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The worst position group on the Browns? Try defensive tackle

Lack of veteran presence is a major issue

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals
Sheldon Day
Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The best way to give away games is to allow the other team to run against you at will. Especially up the middle.

Last year, this happened to this Cleveland defense numerous times. 184 yards against New England. Baltimore had 148 yards followed by 118. Arizona had 144. And who could forget Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris as the Steelers compiled 115 yards in Week 8 and then with a playoff berth on the line for the Browns, Harris busted out for 188 of the 190 total rushing yards.

Part of the problem is the 4-2-5 defense that DC Joe Woods will usually implement because it takes out a valued run stopper at middle linebacker and instead inserts another defensive back - usually another safety. The two linebackers that remain are positioned in gaps instead of having center responsibility which will open run lanes.

The other issue with a porous middle is the players themselves.

Playoff teams are stout against the run in their interior. The Browns this year need to get better at stopping the run and right now have a lot of uncertainty with the interior defensive line.

This has been ongoing for three seasons now. In 2020 it was Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi who were released and not re-signed, respectively. Last year, the two Malik’s, McDowell and the veteran Jackson, manned the most snaps. Neither was asked to return based on Jackson’s overall play and McDowell getting arrested once again.

So once again it is a clean-slate for the defensive tackle position and once again two new starters will line up on opening day.

Having several good players is essential because Woods likes to rotate his defensive linemen. This means despite not being a starter, the remainder of this group will get a good number of snaps during the year.

GM Andrew Berry did several things to address this group.

Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout
Taven Bryan
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

First, he inked Taven Bryan from Jacksonville in free agency. He drafted Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey in the fourth round and then signed two promising rookie free agents in Roderick Perry, II from Illinois and LSU’s Glen Logan.

Holdover Sheldon Day was re-signed in April. The only other DT’s on the roster are Jordan Elliott and Tommy Togiai, who was a rookie last year.

Bryan (6’-5”, 295 pounds) has been in the league four years. His Pro Football Focus (PFF) rating last year was 56.4 which is just average for a guy taken in Round 1. Day has played seven seasons, although he has had a journeyman career having played with four clubs.

What is missing from this group? Veteran experience - and leadership.

Elliott (6’-4”, 302 pounds) is the most perplexing of this group. Drafted in the third round in 2020, last year he was expected to come forward and become the dominating player he was in college at Missouri where he was named First Team All-SEC with 68 tackles and 5.5 sacks his final year and was considered a defensive force. Instead, he was beat out of the job by McDowell, who would have a decent season.

Elliott’s rookie year was just average and last season his defensive snaps dwindled as the season rolled along instead of increasing. Needless to say, his time in Cleveland has been sub-par to date. He is not a great athlete nor can he overpower his opponent. Where he needs to win is to become flat-out a better player.

Bryan is one of those players who you asked, “Whatever happened to....?”

He 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. The reality is that Bryan never panned out or earned his paycheck.

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. 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.

The flip side is that a lot of Jaguars fans were happy to see Bryan go. And now he is a Cleveland Brown looking for a fresh start. 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.

NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Giants at Browns
Tommy Togiai (93)
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There are many who believe that Togiai (6’-2”, 296 pounds) can make a considerable leap into his second year. In his rookie campaign through the first nine games he was inactive. Finally in Week 10 against New England he was inserted and was able to net two tackles on 22 defensive snaps with an additional three plays on special teams. In Week 17, he played 63% of all defensive snaps.

One guy who hasn’t been gotten much attention is Day (6’-1”, 285 pounds). In the last five games of the year, Day had more playing time than either of the starters Jackson (41.6) and McDowell (36.6) plus Elliott (41.0) and Togiai (31.0). During this time Day played on 45.6% of all defensive snaps and had 14 tackles, two batted passes and half a sack.

Could Day be a Week 1 starter and the veteran leader this unit is searching for? His PFF rating last year topped all defensive tackles.

