Last year, the middle of the Browns defense was a roller coaster. While playing the 4-2-5 may be a good defensive scheme for an ultra passing club, for a team that can gash with a good runner this defense has its issues.
For one, there isn’t a true middle linebacker but rather two outside linebackers lined up in the middle-to-outside gaps. A savvy defensive coordinator can read this and design inside runs which can shield both backers, and if the offensive line can do its job at the line of scrimmage before you know it the running back has skipped two levels and is now out in the open.
So, the key here is for the inside of the defensive line to not allow themselves to be pushed aside but remain in their gaps and make plays.
And in the first half of the year, the Browns defensive front kept their opponents in check with the run game with yardage totals of 73, 82,46, 65 and 41. Then the 5-4-0 New England Patriots ripped off 184 yards on the ground highlighted by Rhamondre Stevenson who became the year’s first 100-yard rusher against Cleveland’s defense. The following week it was the 0-8-1 Detroit Lions who banged off 168 yards with their new star runner D’Andre Swift (136 yards).
For the remainder of the year, teams ran on the Browns such as Baltimore twice (148 and 118 yards), Las Vegas (98), Green Bay (109), Pittsburgh (190) and Cincinnati (79).
The plan is for the interior of the defensive line to close those running lanes. This also protects the linebackers from having a guard or tackle sneak into the second level and shield guys from making plays.
With this mind, Browns GM Andrew Berry inked DT Taven Bryan as the first player signed this year in free agency.
Ok, so who is he? Why was Berry’s initial focus this year on a defensive tackle?
Bryan (6’-5, 295 pounds) was a big kid growing up in the State of Wyoming in Casper. This is wide-open country full of hay fields, horses, plenty of cattle and dirt roads. Unless you are near somebody’s house, the sky is pitch dark.
Here, camo is an actual color.
His father Brandy (yes, they know it is a girl’s name) owned a construction business with a large metal building, office and workshop located on the family property. Every day before school, Bryan would go out into the shop and clean tools, sweep and load trucks for the day. After school, Bryan would be situated at some job site helping framing walls, breaking concrete or site clean-up.
Bryan was known for his jumping skills. In Wyoming, you have to invent things to do, so Bryan would stand next to his father’s red and white Dodge Cummins truck and then jump straight up flatfooted onto the side rails. Beats cow tipping. By the way, his dad was a former Navy SEAL and joined the Casper Fire Department.
Part of the business building became a gym with benches, a squat rack and homemade dumbbells.
While other boys played sports during their younger years, Bryan worked. When he finally made it to high school, he was given a choice: to play sports or work. He chose wrestling, track and football.
At this point he was 6’-4” and built like a truck tipping the scales at 260. In track he threw the shot put and discus, but with his speed he also ran the 100-meter sprint. His junior year he was the State 4A champion in the discus.
He played football for Natrona County High School but got a late start with never playing at any level before. There he ran a 4.8 in the 40 and could squat 495 pounds. He played offensive tackle and was named All-State.
He had great feet and body quickness and excelled in run blocking whereas was average with his pass protection. 247Sports.com ranked him #88 in the nation.
Even as a high school football player, he did not watch football on TV but worked instead. He didn’t have a favorite player in the college ranks nor the NFL. Bryan wasn’t even sure what 40 times were fast and which weren’t.
The offers to Bryan began to trickle in from Nebraska, Colorado, Florida, Oregon, Tenness, Colorado State, Washington and Oklahoma. Each of these schools recruited him as an offensive tackle.
Bryan, however, wanted to play defense—even though he had seen limited time on that side of the ball in high school. He wanted a chance to generate contact rather than prevent it. Florida was one of the few major programs allowing him to make that move.
In June of 2013, he committed to Florida.
At Florida, he played sparingly in his freshman and sophomore years after switching over to the defensive line. Bryan became the full time starter in 2017. His junior numbers include 37 total tackles, four sacks, six tackles for loss with 10 starts and was named Second Team All-SEC. His career stats were just 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
At Florida, he was one of the fastest defensive linemen in the SEC. He squatted 600 pounds.
“This guy is arguably the best athlete on our football team. I’m sure many of the players would tell you the same thing,” explained Florida head coach Jim McElwain on Bleacher Report. “I do know that when that big metal bar starts to bend a bit, that there’s a lot of weight on there.”
Bryan was definitely an outsider, but that didn’t phase him. He wore pajamas and flip-flops to team meetings. He wasn’t obsessed with his phone, and to this day, he rarely makes calls. He finally got involved with social media but don’t expect for him to reply.
His Twitter handle is @tavenbryan93 while his Twitch is @ tavenb. Florida fans gave him his nickname “Wyoming Wildman”, which by the way he owns a trademark for.
But despite the physical tools and high expectations, Bryan had only accumulated only 27 tackles entering his redshirt junior season, plus 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Bryan left after his junior year and applied for the draft.
His Combine numbers include a 78.875” wingspan, 35” vertical leap, 30 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press and 119” in the broad jump. Bryan physically tested off the charts with a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 9.91.
