The defensive tackle position for this Browns’ defense will look somewhat unfamiliar this season compared to last year.
Starters Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson are gone. Even their backups are missing some pieces. Vincent Taylor is now with the Houston Texans. Sometimes inside then outside guy Adrian Clayborn is currently unemployed.
That left only last year’s rookie Jordan Elliott and COVID opt-out Andrew Billings as the only ones left to man the ship.
So, GM Andrew Berry got busy. He got real busy.
The free agency period brought into the fold Sheldon Day from the Indianapolis Colts, Malik Jackson formerly of Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Damion Square and Malik McDowell who last played for, well, nobody.
If that wasn’t enough, Berry then drafted Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai in the fifth-round of the NFL draft and then post-draft signed Marvin Wilson in a bidding war for his services.
Two plus four plus two equates to a very busy defensive tackle room.
Many Browns’ faithful were watching and waiting for Richardson’s return. He was a stout defender against the run last year and played well. However, he was expensive as he was set to make $11.9 million this year. Richardson then signed with the Minnesota Vikings.
With Cleveland being an analytics team, there are certain positions that are deemed less important financially than others.
Defensive tackle is one of them. Berry isn’t going to pay that kind of money to a DT. So, that meant that Richardson is not coming back. His salary would need to be in the $4-$5 million range. No player is going to cut his salary down that far. He will sign with somebody else for $7-$8 million on a one-year deal and then the following year the $4-$5 million plateau is more acceptable.
But this year’s DT room has a ton of talent. Training camp will basically become a war zone in an attempt to see which of these eight guys will remain. It is very possible that the four players who make the final roster will not be actual starters, but will work in concert of a platoon system where all four are rotated in-and-out on a regular basis.
Versatility or youth may be the deciding factor on which four will be chosen. Jackson can play inside and outside.
Cleveland’s rebuilt defensive tackle room is extremely light on experience heading into the 2021 season. Tommy Togiai and Marvin Wilson are rookies, Malik McDowell is essentially a rookie, Jordan Elliott is only entering his second year, and while Andrew Billings and Sheldon Day have both been in the league for a few years, Billings has only been a starter for two years (before sitting out last season) and Day has started all of two games in his five years.
There are those who hope that five will emerge from this group, but do not believe this hype. Four is the norm for the DT room, and four is what the Browns will keep.
This will become a very interesting training camp battle.
6’-1”, 328 pounds
NFL starts: 37
NFL games: 47
Billings was a high school power lifting champion. He had a very good college career at Baylor and was named Big 12 Co-Defensive Player-of-the-Year in 2015. At the Combine, he was named as one of the five biggest winners at the event and the words “late first or early second-round” were being rolled off of many a tongue in NFL circles. His pro day was attended by 31 NFL clubs.
However, he was taken in the fourth-round of the 2016 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. The reason for the fall? Nobody actually knows.
The Bengals signed him to a four-year $2.87 million contract. In his rookie camp, he suffered a knee injury to which he required surgery to repair a torn MCL. That landed him on IR. In his sophomore campaign, he competed for the starting nose tackle but ended up as the backup to begin the season. In Week 9 he got his first start and kept that position the remainder of the year.
With the Bengals, he started 37 of 47 games and became a dependable run stopper. Don’t expect Billings to become this pass rushing demon – he is not. But he is serviceable against the run.
When the Browns signed him last year during free agency, he was inked to become a dependable backup to either Ogunjobi or Richardson. Nobody expected him to come in and become the starter. Instead, he opted out of the season.
Now, Richardson and Ogunjobi are gone and the position is wide open. Billings has talent, and is in the prime of his athleticism. Can he provide a dependable run stopper in the middle of this defense?
His Cincinnati numbers include 80 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 12 QB hits.
6’-4”, 315 pounds
NFL starts: 1
NFL games: 16
This year, everyone is expecting Elliott to go from that rookie with potential to that guy who cements one of the two starting DT positions. And the leader of that fan club is none other than Elliott himself.
