The Cleveland Browns expected big things from the defensive line in 2019.
But, like the rest of the season, the situation did not always work out as expected.
Defensive end Myles Garrett was dominant with 10 sacks in 10 games, but had his season interrupted by a suspension after a run-in with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph.
Fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon, in his first season with the Browns after being acquired via a trade with the New York Giants, was effective but injuries cut short his year for the third consecutive year.
Defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi were solid, if unspectacular, and the less said about the team’s second unit the better.
General manager Andrew Berry surveyed the situation and went to work during the offseason to do what he could to avoid a repeat in 2020.
The Browns signed Garrett to a contract extension, reworked Vernon’s deal, brought in free agents Adrian Clayborn and Andrew Billings, and selected Jordan Elliott in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
2. Philadelphia— PFF (@PFF) July 20, 2020
Who took home the #1 spot in our 2020 defensive line rankings?
The work has resulted in the defensive line landing at No. 12 in Pro Football Focus’ preseason rankings of the league’s 32 units:
Before his season was brought to a self-inflicted premature close last season, Myles Garrett was on track to be the most dominant edge rusher in the league. His PFF pass-rush grade through 10 games was 91.6, tied for the best mark in the league and by far the best of his career to date. He had 49 pressures and was on track to set a new career best by at least 11 by the end of the year. If Garrett can hit 2020 with the same form he had in 2019, he will be one of the game’s best defenders and a force to be reckoned with for the Browns.
Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson return as starters. While neither played badly last season, both players are capable of more and the team will be hoping to get some better play out of them in 2020. Larry Ogunjobi likely makes up the other starting member of the defensive line, but he will be pushed for playing time by Andrew Billings on base downs, while rookie Jordan Elliott hopes to earn playing time rushing the passer. Elliott had the highest PFF pass-rushing grade of any interior defender in the SEC last season, ahead of first-round talents such as Javon Kinlaw and Derrick Brown. He was a first-round talent according to PFF’s Big Board and could be an impact player for Cleveland if he can maintain that level of play.
Adrian Clayborn provides a really useful rotational body who has averaged over 50 total pressures for the past three seasons. Clayborn is particularly adept at beating up on sub-standard tackles and can dominate games against the right opponent.
While Richardson and Ogunjobi have been durable - they have missed one combined game in the past two seasons - the addition of Billings and Elliott should have a big impact as they give the Browns a solid rotation at defensive tackle, as defensive line coach Chris Kiffin told the team’s website:
“I think we’ve got a great rotation set up. In this day and age you’ve got to be able to rotate guys through games, especially when offenses want to go tempo. Even when they’re not going tempo, the beat in the trenches for 60-70 snaps per game is too much. You’ve got to have two-deep at both inside positions.”
Clayborn is the kind of productive veteran player that the Browns can always use and provides a nice insurance policy in case Vernon continues to struggle with injuries. And with a position group that includes Chad Thomas, Porter Gustin, Robert McCray, Trevon Young and George Obinna, the Browns are going to need Clayborn to produce even if Vernon can stay healthy.