In Part 1 of our Cleveland Browns training camp preview on the defensive line, we looked at the four players who seem to have the most secure spots on the roster. Today, in Part 2, we look at the next group of four players whose jobs aren't quite as safe but are still likely to see significant action.
5. BILLY WINN - COMPETING FOR A SPOT AT DEFENSIVE END
Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick back in 2012, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. This past season, Winn played in 13 games, registering 31 tackles, 1 interception, and 1 forced fumble. His interception was a memorable one as he made a diving catch to haul in a deflection off of a pass by QB Cam Newton.
Winn has had opportunities to start in his career but has proven to be more of an asset when he's a rotational player. He is one of the team's many versatile defensive linemen as the coaches trust lining him up anywhere. With that said, I'm not convinced that Winn is a lock to make the roster out of camp.
The Browns extended John Hughes last offseason, but Winn, like Phil Taylor, is in the final year of his deal. Not being extended doesn't mean you're set to be a roster casualty next offseason, but I think it's an indicator that the front office believes Hughes has an above average strength when it comes to defending the run, while Winn is just an average rotational player. That's where Winn's job could be in jeopardy. If the Browns keep Randy Starks and Xavier Cooper, that's six defensive linemen already. What if one of the youngsters impress in camp, or Cleveland needs an extra roster spot for a tweener like Armonty Bryant?
Final Roster Odds: 90%
6. RANDY STARKS - COMPETING FOR A SPOT AT DEFENSIVE END
Randy Starks is by far the most experienced defensive lineman on the roster. Cleveland did well last offseason bringing in veteran leadership to the other position groups (Karlos Dansby at linebacker, Donte Whitner in the secondary), and now they have that presence up front too.
Starks has spent the past seven seasons with the Miami Dolphins. One day after the team upgraded with Ndamukong Suh this offseason, they released Starks. He later signed a 2-year, $8 million deal with the Browns.
At age 31, does Starks have enough left in the tank to contribute? He's played nose tackle and defensive end, but with Cleveland's situation, I'd expect him to be at defensive end and even make a serious run at the starting role. According to Pro Football Focus, "outside of a poor three-game stretch late in the season where the entire Miami defense struggled, Starks played well and earned seven ‘green’ overall graded games." They also offered this analysis on him upon signing with the Browns this offseason:
He’s always been better as a pass rusher, with at least a +5.0 pass rush grade in each of the last seven seasons. His play against the run, though, has been more of a roller coaster year-to-year with just two seasons in the PFF era where he earned positive grades in both run defense and as a pass rusher. However, he is just one season removed from a career-year in which he ranked sixth in Run Stop Percentage and 10th in Pass Rushing Productivity at his position.
Starks has reportedly looked very good and energized in OTAs and minicamp. DBN's Tim Miller relayed the following information after the team signed Starks, and this was offered before the team drafted Danny Shelton:
Still did well last year when single-blocked, struggled mightily vs. doubles. Faced a lot of double-teams, too, because Miami played him at nose tackle a lot. I’d prefer him at the weakside 3-tech position.
Final Roster Odds: 95%
7. XAVIER COOPER - ROOKIE PASS-RUSHING DEFENSIVE LINEMAN
The Browns appeared to be finished on Day 2 of the draft before swinging a trade with the Patriots at the end of round three. The target? Xavier Cooper, a defensive lineman out of Washington State.
Cooper was listed as one of the top pass-rushing defensive tackles by DBN's Tim Miller heading into the draft, and it fits what defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said about Cooper a couple of weeks ago:
"Cooper is going to be a hell of a football player. I think he’s different than anything we have, his ability to get off the ball. I think he’s going to cause offenses a lot of problems, especially in the pass game."
Cooper's roster spot is no doubt safe and the Browns seem to have a very specific role in mind for him. In that sense, it's tough to say that he's really competing against anyone else on the roster. If you'd like to see a great scouting report of Cooper from before the draft, check this out from SB Nation.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
8. ISHMAA'ILY KITCHEN - FIGHTING TO STAY ON AS A BACKUP NOSE TACKLE
Ishmaa'ily Kitchen saw the most playing time of his career in 2014, recording 43 tackles in 12 games (3 starts). He is entering his fourth season with the club after he signed his restricted free agent tender.
Kitchen won over some new fans for the toughness he showed in the team's regular season finale against the Ravens, playing through a broken leg. The end-game question, though, is whether the team still has room for him on the 53-man roster after having drafted two defensive linemen in this year's draft -- Danny Shelton and Xavier Cooper.
I don't think many teams carry three nose tackles, and Cleveland already has two who would be ahead of Kitchen on the depth chart. On top of that, other guys like John Hughes or Randy Starks could play nose tackle in a pinch. The concern here, if you are the Browns, is looking at the long-term picture. Phil Taylor's health hasn't been the best, so if you cut Kitchen, what do you do if Taylor goes down? You're putting too much on Shelton. Also, Taylor and Kitchen are both in the final year of their deals. If Taylor commands a decent-sized contract next offseason, Kitchen can probably be re-signed at a much cheaper rate.
I'd like the Browns to try to keep all eight of the linemen I've covered already (sorry to those other four guys who will appear in Part 3!). Cleveland is going to need that depth for when the injuries hit, and Kitchen might be a roster stash of sorts for 2015 so he can be re-signed and utilized in 2016. If Cleveland does need to make a cut, though, Kitchen will probably be the guy of the eight listed here to get the boot.
Final Roster Odds: 60%
Tomorrow, we will continue cover the Browns' other four defensive linemen. Feel free to discuss your thoughts on the defensive line below. Our poll asks which of three players you would cut if you had to.