Elliott was a rookie last year as he was taken in the third-round of the 2020 draft. The Browns had the 74th pick in that draft when the New Orleans Saints called and offered Berry the opportunity to trade down to pick number 88 and then receive the Saints’ third-round selection in the 2021 draft - which Berry accepted. With pick #88, he took Elliott. With pick #91 in this year’s draft, Berry grabbed speedy wideout Anthony Schwartz of Auburn.
As with any third-rounder, Elliott played sparingly in the first half of the year. But around mid-season, he began to see the field more each week. In all, he played on 307 snap counts compared to Richardson’s 799.
At Missouri, he was known more of a run stopper than a pass rusher as he was consistent in fighting for his gap. He also had experience in two-gapping from a variety of alignments.
Elliott’s position coach with Cleveland, Chris Kiffin, is high on Elliott. The key will be if he has exceeded expectations from Year 1 to Year 2. If so, Browns fans can expect great things from him this season.
The new guys
6’-1”, 285 pounds
NFL starts: 2
NFL games: 60
This is a guy you may not know much about. He was picked in Round 4 by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2016 NFL draft. At the time, the Jags were selecting quite a few defensive players in all rounds, and Day was looked at as quality depth instead of starter potential. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. At Notre Dame, he played in every game for four years and started 32 games. Day was named Second Team All-American as a senior.
His tenure with Jacksonville was short as he only played 126 snaps in one and one-half years before being cut midway during the 2017 season. Day played in 28 games with zero starts and had a grand total of 27 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five QB hits and three sacks.
Two days later, the San Francisco 49ers claimed him off the waiver wire. Day was a part of the DT rotation as the Niners reached Super Bowl LIV in a losing effort to the Kansas City Chiefs. He was not re-signed. The Indianapolis Colts then signed him to a one-year deal where he spent the first five weeks on IR due to a knee injury. Upon his activation, he only played in four games without any starts and had two total tackles with zero sacks before being cut again in mid-November. Six weeks later, Day was signed to Cleveland’s practice squad where his contract expired when the season did.
On the day that the Browns inked DE Jadeveon Clowney, Day was also signed as a five-year NFL player who has played sparingly but has spent some time in Cleveland’s system. He is still a young man, but will have to prove he can become a more productive player if he is going to make the Browns’ final roster.
6’-5”, 285 pounds
NFL starts: 73
NFL games: 126
The Browns knew that starting leftside DT Ogunjobi wasn’t going to be re-signed and made no attempt to keep him. That leaves a hole on the defensive line. But, does it?
Andrew Billings was signed in free agency last year to be quality depth behind Richardson. A former fourth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016, Billings had started 37 games for Cleveland’s division rival.
The thought process for GM Berry was to bring in a solid, dependable player who had quite a bit of NFL starts to be not only depth but an athlete that can come in during each game and provide some breathing room for Richardson. Billings (age 26) is a very good run stuffer. He had a knee injury in his rookie season, but since then had been very durable. For 2020. he was suddenly a pandemic opt-out.
In the 2020 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints traded up in the third-round with the Browns and then Cleveland took Jordan Elliott from Missouri. Elliott (6’-4”, 302 pounds). He ended up with only one start, but played in all 16 games last year. He progressed during the season ended up with 15 tackles, but more importantly showed that he can compete for Ogunjobi’s vacant position.
And now Berry has signed Malik Jackson. Will he take the slot vacated by Richardson, or is he viewed like Billings was last year as simply quality depth?
Jackson was taken in the fifth-round of the 2012 NFL draft by the Denver Broncos after an exceptional college career at Tennessee and attended the Senior Bowl. In high school, Jackson was named Cal-Hi First Team All-State.
For his first three seasons in Denver, Jackson (age 31) was a backup. In 2015, he won the starting left DE position in a 3-4 scheme. He had a terrific season with 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 16 QB hits, two forced fumbles and 5.5 sacks. The Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50.
In that victory in the first quarter after an early field goal, Denver scored the game’s first touchdown by Jackson who recovered a fumble in the end zone after LB Von Miller strip-sacked Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton.