Rookie help

On most scouting websites, Perrion Winfrey (6’-4”, 292 pounds) had a late second round grade on him. Now that the fourth round pick has been signed and is in camp, expect to see great things from this defensive behemoth. He had 15.5 sacks and played 870 defensive snaps in college so his durability is a huge plus.

Cleveland Browns OTAs
Perrion Winfrey
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Winfrey has an always-on motor with good power. Run support is his best attribute and the reason he was drafted. A hard worker who never takes plays off, he was a standout at the Senior Bowl this year. Does not miss many tackles. The knock on him is he doesn’t always shed blocks quickly enough.

Winfrey can become a key element to this group. Each year in college he improved and is a run-stopping demon with terrific athletic ability.

Glen Logan (6’-3”, 298 pounds) is another who was supposed to be one of the better defensive tackles in the draft with a fifth round grade. Quality depth is his calling card. The coaching staff is going to love this kid.

He plays with leverage at the point of attack and has surprisingly good quickness. Can bull rush, but overall a hustle player. Strong hands. Negatives are he plays too high at times and misses tackles when he doesn’t square up.

Roderick Perry (6’-1”, 304 pounds) is a big-bodied rusher with great upper body strength. He plays leverage well and will recover from blocks. Good with hustle and can occupy multiple blockers. He does lack closing speed and is a bit inconsistent with that first step and can be pushed out of traffic lanes using his body weight against him.

Additional resources?

Glad you asked.

Sheldon Richardson is still out there. When he was a Brown he played well and was a stout run defender. The problem was, he was signed before the analytics group moved in. And analytics say to not overpay defensive tackles. Richardson was about to make $12 million which is about four times too much, so they let him go.

But now, his current salary is in line with what Cleveland has to offer. He signed a one-year deal last season with Minnesota for $3.6 million. His PFF ranking was a decent 62.1.

Richardson (6’-3”, 290 pounds) was one of the notable veteran defensive tackles on the market this year and was ranked as the 31st best free agent available. If signed he could make an immediate impact as a starter once again. Richardson has played at least 600 defensive snaps and recorded a PFF grade of at least 62.0 in every season since joining the league in 2013. PFF has him as the eighth-most valuable interior defender in the league across those years.

His final year in Cleveland he graded out at 68.7 including 67.7 against the run. At 31 years old he would provide leadership.

One player that Browns fans have been clamoring for is Ndamukong Suh (6’-4”, 313 pounds). The 12-year veteran has seen and done it all in his career. Five Pro Bowls, Super Bowl champion, Three Time First Team All-Pro, NFL All-Rookie Team, NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2010), plus named to the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.

New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ndamukong Suh
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

If the 35-year old Suh is anything, he is durable. He has played in 191 out of 191 games and had six sacks in each of his last two seasons. His stats last year with Tampa Bay include 17 starts, 27 total tackles, one fumble recovery, 29 pressures, 13 knockdowns, 10 hurries, 13 QB hits and seven tackles for loss.

Think about it: Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Ndamukong Suh. All on the same defensive front.

Other notable free agent defensive tackles still available are former Brown Danny Shelton (age 28), Linval Joseph (33), Star Lotulelei (32) and six time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy (34).

Traditionally, the Browns keep four defensive ends and four defensive tackles. With signing Bryan, and Togiai a young guy plus the draft pick Winfrey, that’s three. It would seem it will come down to Elliott or Day for that final spot.

However, last year the coaching staff kept five DT’s: Jackson, Billings, Elliott, McDowell and the rookie Togiai. Could they this year as well? It will all depend on who blows up training camp the way McDowell impressed last year and secured one of the starting nods.

If the Browns stand pat and don’t bring in another defensive tackle, chew on this a bit.

This year’s run-stopping center starting core to the defense could be Taven Bryan, a former first round pick who underachieved and was subsequently run out of town, and Jordan Elliott, another disappointment who regressed from his rookie year to his second season.

And their backups would be Tommy Togiai, who barely played last year and is a second-year guy, and the rookie Perrion Winfrey. Or Sheldon Day who is on his fourth team.

The worst position group on the Browns? You decide.