The Cleveland Browns top priority this offseason should be the defensive tackle group.
Jordan Elliott was supposed to be the main man once he got an increase in snaps. That was supposed to be in 2021, but Malik McDowell took over the starting nod along with Malik Jackson. In 2022, Elliott was finally the starter.
Taven Bryan was brought in as a former first-round draft pick who did not live up to expectations with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He signed with Cleveland in free agency last year and played well at times and was invisible for the remainder of his snaps.
Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai just gets pushed aside when he plays. Perhaps an off-season in the weight room will solve most of his issues. The best DT last year ended up being the one who the franchise had the most issues with early on, and did not play initially: Perrion Winfrey. The rookie finally settled down and played well in the second half of the season. Fellow rookie Roderick Perry was on the practice squad.
So it is a given that some of these players will be in training camp, while others will find employment elsewhere. And in the meantime, is it a given that in free agency on March 15 that the Browns will bring in a new starter for this group? Perhaps one or two new guys in the April NFL college draft? Both of these scenarios seem logical and also probable.
Then there is the Jim Schwartz premise of our new DC. He takes two defensive linemen and makes game-changers out of them. Home wreckers. Offensive backfield dwellers. Everywhere that Schwartz has been a head coach or a defensive coordinator, this is one of the hallmarks of his defense. Take two guys and make them household names.
We know Myles Garrett will be one of these guys, but who should be his devastation mate? Is somebody on the roster, or a big-name free agent? Perhaps a DT in Round 2 with Cleveland’s first pick in this year’s draft?
But, what type of DT does Schwartz like? Quick? Beefy? Bull rusher? Weight room junkie? Run stopper or pass rusher? Gap dweller or a gap shooter?
This will take some research. In fact, a lot of research.
Schwartz is 56 years old. He was a linebacker at Georgetown University and played all four years where he was named captain and Academic All-American. That is where his playing days ended. He then was a college coach before getting an assistant job for Bill Belichick when he was head coach of the Browns from 1993-1995. From 2001-2022, he was head coach of the Detroit Lions, or as the DC for Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Buffalo.
This means research on what Schwartz likes in his defensive tackles will take a while. Good thing for us, this has already been accomplished.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of mock drafts having the Browns select massive nose tackles that led me to wonder does Jim Schwartz’s system really utilize these huge players?” said J.J. Baines, a Browns fan from Youngstown, Ohio. “I had a co-worker ask me about a mock draft that had us drafting Mazi Smith who is 6’-3” and 337 pounds. That got me thinking that didn’t quite sound right based on what I remember Schwartz using in Philly and Detroit.”
On the surface, taking a player like Smith should be exactly what Cleveland’s defense will need going forward. After all, if just about every team the Browns faced in 2022 ran all over them, especially up the middle. Doesn’t it make sense to employ guys who are north of 300 pounds who would be difficult to move?
Baines had a similar curiosity. So, he did the research. Not on former Browns’ defenses, but on former Jim Schwartz’s defensive fronts.
“I knew that drafting bigger guys goes against GM Andrew Berry’s draft tendencies,” Baines explained. “I then went through all 19 years of when Schwartz was a DC or head coach and took a look at the primary starters at the position for his teams.”
Research can be fun, but when you spit out “19 years” it can also become a huge chore. And in Baines’ case, it didn’t seem like it was going to pay very well.
Break down the findings
With this in mind, let’s examine what Baines discovered.
Schwartz started his coaching career at the college level after hanging up his cleats as an Academic All-American linebacker at Georgetown. His first NFL gig was with Cleveland under head coach Bill Belichick in 1993. As far as DC jobs, his first was with the Tennessee Titans from 2001-2008, then head coach of the Detroit Lions from 2009-2013, Buffalo Bills DC in 2014, then finally the DC of the Philadelphia Eagles from 2016-2020.
Here are the defensive tackles Schwartz used based on Baines’ research:
Tennessee Titans 2001-2008
2001: Jason Fisk 6’-3’, 295 pounds, Josh Evans 6’-3”, 280 pounds
2002: John Thorton 6’-3”, 297 pounds, Henry Ford 6’-3”, 295 pounds
2003: Albert Haynesworth 6’-6”, 335 pounds, Robaire Smith 6’-5”, 310 pounds
2004: Haynesworth, Kevin Carter 6’-6”, 305 pounds
2005: Haynesworth, Randy Starks 6’-4”, 305 pounds
2006: Haynesworth, Starks/Smith
2007: Haynesworth, Tony Brown 6’-3”, 283 pounds
2008: Haynesworth, Brown
As you can see, Schwartz used six (of eight) DTs who were 295 pounds or greater. In the case of Haynesworth, make that much greater. Another odd aspect is that usually most defensive tackles are not tall as they want to be able to get underneath their offensive line counterparts. But with the Titans, every single one is 6’-3” or taller.
Therefore, with the defense that Schwartz built with Tennessee, the research shows that he used big bodies who are taller than the average DT. Apparently, this is what to expect with Cleveland’s defense this upcoming season, correct?