Jackson parlayed that success into signing a huge six-year $85.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars who were then-known for a stout defense. In 2017, he was named to the Pro Bowl as Jacksonville went 10-6-0 with a defense that only allowed 268 points. The Jaguars captured the AFC South Division, then defeated Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the playoffs before losing to the New England Patriots 24-20 in the AFC Championship Game in a game in which they were leading by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter.
The following season, the bottom fell out for Jacksonville as they plummeted to a 5-11-0 record. Jackson was waived due to salary cap issues along with five other high-priced veterans.
Jackson started 42 of 48 games played in three seasons with the Jaguars team and registered a career-high eight sacks during his 2017 Pro Bowl season. He finished his Jaguars career with 105 tackles, 18 sacks, four forced fumbles and seven passes defensed. He started his first 42 games with the team before playing the final six games in 2019 as a reserve.
The Eagles signed him to a three-year deal for $30 million to team up with Fletcher Cox. In his first game, Jackson suffered a foot injury and landed on season-ending IR. On March 17, Philly cut him.
The assessment on Jackson is that he is still a great player and tough as nails. He was once one of the best pass-rushing interior defensive linemen in the game. Now, he hasn’t played any significant role with a club since Week 10 of the 2019 NFL season.
His age has cut down his effectiveness and certainly will see a reduced role as a primary backup. However, he should bring a reliable source of pressure and could become a valuable experienced piece in the defensive line rotation.
Jackson’s agreement with the Browns is a one-year deal for $4.5 million. DC Joe Woods was the DB coach with the Broncos in 2015 when Jackson got his first chance as a starter in that Super Bowl winning year.
An interesting aspect of Malik Jackson is that he has already been paid because his full salary of $3.75 million is fully guaranteed. He comes to Cleveland well-seasoned at a position that remains a huge question mark. Why would the Browns pay him just to cut him?
6’-2”, 299 pounds
NFL starts: 24
NFL games: 81
Square is a seasoned veteran having been in the league since 2013 when he was an undrafted free agent out of Alabama where he won three National Championships.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed him, then cut him. The Kansas City Chiefs claimed him two days later and then cut him two months later. He ended up with the Chargers in San Diego and made the move with them to Los Angeles. Prior to the 2016 season, he was suspended for the first four games to which he ended up on the reserve/suspended list.
The following spring, the Chargers offered him an extension of his one-year deal as he had emerged as a valuable run-stopper and was seen as part of their defensive line rotation. Square appeared in 11 games in 2016 and had 31 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, four QB hits with 10 pressures. He started the final seven games.
In 2017, he started zero games but played in all 16 contests. His stats regressed, highlighted by zero sacks and just one QB hit. The following season he showed improvement, but not enough for Los Angeles to keep him and he entered the free agent market.
His career stats include 120 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, 17 QB hits, 11 tackles for loss, zero forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and nine batted balls. Square has been durable the past four years as he has not missed a game during this time period. However, he will have a long haul in training camp this year to prove that on the wrong side of 30 he can string together at least one highly-productive season.
6’-1”, 300 pounds
NFL starts: 0
NFL games: 0
Even in high school, Togiai was impressive. For his efforts that year, he was named the Gatorade Football Player-of-the-Year for the State of Idaho. Then he accepted an invitation to play in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
He had several D-1 offers, but once he visited Ohio State, his mind was made up of where to spend his college career. In his freshman year at OSU, he arrived as a man-child and actually played in 12 games and netted 10 tackles. He started the next two seasons and had 39 total tackles with three sacks. Last year he was named Second Team All-Big 10. Unfortunately, he was forced to miss the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship because of protocols involving COVID-19.
He is a quick, explosive interior lineman who plays like a strong 3-technique tackle. Works his hands throughout the play, jolts blockers with a violent punch, and knocks them back off the ball.
Togiai represents where the Browns wish to grow into for the long-term. He is not only young, but is a high-character guy who had productive college seasons.
