After realizing how many defensive linemen were on the roster (15 in total), I decided that it would be best to break the position up into three parts instead of just two. The first part talked about the current starters, covering four players. The second part, which is the post you are reading now, will cover six players. The final part will cover the remaining four players, and also give another brief mention about Phil Taylor.
I would expect the Browns to keep at least eight defensive linemen. After that, you begin playing a numbers game of carrying one less player than you normally would at a different position. Therefore, it is unlikely that all six players in today's preview will make the final roster -- we should expect four of them to make it (or five, if you think Scott Paxson will get the short end of the stick). After the jump, the players we'll take a look at include Juqua Parker, Emmanuel Stephens, Brian Schaefering, Marcus Benard, John Hughes, and Billy Winn.
5. JUQUA PARKER - BACKUP PASS-RUSHING DEFENSIVE END
Along with Frostee Rucker, Parker was one of the team's few free agent signings. Parker has been around the league for a long time -- he will be entering his 12th season, which makes him the most experienced defensive lineman on the team by far. Parker began his NFL career in 2001 as a member of the Tennessee Titans. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2005, where he played for the past seven years.
Parker's first season as a full-time starter came in 2008, where he notched 45 combined tackles and 5 sacks. He started a lot, but not every, game over the next two seasons, recording 14 sacks during that stretch. Last year, Parker's playing time and production were down significantly. He had 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the year. Are we getting Parker when he is down for the count? Yes and no.
We can't expect Parker to be a long-term contributor; after all, he only signed a 1 year, $3 million deal. When the Browns signed him, Tom Heckert (who knew Parker from his days with the Eagles organization) said that Parker was battling through injuries last year and that he knows Parker will serve as both a mentor to the young lineman and a solid pass rusher. Prior to last year, he averaged about six sacks a season with the Eagles. When Frostee Rucker moves inside on third downs, Parker will come in to take his spot. There's a chance Parker does not make the team if the youngsters behind him come on strong, but I think he'll stay.
Player Quality: C
Final Roster Odds: 80%
6. JOHN HUGHES - COMPETING FOR STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
I don't want to rehash the fact that Hughes was not rated as a third-round prospect to death. Heckert and company drafted Hughes in the third round because they felt he could contribute better than anyone else on the board.
The issue is that the team originally anticipated Hughes as being purely a rotational defensive lineman, at least in his rookie season. Dick Jauron commented that Rubin and Taylor saw way too many snaps in 2011, and that Hughes was going to help lighten the load for them. With Taylor injured, you have an interesting situation: do you leave Hughes in his role as a rotational guy from the get-go, or do you thrust him right into the starting lineup?
The scouting reports on Hughes say that he has a quick first step and some power, but that he is not a tackling machine and has not proven to be able to consistently win battles at the line of scrimmage. He is supposedly more of a run stuffer on early downs than he is a pass rusher on later downs. I think Hughes ends up remaining as a rotational defensive lineman, and there's an outside chance that he hardly sees the field in 2012 (alas Jordan Cameron at tight end last year, despite being a fourth round pick).
Final Roster Odds: 100%
7. MARCUS BENARD - BACKUP PASS-RUSHING DEFENSIVE END
Benard is a tough one to project. Back in May, I wondered if Benard would fall victim to the numbers game at the position. Sheard and Rucker are the two starters, and Parker will probably be ranked ahead of Benard on the depth chart. Then, it comes down to a three-man competition between Benard, Stephens, and Auston English for the other defensive end position.
Benard specializes as a pass rushing defensive end, which is a role that Parker already specializes in. The team might be looking for someone who can handle the run better, and I don't think that is Benard. I'm still rooting for Benard, though. You can never have enough pass rushers on your team, and as a linebacker in 2010, Benard had 7.5 sacks. The motorcycle accident last year cut his season short, so this year's training camp is his chance at redemption. Benard also showed up to camp at 280 pounds last year, assuming he needed to bulk up in the switch to the 4-3 defense (no communication was permitted due to the lockout). This year, Benard is back down to 260 pounds, which should allow him to showcase his pass rushing ability more effectively.
Player Quality: C-
Final Roster Odds: 60%
8. BRIAN SCHAEFERING - COMPETING FOR STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The reason Schaefering is ranked so low is because he missed the organized team activity and minicamp sessions as he recovers from hernia surgery. Schaefering was reportedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, so he might be available for the start of training camp. If he is not, the likes of Paxson, Hughes, and Winn will have an early edge.
If Schaefering is healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get reps ahead of Paxson as the starting left defensive tackle at the beginning of training camp. After being a defensive end in the 3-4 defense in Cleveland for two years, Schaefering moved to the inside last year and had 29 tackles, more than any defensive tackle on the team who was not a starter. He can make some nice moves as a substitute, but when he is in the game for extended periods of time, he doesn't seem to have much of an impact. If experience plays a factor in determining the replacement for Taylor, then Schaefering has a leg up on everyone else. I think only one person between Paxson or Schaefering makes the roster -- who will it be? My early prediction is that Paxson makes it.
Player Quality: D+
Final Roster Odds: 40%
9. EMMANUEL STEPHENS - BACKUP DEFENSIVE END
When Stephens replaced Jayme Mitchell in the starting lineup mid-way through last season, it was quite surprising, but also indicative of how much of a disappointment Mitchell was. The coaching staff liked Stephens' explosion off the line, and if he had not suffered a torn pectoral a few weeks later, the team might have reacted differently in free agency when choosing to fill the starting right defensive end position.
Stephens now finds himself as a backup at best again, and on top of that, he'll need to prove that he brings more to the table than Benard and English. Stephens had 17 tackles last year but no sacks in limited action. I can't put too much weight into the fact that Stephens started a few games, because Rucker, Parker, and Benard were not on the roster at the time. The Browns probably wish he wasn't on the club for as many games as he was a season ago, because now he is no longer practice squad eligible. My prediction right now is that Stephens does not make the team.
Player Quality: D+
Final Roster Odds: 30%
10. BILLY WINN - COMPETING FOR STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE TACKLE
The last of four defensive linemen competing for a starting role, I think Winn will have a better chance at starting than Hughes does (purely a hunch). Even though he was a sixth-round pick, he was reportedly higher on other teams' draft boards, including the Browns.
The reason I give Winn the early advantage over Hughes is that Winn is reportedly a more all-around defensive tackle, meaning he can stop the run and rush the passer. Scouting reports say he doesn't have a quick move at the snap, but that he makes up for it with a high motor and great speed, qualities which sound similar to some guy named Ahtyba Rubin (who was also a sixth round draft pick).
Final Roster Odds: 90%
Practice Squad Odds: 95% (if he doesn't make the final roster)
On Monday, we will continue with the final part of our defensive line preview, which will cover Auston English, William Green, Kiante Tripp, and Brian Sanford. The poll for part two of the defensive line preview is simple: who do you think will start in place of Phil Taylor?