To kick off our Down in the Trenches series for our training camp preview, we will look at the Cleveland Browns' projected starting unit across the defensive line. One name is notably absent from the list, and that is second-year defensive tackle Phil Taylor. He suffered a torn left pectoral muscle in May and is expected to begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. There seems to be a good chance that he will return later in the season, but for the purposes of these previews, we'll be looking more at the players who could end up filling his shoes.
After the jump are the four defensive linemen who are currently slated to start for the Browns -- Jabaal Sheard, Scott Paxson, Ahtyba Rubin, and Frostee Rucker. I have ranked the four players in order of importance or level of talent.
1. AHTYBA RUBIN - STARTING RIGHT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
After signing a four-year, $27.6 million contract at the beginning of last season, Rubin responded with his best career numbers. In his first year transitioning from a 3-4 nose tackle to a 4-3 defensive tackle, Rubin registered 83 combined tackles, 5 sacks, and 12 quarterback hits. I thought Rubin got better as the year went on; in the final two games of the season against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he had 16 tackles and 2 sacks.
I don't know if there is anything we need to hope for Rubin to improve upon in 2012. He is already the type of high-effort player who can make a difference as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. One thing that is a little disappointing is that Rubin might have to be overworked for the second year in a row. Last year, he reportedly played 86.58% of the team's defensive snaps, which was the 8th highest in the league among defensive linemen. Rookie John Hughes was expected to play a role in giving both defensive tackles a rest this year, but now the team will probably need Rubin to stay on the field while they patch the spot next to him.
Player Quality: B+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. JABAAL SHEARD - STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE END
While he did not quite match Kamerion Wimbley's 11-sack rookie effort from 2006, it was still an impressive first year for Sheard. Sheard registered 55 combined tackles, 8.5 sacks, and 9 quarterback hits. One of the categories people might forget about is forced fumbles -- he had five of those as a rookie, as well as one fumble recovery. For being a second-round pick (as opposed to a first-round pick), I would say the Browns made a great decision to draft him.
Sheard began his rookie year on the right side of the defensive line, but was quickly moved over to the left side. Like Rubin, Sheard was also a workhorse last season, reportedly playing in 88.44% of the team's defensive snaps, which was fourth most in the league among defensive linemen. Sheard saw some double teams in 2011, but adding the pass rushing Ja'qua Parker on the other side of the line might give him some more one-on-one opportunities. Sheard was good against the run, but I think he still has some room to improve when it comes to staying disciplined on delayed runs (i.e. the offensive lineman baits him to pass rush).
Player Quality: B
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. FROSTEE RUCKER - STARTING RIGHT DEFENSIVE END
Rucker was a third-round pick by the Bengals back in 2006. He was primarily a backup prior to this past season, when he started 11 games. In 2011, he registered 44 combined tackles, 4 sacks, and 7 quarterback hits.
As one of the team's few free agent acquisitions (5 years, $21 million), Rucker was lured to the Browns because they told him he would be given the keys to the position, meaning he won't be a rotational player like he was during most of his time in Cincinnati. Cleveland seems to have big plans for Rucker -- in pass rushing situations, they are going to keep him on the field but move him to the interior of the line, presumably allowing either Parker or Marcus Benard to play on the outside. Rucker is supposed to play a key role in improving the Browns' run defense this year, but he can also rush the quarterback.
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. SCOTT PAXSON - POTENTIAL STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Even though Paxson is currently penciled in here, the starting role at left defensive tackle is definitely up for grabs in training camp after the injury to Taylor. During the team's organized team activity and minicamp sessions, Paxson reportedly saw more snaps than anyone else at the position.
Paxson's most memorable moment in 2011 came when he, along with Brian Schafering, put a nice lick on Ben Roethlisberger, forcing him to come out of the game with an ankle injury. Paxson has been in the league since 2006, but has bounced around clubs -- he didn't record his first regular season stats until last year with the Browns when he had 22 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 fumble recovery. Those statistics came as a rotational player, as he did not start any games during the season. Paxson might be good as a rotational player, but he could be a liability as a regular starter. Ideally, a guy like John Hughes or Billy Winn will look really good in camp to get the starting nod. If not, it's doubtful that any one player sees a ton of snaps as the starter until Taylor returns.
Final Roster Odds: 80%
In our next preview for defensive linemen, we'll take a look at all of the backups. Let's get to the poll: what type of season will Jabaal Sheard have in his sophomore year?