The Wild Cards
Oddly enough, the ones who could provide the most depth and potential to become exceptional starters in the NFL are the two with the most issues.
6’-4”, 303 pounds
NFL starts: 0
NFL games: 0
Wilson was projected not only to be selected in the first-round of the NFL draft prior to the 2020 season, but as a Top-10 athlete. While at Florida State, he had 19 starts and played in 39 games.
Wilson is a Texan. And Texans know a thing or two about football.
He played for Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas as the youngest of four children. His older brother Jonathan is handicapped, so Wilson had to learn patience. struggles and the never-ending ability to stay the course despite obstacles. Wilson is very close to his mother Syble Ned.
Wilson was a standout athlete and an award-winning poet. By the time his senior season rolled around, he was rated a five-star recruit. During his high school career he racked up 71 tackles for loss and 42 sacks. No, that is not a misprint.
There was a laundry list of colleges who wanted him to play at their school including LSU, Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few.
He claims he chose Florida State because of head coach Jimbo Fisher, but word is out that during his official visit they served him a recipe of honey fried chicken which is only served after a win and to FSU coaches, players, support staff and their families. But Fisher has made it a standard for incoming recruits.
“The best meal I had by far was when I was at Florida State,” Wilson said “They had this thing called ‘honey fried chicken.’ I was like, ‘that sounds kinda suspect,’ so you know I got like one piece. I bit into that one piece of chicken and went and grabbed the pan and put it on the table. We killed that whole pan of honey fried chicken. That’s probably the best chicken I’ve ever had in my life.”
The recipe has grabbed fame as the tool needed to snare the highly-recruited Wilson who was elected captain two seasons. He had a solid career with 42 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss his sophomore year. In his junior campaign, he had 44 tackles with five sacks and showed consistency as a run stopper who could also apply pressure to the pocket.
At this point, Wilson was projected to be a second or third-round pick coming out of his junior year, but decided to remain in school. Mel Kiper projected Wilson as Top-10 material.
Going back to Florida State for his senior season was a mistake. His numbers were down before suffering a season-ending leg injury that netted only six-games in which he had only 17 tackles and one sack. The lack of production his final year took every NFL club by surprise, and the end result was him not being drafted at all.
But after the draft had concluded, it was a dogfight among several NFL teams to sign Wilson. According to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, Wilson was inked to an unusually huge rookie free-agent deal that included a $30,000 signing bonus plus $162,000 in guaranteed base salary. In the end, Cleveland was the victor.
For being undrafted, those numbers are gigantic and a rarity. Now, we will see if he is first-round material or undrafted fluff.
6’-6”, 295 pounds
NFL starts: 0
NFL games: 0
McDowell is best known for his “I need your supervisor” routine where he was instructed 43 times to do a certain task by law enforcement and failed to perform even one. When his signing with Cleveland was announced, it was a collective, “Wait, what?”
When football coaches tell a player what to do, it is considered an order. When a cop gives instruction, it is a command. There is a huge difference.
Coming out of Michigan State, McDowell was seen as a demon with physical gifts and tools that possessed huge athleticism. Numerous draft experts had placed McDowell in the first-round as he was the Number 2 defensive tackle prospect as ranked by Sports Illustrated. He was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the second-round with the 35th overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft and was instantly penciled in as the starting DT.
That would have to wait. In fact, everybody is still waiting.
A five-star recruit coming out of high school, McDowell matched up well with opposing offensive linemen and often was double-teamed usually holding a can of whup ass. In college, he was an exceptional pass rusher coming from the inside. His hurries stats were his best feature which meant he was getting close to the quarterback for most of each game. He had 7.5 sacks, 88 total tackles and 24.5 tackles for loss while playing for Sparty. His frame suggests playing on the outside, but was used primarily as a tackle instead.
After being drafted by Seattle, that demon part mentioned earlier kicked in. But for the wrong reasons.
