Teams need a strong offensive line to run an effective offense.
Teams need a strong defensive line to run an effective defense.
Before the Romeo Crennel era, a strong emphasis was placed on improving the defensive line through the draft and free agency. The offensive line was filled with a few individual players that were manageable but ineffective as a unit. Just ask Tim Couch how much he hated not having a good offensive line. The only significant draft pick that Davis sunk into the offensive line was Jeff Faine. I was dumbfounded by the pick at the time, and although I thought Faine did an "ok" job, I still stand by my disapproval of the pick at the time.
So, since the attention was more so on the defensive line, what went wrong? The selection of personnel for our system turned out to be horrible. Big Money Gerard Warren earned a fat paycheck for watching players run by him. Courtney Brown always had potential looming over his head, but wasn't gifted with a healthy body. When you dedicate high draft picks into those guys too, it's not like you can throw them away in a year and try again. You need to give them several years to develop and hope for the best. In Davis' case, things never worked out, and the fans had to suffer through losing seasons as a result.
In Crennel's second season, he and Phil Savage did a tremendous job rebuilding the offensive line. Eric Steinbach, the best free agent lineman on the market at the time, was signed immediately. And, Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in the draft, is one of the few tackles to actually live up to his hype. In a way, we were extremely fortunate -- I'd definitely say that Thomas is further along than Robert Gallery and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, two tackles that I wouldn't have minded drafting at the time.
The decision was made last year to focus on the offensive line, a process that could've taken two-three years to put together. Instead, it took one year. What does that mean? The attention has to turn to our current primary weakness -- the front seven, particularly the defensive line. Even Crennel knows it:
Gems can be found in the draft in the second round (see Eric Wright), but things obviously get tougher to weed through at that point. Since the Browns don't have a first-round draft pick, free agency this week could be the team's most important day of the year.
Right off the bat though, the top two defensive lineman are already off the board. Albert Haynesworth of the Tennessee Titans and Corey Williams of the Green Bay Packers were each slapped with the dreaded franchise tag. That poses a problem because now that increases the chances of the top free agents getting better contracts. And, although the Browns need to spend money on the defensive line, I don't want to sink that money into someone purely for the sake of saying "we tried".
Right now, these are the top free agent defensive linemen the Browns could be looking at, not ranked in any particular order (although the ones at the top may have more hype in the market):
1. Justin Smith, DE, Cincinnati Bengals: I'll firmly say that I do not want to waste a lot of money on a player that will have to convert from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Smith had 78 tackles and 2 sacks last year. At least for the moment in our system, the role of our defensive lineman should be to plug the line either to stop the run or allow our linebackers to come up and make a play. Smith at 275 pounds is below my ideal bulk, and I'm not looking to convert him to linebacker. Plus, since he will commend a higher contract since he's effective in a 4-3, we would be overpaying in comparison to production.
3. Marques Douglas, DE, San Francisco 49ers: I'm a little surprised that more hype hasn't been generated around Douglas among fans. For the past five seasons, he's been a consistent 16-game, 70 tackle, 3 sacks type of player. He worked well enough in the 49ers' 3-4 system last season, and so far they've yet to resign him (although it's still a possibility). Still, the problem that exists is that he's not really the "wow" factor that we are looking for in free agency. Do we want another Robaire Smith, or do we want someone with the potential to be a cornerstone piece of the puzzle?
4. Antwan Odom, DE, Tennessee Titans: Odom played in a 4-3 for the Titans as a speed pass rusher. If we already had a dominating defensive tackle and a really good defensive end on one side, Odom is the type of guy I wouldn't mind going after. He'll be entering his fifth season, and is coming off his best season with 21 tackles and 8 sacks. If the Browns were to sign Odom, I'd envision him playing like another Antwan -- Antwan Peek. In other words, I'm not sold on Odom working well enough for us this season. And, since he does have solid potential as a 4-3 pass rusher, I'm sure other teams will be more willing to offer him a lucrative deal than the Browns.
5. Travis LaBoy, DE, Tennessee Titans: See Antwan Odom for schematic reasons, because LaBoy is also a pass rusher coming over from the Titans. He weighs 260 pounds and has been held back each season due to the injury bug. If LaBoy were available for backup money, I would want the Browns to pursue him. He had 6 sacks and 4 forced fumbles last season in 13 games. In obvious third-down pass rushing situations, the Browns could bring him in. Also, if Peek's injury issues perk up again this season, LaBoy could step in and fill his role. Again -- the main difference between my decision on LaBoy and Odom is the money involved.
7. Shaun Rogers, DT, Detroit Lions: Rogers is NOT a free-agent, but the Lions have placed him on the market to be traded. Rogers definitely has the bulk (340 pounds) and experience (7 years), but it'd be hard to see the Browns pursuing him. Rogers does not have the greatest work ethic -- he's not in great condition in training camp and is not an every down player because of it. Rogers would play better than Ted Washington, but he doesn't have the attitude I'm looking for. Also, it would probably take at least a second-round draft pick to get him, and we're already without a first-rounder.
8. Isaac Sopoaga, DT, San Francisco 49ers: I'm not too sure what the status of Ethan Kelley will be, or if the Browns will be interested in bringing him back. In envision Shaun Smith starting at nose tackle next season. Sopoaga would seem to fit well as a rotational player at nose tackle and has only been in the league for three years.
9. Ian Scott, DT, Philadelphia Eagles: Scott missed all of last season due to an injury in training camp. Historically he was known as being a good rotational run stopper, including from a few of the Chicago Bears' primed defensive seasons.
That's the general list at the moment, barring any surprise releases. The biggest problem? There aren't any top-tier players like Haynesworth, Williams, Marcus Stroud, or Richard Seymour on the list. And, the player with the "most" potential, Smith, would be a big risk in terms of seeing if he's a fit for our system. And, the best fit for our system, Kelly, is a risk due to his ACL injury.
From the list of available players, I'd still have to pursue Kelly the strongest. In terms of a backup, my interests are highest with LaBoy and Sopoaga. Each of those players would depend on the team's opinion of other players -- is Kelley going to be in the mix next season, and is Peek going to be fully recovered?
BTW, on my general football website, PFCritics, I've made a Free Agency Tracker that is somewhat accurate (the rankings there should not be taken 100% literally yet). Check it out position-by-position.
Next up, I'll be taking a look at another position the Browns will be looking to improve upon -- wide receiver.