“I am a very aggressive D-lineman. I try to get my hands on some people. I think that plays for a benefit for me and a downfall,” said Bryan during an interview at the Combine. “When I know I am not supposed to be extending so much sometimes I still do it. I like to better moderate my aggressiveness a bit more.”
Bryan’s late development in playing high school football growing up Wyoming plus as an offensive lineman initially showed him not demonstrating good instincts. He was inconsistent while lacking feel and pass-rushing moves. Bryan’s moves in the pass rush was that he was too dependent on brute power or his speed.
But when he goes back to Wyoming, his father puts him back to work framing or running the tractor baling hay.
First round star, or first round bust?
Bryan was taken in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 29th pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The word when he was taken by the Jags was that he was the second coming of J.J. Watt. That was the explanation. But to Jaguars’ fans, that was the expectations. He was projected to be mid-second round pick so it was a surprise when Jacksonville took him late in the first round.
Bryan signed a four-year deal worth $10.2 million with a $5.5 million signing bonus.
The flip side is that a lot of Jaguars fans were happy to see Bryan go. On the first day of training camp in 2021, he failed a physical. This came as he was entering the final year of his contract and was a possible final roster cut.
There were claims that he took plays off, and basically didn’t care anymore. Which may have more to do with being out of shape than no longer have the skill to stay on the field.
Of course, Bryan was taken two slots in the draft before the Baltimore Ravens selected QB Lamar Jackson at a time when their franchise was headed by Blake Bortles.
And his first three seasons have been unimpressive enough that he is far from a lock to make the final 53-man roster. It’s not his physical skills that are the problem, but rather his inconsistency and lack of big plays.
And it sounds like his inner drive needs work, too.
The knock on Bryan was the lack of production plus the lack of starts for a former first round pick. The Jags declined his fifth-year option. By the conclusion of the 2022 season, he seemed to be on the butcher block ready to be cut.
His defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi said at the time on ESPN:
“I hope Taven actually gets a sense of urgency from myself and us every day when he wakes up. He was an individual here weeks before our starting date [in the spring]. Taven is a dangerous combination of speed and power. He has [an] elite skill set and talent, we just have to channel that and focus that where we need to help us most. If we do that, he can make a major impact. The guy’s got extreme explosive attributes to him from an athletic standpoint. What we need to do is get him focused, confident of where he needs to align, assign and execute. If we can put that together, he can be a great contributor this season.”
All Jacksonville fans saw was complete disappointment for a guy drafted so high. Strength is one of Bryan’s features, but lacks coordination. Experts have noted that he has the raw potential, but lacks the tools to use correctly.
When the Jaguars drafted Bryan, it came at a time when the defense needed a high-motor production guy who could be disruptive in the offensive backfield because of his quickness and strength. The end result became a player who has been strictly a rotational player who has had great games and been invisible in others. Bryan is very durable and hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, but has just 17 starts.
His four-year totals while with Jacksonville include 86 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 25 QB hits, and 17 starts for 63 games played.
Last year, he had zero starts as he lost his job to undrafted free agent Doug Costin. He was ranked 63rd in the league in sacks (2) and 108th in solo tackles (13) with an overall defensive grade from Pro Football Focus of 56.4.
To the Browns
When Bryan signed with Cleveland, the interior defensive line only had Jordan Elliott and Tommy Togiai under contract.
What DC Joe Woods envisions is to get Bryan to meet and exceed his expectations. He has the position flexibility and is still a young man at just age 26. But by signing a one-year prove it deal worth up to $5 million, the deal is a low-risk high-reward proposition for Cleveland’s defense.
There is little doubt Bryan has to tools but has not lived up to those J.J. Watt expectations. Basically, this is a gamble on first round talent and then see if the coaching staff can grind out a good player out of them.
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The defensive tackle rotation at this point is Elliott, Togiai, Bryan, veteran Sheldon Day, 2022 fourth round pick Perrion Winfrey (Oklahoma), plus undrafted free agents Glen Logan (LSU) and Roderick Perry II (Illinois).
Bryan has strength at the point of attack and possess a thick build to hold his ground and defend the run. His technique needs refinement, but the physical tools are there for him to be a good run defender in the NFL. He does posses an excellent first step off the snap.
He has been more productive with the pass rush more so than stopping the run, having generated 34 pressures and 5.5 sacks in 63 games over his career. That is likely a big aspect of what the Browns hope he can do for them, coming in as a rotational option to attack the quarterback in obvious passing situations.
Bryan’s game is getting off the ball quickly and into the offensive backfield. He must develop other aspects of his game such as stopping the run, dealing with double-teams and reading schemes. It is up to Coach Kiffin to show him what he is actually capable of.
He should be a good fit with the interior of this Browns defense with his speed, athletic skill set and upper body strength. What will in all likely transpire is for Bryan to be involved in the defensive line rotation which will keep him fresh so that he can use his aggression to his advantage.