He signed a four-year deal for $6.95 million with a signing bonus of $3.19 million. Two weeks prior to his rookie training camp, one of the toys he purchased with his signing bonus was an ATV which he wrecked to which he suffered a concussion and facial injuries. He was subsequently placed on the reserve/did not report list.
Seattle began a long journey with McDowell from this point on. They issued statements with words such as “long-term relationships” and “the best interests of Malik.”
McDowell entered the NFL as a beef-moving, penetrating defensive lineman. He was expected to play a role in the Seahawks’ deep D-line rotation as a first-year player. Now, it was questioned whether he would play at all his rookie year.
He then was placed on the non-football injury list on August 3 because of lingering effects from the accident. Six weeks later, he was arrested for driving under the influence and was sentenced to 12 months of probation. In December while still on probation, came the infamous snowy video where McDowell had zero respect for the law and made a fool out of himself as a man-child taking on Oompa Loompas with tasers.
With that incident, he was charged with assault, resisting arrest, speeding, running a red light, and operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated after being instructed 43 times to comply while stopped at a convenience store. Instead, he fought with police who now wear “I need your supervisor” t-shirts under their bulletproof vests.
If there are special cards given out to professional athletes which can be redeemed for special treatment with the law, McDowell was definitely absent on that day. The end result of that knucklehead decision plus separate charges of receiving and concealing stolen goods ( a $74,000 Ford Raptor pickup) was a prison sentence of 11 months.
The Seahawks waived McDowell on March 2, 2019 and then asked for the signing bonus back. When those efforts failed, in May, Seattle filed a lawsuit against McDowell seeking repayment of almost $800,000 in forfeited signing bonus funds; although that franchise originally attempted to get back the entire $3.19 million. Under the CBA stipulations, Seattle was only allowed to attempt to go after McDowell’s 2017 and 2018 portions of the signing bonus, and had no grounds to go after the 2019 and 2020 allocations.
And now, he is a Cleveland Brown. After being drafted in 2017, he has yet to play in an NFL game. In fact he has yet to participate in an actual NFL practice, or participate in off-season conditioning sessions all these many years.
Here is Berry’s answer after being asked about the McDowell free agent signing:
“We are certainly aware of Malik’s past, as we have done extensive work on him for the last two months. He is accountable for his actions and has had to live with the consequences for decisions earlier in his life. We believe Malik is in a good place - personally and medically. He has taken the necessary steps to get on a healthy path, and has learned from his experiences. Malik understands the expectations we have of him as he attempts to make our football team. He is committed to taking advantage of the support network in place to become the best version of himself—both on and off the field—and we will support him as he attempts to make his return to football.”
According to our friends over at OverTheCap.com, McDowell signed a one-year deal with the Browns for $660,000 with zero money guaranteed and zero signing bonus. He is the fourth-lowest paid player on the squad.
This year, McDowell could be this volcano ready to explode on the football field, or this volcano ready to explode at your local convenience store.
The new direction
Analytics says to not pay premium salaries to certain positions – such as defensive tackle. Either sign a seasoned veteran to a one-year deal for minimal money, or bring in young guys who are drafted in mid-to-late rounds (or even undrafted), and then pay those guys to fight over who will start in actual games.
Pay the pass rushing defensive ends is the standard, but not the interior guys.
And so far, that theory is seen in black-and-white: Jordan Elliott third-round ($1.147 million annually), Tommy Togiai fifth-round ($660,000), in addition to undrafted Marvin Wilson who signed for $192,000. Plus, every veteran defensive tackle is currently signed on one-year deals: Malik Jackson $3.75M, Andrew Billings $3.5M, Damion Square $1.75M, Sheldon Day $990,000 and Malik McDowell $660,000.
What will be the end result with this group? Hard to say. But one thing we know for certain: it will be a fight for the four positions the Browns ultimately choose.
How do you view the DT position this year since both starters from 2020 are gone?
This poll is closed
In a very good place as is: I like it
Lots of young guys which means inexperience, but ready for growth: I like it
Too many young guys! Help!: Not a fan
Too many old or non-productive guys: Not a fan