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How does the Browns defense stack up in PFF’s rankings?

Change has come to Cleveland’s defense, but will it make a difference when it matters this fall?

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Cleveland Browns Offseason Workout Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns were a bit … erratic … on defense in 2022.

From blown coverages that almost cost the team a win in Week 1 and did cost it one in Week 2, to a run defense that made the likes of the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers look like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, it was a weekly adventure with defensive coordinator Joe Woods calling the shots.

General manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski decided enough was enough this offseason and made changes to the coaching staff and the roster. Out is Woods and two other defensive coaches, in is Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator along with three new defensive coaches.

New faces appear across the roster following a series of moves in free agency to sign defensive linemen Za’Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and safeties Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod.

All of the moves will not pan out, that’s just the way the NFL works, and the Browns do not have to be a Top 10 defense for the season to be successful (although it would be cool if there were), but the changes are strategic enough to provide some optimism that things will be different this year.

Schwartz and the coaching staff will continue the process of fixing the defense during training camp and the preseason, so in the meantime let’s take a look at how Pro Football Focus ranks Cleveland’s defensive talent heading into the 2023 season. (If you missed it, you can find how the offense ranked here.)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Defensive end Myles Garrett (No. 1)

Myles Garrett takes the top spot due to his consistent elite play. This past season was Garrett’s fifth straight season where he earned an 89.5-plus overall grade with double-digit sacks, keeping his pass rush win percentage above 22% in three of them.

Defensive end Za’Darius Smith (No. 17)

Smith has been a very productive pass-rusher since 2019, and he posted another strong year in 2022. Since 2019, he has had a 16.4% cumulative pass rush win percentage. Even at 30 years old and going on his third team in three years, he’s still an extremely capable veteran pass-rusher.

Takeaway: Just as selecting Nick Chubb as the game’s best running back was an easy choice, selecting Garrett as the game’s best edge rusher probably took all of three seconds. The addition of Smith and Okoronkwo to the defensive end rotation, along with the moves at defensive tackle, should set up Garrett for a career year, which is saying something given how good he has been in his first six seasons.

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (No. 18)

Tomlinson started his career as more of a run stuffer but has developed as a pass rusher over the past three years. His PFF run-defense grades have dipped every season since his rookie 82.7 mark, but he’s coming off a season where he set career highs in PFF pass-rush grade (77.6) and pressures (30).

Takeaway: While Tomlinson is the only Cleveland defensive tackle on the list, he is not the only player who will determine the position group’s fate. Berry took another swing at fixing what has been an ongoing concern by signing not only Tomlinson but also drafting Siaki Ika and bringing in a pair of lower-level free agents in Trysten Hill and Maurice Hurst. Schwartz will get creative with matchups as both Garrett and Smith have the ability to move inside as needed, so the defensive tackle position may be better than it appears at the moment.

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (No. 17)

Owusu-Koramoah has shown flashes of really good second-level play. In 2021, he was a solid run defender. This past season, he was even better in coverage. 2023 could be the year he really puts it all together.

Takeaway: JOK is clearly the best or at least the most-athletic linebacker on the roster, and the Browns are going to need him to step up his play (and stay healthy) this year as there are questions around every linebacker currently on the roster in what is the weakest position group on the defense. If the defensive tackle position is truly improved, however, the linebackers will have an easier time of it, which in turn should improve their results.

Cornerback Denzel Ward (No. 14)

Ward is coming off a subpar season for the Browns, but the defense as a whole collapsed and likely heavily contributed to that. Ward still had multiple elite games in 2022 and had shown a very high baseline of play before that year. With a rebuilt Browns defensive line in 2023, Ward might put himself back among the very best.

Cornerback Greg Newsome II (No. 27)

It felt like the entire Browns secondary fell apart last season, but Newsome quietly backed up an impressive rookie season with another good campaign. He has still yet to register an interception in the NFL but has 14 pass breakups over that time and allowed just 9.8 yards per reception in 2022.

Takeaway: Alongside defensive end, the cornerback room is the strongest position group on the defense with Ward, Newsome and Martin Emerson Jr., who did not make the Top 32 list but did previously receive a shoutout from PFF as the team’s “breakout candidate” for the 2023 season. As long as everyone stays relatively healthy, the cornerbacks are going to be a much-needed strength of the defense.

Philadelphia Eagles v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Safety Rodney McLeod (No 23)

McLeod has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, and his age-32 season was his best yet. In his lone year in Indianapolis, he put up an 85.3 coverage grade, a career-high and second only to Tyrann Mathieu among safeties. His league-leading 90.9 zone coverage grade figures to fit in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme as he attempts to improve a Cleveland secondary that struggled mightily in 2022.

Takeaway: While it is nice that McLeod made the list given that his signing in free agency has gone a bit under the radar, it is a bit disconcerting that neither Juan Thornhill nor Grant Delpit, the presumptive starters, did not. Delpit in particular needs to work on his coverage skills, but with Thornhill working as the roaming safety, Delpit will be utilized more in stopping the run, which is an area that improved on last season and where he is better, at least compared to his work against the pass.

Cleveland’s defense gave hope to opposing offenses and agita to fans during the 2022 season, but change is the keyword heading into this fall. The talent has been upgraded, as has the coaching staff, so there is a reasonable expectation that the communication breakdowns and poor performances of last season will remain in the past.