also, having this high of a pick, can you really pass on another one of the skill positions like wide receiver for a defensive end? As mediocre as the defense was last year, the offense was even worse which means you might be able to make a bigger impact to the team overall by drafting offense with the first pick. There are also quite a number of excellent and serviceable ends on the free-agent market but that is somewhat in limbo at this time. It is pretty difficult to dismiss the need for defensive ends on the Browns so it is likely one or more will be drafted by them this year.
Browns Need Gauge: Near empty (the light is blinking)
Potential picks: Da'Quan Bowers, Robert Quinn, Cameron Jordan, J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, Adrian Clayborne, Ryan Kerrigan, Cameron Hayward