After covering quarterbacks, running backs, and fullbacks last week, it's time to move "Down into the Trenches", our Week 2 training camp preview theme.
We started last season with a promising defensive line of Robaire Smith, Shaun Rogers, and Corey Williams -- all three of whom were supposed to be above average or better. We ended the season with Rogers and Williams still playing, but Rogers was the only one who made any real noise. In a 3-4 defense, that's not going to cut it.
Today, we review the starting defensive lineman. There are only three spots to fill, but I've included four lineman since one of the positions is set for a nice training camp competition.
1. SHAUN ROGERS - STARTING NOSE TACKLE
He's big, he's bad...he's Big Baby Shaun Rogers. If there was one bright spot in last year's dismal season, it would have to be the fantastic play of Rogers. He was the most consistent player on either side of the ball. Gone were the criticisms of his days in Detroit, when he was considered "lazy". To be fair, Rogers did appear sluggish in Detroit, meaning that same mentality could kick in at some point with Cleveland. For now, let's just hope it doesn't.
Worst Attribute: Can't Play Every Down - This is obviously more of a weakness related to the rest of the Browns' defensive line. It was just baffling to see how much of a dropoff we would suffer when Rogers was not in the game; third-string running backs would start tearing us up for 100+ yards in just one half of action. Rogers' does require time off though to stay fresh and be effective by the time the fourth quarter comes around, which is as close of a weakness I can come up with without being too analytical.
Best Attribute: Commanding the Double Team - With only three defensive lineman in a 3-4 defensive scheme, you need a nose tackle who requires a double team. Fellow division rivals Casey Hampton of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kelly Gregg of the Baltimore Ravens have been stable for their respective teams. When the Browns first went to the 3-4, who did we have? Jason Fisk? Ted Washington? Acquiring a player like Rogers was a necessary risk, and it paid off, at least for one year. Rogers makes it possible for everything else to fall into place, specifically for our defensive ends and our linebackers. This year, we'll see if Mangini and Ryan are able to get Rogers' supporting cast to play at a higher level.
Various Concerns / Comments - Nobody was getting to the quarterback last year except for our 350 pound nose tackle. Rogers and Mangini initially got off on the wrong foot, but from all of the recent reports, it seems that the two have genuinely made up to each other. Another special aspect of Rogers' game is his ability to block field goals, something he did at least once for the Browns last season.
Job Security: A+
Player Quality: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. COREY WILLIAMS - STARTING DEFENSIVE END
He's...he's...he's...well, I guess you can say that he is no Shaun Rogers. There is a far gap between the production level of our No. 1 linemen (Rogers) and the No. 2 linemen (Williams). And, Williams is really only rated at No. 2 due to the production he had prior to coming to Cleveland last year.
Williams was a sixth-round draft pick in the 2004 draft by the Packers. (Side note: Boy, are the Browns the only team in the NFL that can't find a breakout d-linemen in a later round?) After Green Bay franchised him last year, he was dealt to the Browns for a second-round pick. The deal seemed great on paper -- we got a potential Pro Bowler for a draft choice; draft choices are often hit-or-miss. The only concern was whether Williams could transition to the 3-4 defense. How'd he do...?
Worst Attribute: Not a 3-4 Guy - ...obviously not good enough. After recording back-to-back seven sack seasons with the Packers as a defensive tackle/defensive end hybrid in their 4-3 system, he just looked out of place with the Browns. It was probably a mistake by the Browns to not move him around more often, or to not run a few plays similar to the ones he ran in Green Bay. Instead, he seemed like the Kamerion Wimbley of the defensive line; it's not working, but rinse and repeat again and again.
Best Attribute: Durability - After our defensive line was banged up in general last season, Williams was able to provide some stability by starting all 16 games, something he has now done for three consecutive seasons. While Williams' play wasn't great, it was average enough so that it probably would've been better than some of the other players on our roster. Williams also played through most of the season with a bum shoulder.
Various Concerns / Comments - Williams has been quoted as being intrigued by some of the new things Ryan's 3-4 scheme brings to the table. With his shoulder doing better, hopefully Williams will be able to make the jump from average to Pro Bowl caliber once again.
Job Security: B+
Player Quality: B-
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. KENYON COLEMAN - POTENTIAL STARTING DEFENSIVE END
Acquired by the Browns via our first first-round draft trade this past April, Coleman begins the point where there is really a big question mark as to who will start at the other defensive end position. Right now, the two biggest players in the competition are Kenyon Coleman and Robaire Smith.
Coleman came over from the New York Jets, where he spent two seasons with Mangini. Two years ago, he had 83 total tackles; last year that number fell to 55 tackles. As his numbers seem to match the general scouting report I've been reading about Coleman, he excels more in run defense than he does at rushing the passer (but that's what Wimbley and company are supposed to be for, right?).
Coleman won't be a tremendous player, but he can be a fair asset in a proper rotation at the defensive end position.
Player Quality: C+
Final Roster Odds: 99%
4. ROBAIRE SMITH - POTENTIAL STARTING DEFENSIVE END
Considering how Williams played last season, a healthy Robaire Smith has the potential to be the second-best defensive linemen on the team. I loved it when the Browns signed him two years ago, I loved how he played during the entire 2007 campaign, and I continued liking what little I saw from him in 2008.
As we all know, Williams ruptured his Achilles' tendon in Week 2 last season, ending his season. He's been rehabbing ever since, which is the reason he's not listed as a definite starter. Besides acquiring Coleman for depth, you have to imagine that Mangini wanted him as insurance in case Smith was unable to return as a full-time starter. While there aren't a lot of reports to go by, the consensus seems to be that Smith will be ready to return and participate in training camp.
At the top of his game, Smith excelled at the defensive end position for us -- and that was without having Rogers at the nose tackle position. Given the choice between a healthy Smith and Coleman in a competition, I would pick Smith in a landslide. This will be more of a wait-and-see thing though; if things go terribly wrong and Smith just doesn't look healthy enough to play, I suppose there is an outside chance he could be a surprise training camp cut. I won't back on that possibility though.
Player Quality: B+
Final Roster Odds: 95%
DT Position Quality: B (Starters/Contenders Only)
NOTE: Tomorrow I will have Part 2 of the defensive line preview, where depth players C.J. Mosley, Shaun Smith, Louis Leonard, Ahtyba Rubin, Adam Hoppel, Santonio Thomas, and Melila Purcell will be covered.
With the talent gap between Rogers and Williams and the uncertainty of Smith's health, the "B" grade is a very loose projection. While it sounds positive, it is not the dominant rating a 3-4 unit like the Ravens have achieved -- far from it. From the list of players to be covered tomorrow, Mosley and S. Smith had the best shots at being included in today's article. S. Smith has some starting experience with the Browns, and Mosley also came over from the Jets. However, since S. Smith has been a locker room nuisance and Mosley was a backup in New York, barring a training camp injury, I don't see either player competing for a starting role. That doesn't mean they or some of the other players on the list won't play near-critical roles in terms of depth, however...