Last season, the Cleveland Browns had a defensive problem – they couldn’t stop the run. And that came from the inept personnel up the gut at defensive tackle.
GM Andrew Berry made it his mission to solve this. In free agency right out of the gate, he signed seasoned veteran DT Dalvin Tomlinson away from the Minnesota Vikings. He tendered Ben Stille and then within a span of five days after the Tomlinson signing Berry inked DT Maurice Hurst of the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals Trysten Hill. Later, Michael Dwumfour was signed who also played for the Niners last season and Shelby Harris was inked away from Seattle.
In the NFL draft, Berry selected Baylor DT Siaki Ika in Round 4, then released Stille and practice squad player Roderick Perry. In July, former fourth-round pick Perrion Winfrey was waived who had his second incident when he allegedly threatened a woman with a gun.
The Browns typically keep four defensive tackles. Holdovers from last year’s roster are Jordan Elliott and Tommy Togiai as Taven Bryan signed with the Indianapolis Colts in free agency.
Some experts believe that Cleveland will keep five defensive tackles this year because of the importance the position has in DC Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles exhibition game, the only DT that was inactive was Tomlinson.
Tomlinson and the rookie Ika are locks. That leaves just two vacancies for five players. Here is a review of three of the most likely candidates to take those two roster spots. For your convenience, each player’s Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade from last season is listed.
6’-4”, 302 pounds
Draft: 2020 Round 3 (Browns)
NFL games played/starts: 49/21
Career total tackles: 77
Career sacks: 2.5
2022 PFF grade: 40.4
Needless to say, every NFL club has to have production out of their first three picks for every draft class. Elliott was the 88th pick in the 2020 NFL draft. What has he shown so far?
He finally got his chance to start in 2022 and did not light up the scoreboard. Elliott had 36 total tackles which equate to about two a game. Yawn.
Elliott has the size the Browns covet with long arms. He finally got into the sack column last year with two and added five tackles for loss. As far as production, he hasn’t tilted any scales as of yet. Maybe DC Jim Schwartz can wake this guy up and make him run laps until he does something great in a game.
This would be Elliott’s contract year, but in June, the Browns restructured – not extended - his contract. With this one transaction, the coaching staff is basically stating that they still don’t have a starting three-tech defensive tackle in-house.
This admission that Elliott has underachieved can only lead to him being cut, or perhaps Schwartz can light that fire under him that Cleveland saw in his college days where he was First Team All-SEC and had 78 total tackles with 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss his final two years.
The restructure means Cleveland does not believe he is a starter, and may never become one. Along with Bryan, Elliott is one of the main reasons other teams were able to run up the gut at will last year.
His PFF grade is super low with a run defense grade of just 33.0. One media outlet suggested finding a trade partner and moving Elliott.
However, currently, Elliott and Tomlinson are the only defensive tackles on the roster with any proven game experience. This may be Elliott’s final chance to prove he can play at a high level and take control of a spot opposite Tomlinson.
Against the Eagles, Elliott did not register any stats.
Prior to the Hall of Fame Game, Elliott had been getting a lot of first-team reps at defensive tackle. In the actual game, he was pushed around quite a bit and had zero pass rush. Keep in mind that was against backups.
6’-3”, 310 pounds
Draft: 2019 Round 2 (Dallas Cowboys)
NFL games played/starts: 31/5
Career total tackles: 39
Career sacks: 1.5
2022 PFF grade: 62.8
There is a lot to like about Hill’s play. He has developmental written all over him, but should have starter inscribed in permanent ink instead being he was a second-round draft pick. The Cowboys spent three years trying to bring him along but he netted just five starts, one-half sack, and 27 total tackles.
There are areas of Hill’s career that seem to parallel that of Elliott. Taken in those valuable first three rounds, a position of need, several years without solidifying a starting-caliber status, and running out of time to acquire that elusive second big contract.
Hill has accumulated seven tackles for loss and 13 QB hits for his efforts. He also has the ability to rush the passer from the A gap. He can put pressure on the offensive backfield.
And Hill comes cheap. His earnings of $452,500 is a salary cap bonus. He is also still a young man at just age 25.
Hill fits into a category that brings in a young defensive lineman who hasn’t yet blossomed but the Browns think may become that pearl that just needs some grooming and tutelage in order to help the defense’s weakest position.
Against the Eagles, Hill had one tackle.
He did have a knee injury last season while playing for the Arizona Cardinals. For his career, Hill has 39 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, 13 QB hits, and seven tackles for loss.
Maurice Hurst, Jr.
6’-2”, 290 pounds
Draft: 2018 Round 5 (Las Vegas Raiders)
NFL games played/starts: 42/17
Career total tackles: 78
Career sacks: 8
2022 PFF grade: On IR
Hurst came into the NFL after being named Consensus All-American and First Team All-Big 10 after his final year at Michigan. He came out of high school as a Two Time All-State player, so the accolades were there.
He was projected as a first-round draft pick but was diagnosed with a heart condition. He first became aware of the problem after an EKG found some issues in his freshman year. At the NFL Combine, he was sent home but had a great showing at his Pro Day although no head coaches attended. Hurst eventually took some follow-up tests at Harvard and was cleared to participate in any drills. He expected to still be a first-round pick but was taken on Day 3.
When Hurst signed with the Browns, his contract did not include any guaranteed money. He is playing for his third NFL club and was brought in as competition for the defensive tackle spot opposite Tomlinson.
Hurst had a productive rookie season where he started 10 games and had 31 total tackles with four sacks. Maybe he remains healthy and can reclaim his college form.
He signed with San Fran in 2021 as a calf injury ended his season. Then last year he suffered a torn bicep in training camp. Both injuries resulted in being placed on IR. So, he is fresh.
Against the Eagles, Hurst had one tackle, one tackle for loss, and one sack.
Hurst wasn’t much of anything in the Hall of Fame Game. He failed to produce any pressures or QB hits in the 11 passing downs he played. He also struggled in run defense.
6’-2”, 290 pounds
College: Illinois State
Draft: 2014 Round 7 (Oakland Raiders)
NFL games played/starts: 98/64
Career total tackles: 261
Career sacks: 24.5
2022 PFF grade: 73.2
Harris was a late addition to this defense. Apparently, after going through a few weeks of training camp, DC Schwartz was not happy with what he had at the DT position and waited long enough to decide what needed to happen.
He had 21.5 sacks in Denver and was a beast on the inside and so valued they signed him to a three-year $27 million extension. After playing for Denver for five seasons, Harris was part of the three-player, five-draft picks trade that brought QB Russell Wilson over.
Could Harris be the missing piece to this defense? He signed a one-year deal worth up to $5.25 million so the value is there.
Against the Eagles, Harris did not register any stats.
He has good pass-rushing abilities mixed with power. In addition to his bull rush, he has a very good swipe move along with a rip move that allows him to get under the opponent. And he is excellent at sliding with an offensive lineman in order to gauge which hole the runner is headed into.
Harris is a guy who the quarterback will always feel his presence. Exceptional in run defense is the best accolade to describe Harris’ game. He gets aggressive after his first move instead of passive and will be actively seeking out the ball carrier.
The obvious is that Tomlinson will start. Could the rookie Ika man the other spot? If not, which of these three will?
What if this group still isn’t getting it done and Ika plays what he is: a rookie? The question then becomes: what now?
The fact that Harris was brought into the fold at such a late time in training camp gives an indication that Schwartz was not happy with this group and wanted to bring in a starting caliber defensive tackle to join Tomlinson and fill the principal remaining hole on their roster.
Which of the DTs profiled are most likely to start?
This poll is closed