Now, let’s move on to Schwartz’s next destinations and see what Baines’ research displays:
Detroit Lions 2009-2013
2009: Grady Jackson 6’-2”, 345 pounds, Samie Lee Hill 6’-4”, 331 pounds
2010: Ndamukong Suh 6’-4”, 314 pounds, Corey Williams 6’-4”, 320 pounds
2011: Suh, Williams
2012: Suh, Williams/Nick Fairley 6’-4”, 291 pounds
2013: Suh, Fairley
Buffalo Bills 2014
2014: Kyle Williams 6’-1”, 303 pounds, Marcell Dareus 6’-3”, 331 pounds
With the Detroit and Buffalo defense, the data is basically the same as with the Titans with beefy, taller average DT’s with the exception of Williams.
Philadelphia Eagles 2016-2020
2016: Fletcher Cox 6’-4”, 310 pounds, Bennie Logan 6’-2”, 315 pounds
2017: Cox, Timmy Jernigan 6’-2”, 295 pounds
2018: Cox, Haloti Ngata 6’-4”, 340 pounds - Jernigan Hurt
2019: Cox, Jernigan
2020: Cox, Javon Hargrave 6’-2”, 305 pounds
“I was pretty surprised how many sub-300 pound players Schwartz has used over the years,” accessed Baines. “Particularly how many sub-290 pound players he has used. Seems like he is not afraid of traditionally undersized players.”
This brings us to the upcoming season. The Browns may be looking to overhaul the DT room. Jordan Elliott has been a disappointment with a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of a paltry 40.4 and ranked 47th in tackles among all defensive tackles in the league. 32 teams times two DTs per starting unit equals 64 guys, so he was in the lower third as far as production. His best game was against Houston where he garnered a 66.4 PFF grade.
Tommy Togiai just isn’t a strong enough man. He is constantly being moved out of his gap. That is evidenced by a pitiful 37.3 PFF grade for 2022. Taven Bryan had many good games and then was invisible in others. His PFF grade was 60.0 with just four sacks for the year. Winfrey’s grade was mainly for the second half of the year and comes in at 41.6.
So what does this say? If Cleveland were to simply clean house and start over, they can’t do much worse. Winfrey is young and appears on the rise to be a very good player. Bryan could be retained, or released as his numbers are just sub-par.
That means the Browns will need to bring in some new guys either in free agency or the draft. But who? Which players would fit Schwartz’s scheme? Maybe similar guys based on Baines’ research?
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“The best in free agency I see are ex-Eagle/Lions Fletcher Cox, Ndamukong Suh, and Javon Hargrave with their familiarity,” Baines suggested. “I’d also think Dre’Mont Jones, Sheldon Rankins, Khalen Saunders, and Teair Tart all might hold some appeal as gap-shooting players. Greg Gaines and Dalvin Tomlinson might make some sense as gap-plugging players.”
And what does all of Baines’ research ultimately tell us?
“My main takeaways here is outside of Haynesworth, the big 330-pound plus players are all one-and-done players for Schwartz,” Baines quipped. “Unless something changes I don’t expect to see us spending major draft capital on guys like Smith and Siaki Ika.”
In this year’s draft, the Browns should have plenty of young talent available in most rounds.
Cleveland’s first selection is not until Round 2 with the #43 pick. Here are the prospects available in each round:
Round 2 #43: Mazi Smith (6’-3, 326 pounds) - Michigan, Siaki Ika (6’-4”, 358 pounds) - Baylor, Keeanu Benton (6’-4”, 315 pounds) – Wisconsin
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Round 3 #99: Gervon Dexter (6’-5”, 318 pounds) – Florida, Colby Wooden (6’-5”, 284 pounds) - Auburn, Calijah Kancey (6’-0”, 275 pounds) – Pittsburgh, Karl Brooks (6’-4”, 295 pounds) - Bowling Green
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Round 4 # 111: Byron Young (6’-3, 245 pounds) - Alabama
Round 4 # 130: Keondre Coburn (6’-2, 344 pounds) - Texas
Round 5 # 141: D.J. Dale (6’-3”, 300 pounds) - Alabama
Round 5 # 143: Jayson Ademilola (6’-3”, 276 pounds) - Notre Dame
Round 6 # 189: Zacch Pickens (6’-4”, 305 pounds) - South Carolina
Round 7 # 231: Jonah Tavai (6’-3”, 290 pounds) - Texas
“This draft is really strong when it comes to 330-plus pound nose tackle types,” said Baines. “If we choose to make a philosophy switch we’d have no shortage of massive players to choose from.”
Of course, as we all know, selecting players in the NFL draft is in the eye of the beholder. How many times has a guy been ranked mid-second round only to be taken in the 20s in Round 1? All it takes is one GM, one head coach, one regional scout, and sometimes even one owner to fall in love with a prospect and apprehend him a round before he was rated.
“I’ve seen a ton of Mazi Smith, Siaki Ika, Calijah Kancey, and Keanu Burton in mock drafts that have been ranked higher than we are picking,” informed Baines. “The Browns need a player to fit the mold of undersized gap-shooting players. I am partial to Brooks and Tavai for this job. It will come down to players who could potentially fill the role Schwartz asked Starks, Brown, and Fairley to fill in the past.”
One thing is a certainty: Schwartz will need guys who could fill the role gap sound run stuffers in his defensive scheme. Winfrey is probably one of these athletes. That leaves one more to surface. Is that player already on the roster, or will he be signed in free agency or drafted?
Whoever it is, they will have to resemble DTs that Coach Schwartz has had serve him in the past as versatile interior defensive linemen.