Browns fans, meet Cleveland's starting defensive line for the 2014 season: the same unit that started in 2013. The Browns overhauled almost every unit this year -- we'll have new starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, on the offensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary. The team did not sign or draft anybody on the defensive line, which means things will remain pretty much the same...although a new head coach could mean starting opportunities for somebody like Billy Winn.
Today's preview covers the three players who are the favorites to start, and the ensuing previews will cover the backups and the unknowns.
1. AHTYBA RUBIN - STARTING LEFT DEFENSIVE END
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 325
Age: 27 | Experience: 7 years
College: Iowa State
Note: Entering the final year of his contract...good against the run, but struggles vs. the pass.
Could this be the final season that we see Ahtyba Rubin in a Browns uniform? Rubin is already entering the final year of his contract, one in which he'll carry a cap figure of $8.175 million. Rubin has historically had good production, but he's not going to see those type of contract numbers again...unless he puts up a monster season.
We speculated this offseason whether the Browns would part ways with Rubin in a cap-saving move in order to sign a high-profile defensive player. They flirted with the idea of adding former Bills defensive end Alex Carrington, but the signing never happened. Rubin's never had trouble being motivated or having a high motor, but playing for a new contract has to take that motivation to an even higher level.
In his first year as a defensive end last year, Rubin thrived against the run but struggled with rushing the passer. We might see Mike Pettine cut his workload down in favor of guys like Billy Winn, John Hughes, or Armonty Bryant. One of those three players will likely be groomed for a starting role in 2015, and if the team doesn't plan on retaining Rubin after this, then it's only a matter of time before the switch takes place.
Job Security: B-
Final Roster Odds: 95%
2. PHIL TAYLOR - STARTING NOSE TACKLE
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 335
Age: 26 | Experience: 4 years
Note: Only saw 50% of defensive snaps in 2013... will move around DL in 2014.
Unlike Rubin, Phil Taylor has some more job security. This offseason, the Browns picked up his fifth-year option, meaning he will at least be with the club through 2015.
Taylor is coming off of an effective but frustrating season. He played in 15 games, finishing with 26 tackles and 2 sacks. The frustrating part came with the fact that he only saw 50% of the defensive snaps on the season, as Ray Horton consistently substituted him out in nickel packages.
Granted, you want to keep Taylor fresh, but I'd prefer to keep him in the game when we desperately need a stop, regardless of what type of defense we're running. Early in May, Taylor said that he and the Browns were discussing how much he'd be used this season, but that one thing would be changing: he'll be playing more positions in Mike Pettine's defense than he did a year ago. Horton didn't maximize Taylor's potential, but I think Pettine will.
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. DESMOND BRYANT - STARTING RIGHT DEFENSIVE END
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 310
Age: 28 | Experience: 6 years
Note: Production dropped in 2013 after irregular heartbeat was discovered...fixed now.
In his first four NFL seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Desmond Bryant only missed one game. He missed four games in his first year with the Browns, but it was the result of a heart condition that has since been corrected.
Bryant got off to a lightning hot start in 2013, notching 3.5 sacks in his first three games. His production seemed to fade a bit after that -- he didn't have a sack for the remainder of the season. I under-estimated how important he was for the Browns' run defense, though, which tanked in his absence.
Bryant might not deliver at a Pro Bowl level, but he's a solid anchor at defensive end who is under contract through 2017 -- we don't have to worry about him leaving any time soon.
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
In Part 2 of our defensive line preview, we will look at the team's primary backups, including Billy Winn, John Hughes, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, and Armonty Bryant.