Free Agency Period – Options at Defense
In continuing with the free agency period, the focus of attention now turns to the defense. (I omitted the punter and kicker positions for the Browns – the team will likely go in a different direction from Reggie Hodges and Phil Dawson, but it is extremely hard to speculate if or whom they would target in free agency). Although they played well as a unit at times in 2012, the Browns’ defense was far from excellent. This new regime is looking for a more aggressive group and will seek players that will fit the bill.
Areas of Need: The Browns’ defense helped the team rank 12th in the league in turnover margin (+3), and was 19th in points allowed, 23rd in yardage allowed, and 21st in both rushing and passing touchdowns surrendered. These rankings are slightly better (compared to their counterparts), but the switch to the 3-4 scheme will create turnover in Berea. It appeared that the passing defense was the Browns’ Achilles heel, but as the stats bear out – improvements should be made to all parts of the defense.
The Browns went 0 – 5 in contests where Joe Haden was not active last season; the former first round athlete from Florida has been dominant but his teammates could not pick up the slack. Secondary should be targeted heavily in free agency (provided the team drafts elsewhere in the first round of the draft), while players like Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade, and Johnson Bademosi can be put in the best position to succeed.
Possible Cornerback Targets: Brent Grimes (Atlanta), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Philadelphia), Sean Smith (Miami), Cary Williams (Baltimore), Derek Cox (Jacksonville)
Analysis: I would like the Browns to take a strong look at Rodgers-Cromartie, Smith, and Williams as possible starters opposite Haden. Williams is coming off a sound year for the Super Bowl Champs, especially against the Browns (two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown). I believe the team will not take Dee Milliner (cornerback from Alabama) at the sixth overall pick in April, therefore if the Browns do not sign a solid free agent – they will have to hope a late round selection (including Skrine and Wade) will develop into a star.
The office appears to support T.J. Ward and what he brings to the strong safety position, but the free safety spot could be added to; incumbent Usama Young has battled injuries and inconsistency since signing as a free agent two years ago. The other option on the roster was Eric Hagg, who had an up-and-down 2012 season.
Possible Safety Targets: Dashon Goldson (49ers), Kenny Phillips (N.Y. Giants), LaRon Landry (N.Y. Jets), Louis Delmas (Detroit)
Analysis: Goldson and Phillips headline the class of free agent safeties; the odds are stacked against the Browns they sign either. The franchise needs a fast athlete who can defend well in the secondary; perhaps if the team drafts or signs an excellent cornerback then they can convert Sheldon Brown to free safety (assuming he is re-signed). If none of those options occur, I anticipate the team using a middle round draft selection to compete for the starting free safety spot.
Ray Horton’s new defense will require the Browns to obtain several (and hopefully talented) linebackers this offseason – all of the four positions are in play. D’Qwell Jackson has put together a couple solid seasons in the middle and James-Michael Johnson played well considering the circumstances (a fourth round rookie who was forced to play due to injuries), but the front office may want competition along with the two.
Possible Inside Linebacker Targets: Dannell Ellerbe (Baltimore), Chase Blackburn (N.Y. Giants), Rey Maualuga (Cincinnati)
Analysis: Signing either Ellerbe or Maualuga would be a double-edge sword; the Browns’ linebacking corps would be strengthened while weakening their in-division rival’s unit. Ellerbe would be my choice between the two; in three less games last season he averaged nearly as many tackles per game (7.10 to 7.62), but the veteran had 4.5 sacks compared to Mauluga’s one. Blackburn is an alumnus of the University of Akron, but there is a fair chance he re-signs with the Giants. Getting strength up the middle of the defense is important, as much as getting speed on the edges.
On the outside, Jabaal Sheard will likely be moved to one side in an attempt to display his ability to rush the passer. The unknown statuses of Kaluka Maiava (a pending free agent) and Emmanuel Acho (a sixth round draft pick who was injured before his rookie season) could force the front office to add an outside linebacker next week. Additionally, the team might pickup another athlete (in April) to play opposite Sheard; depth is never a bad thing.
Possible Outside Linebacker Targets: Paul Kruger (Baltimore), Shaun Phillips (San Diego), Quentin Groves (Arizona)
Analysis: Kruger notched nine sacks last season, while Phillips garnered nine. Both would be instant upgrades to the pass rushing position. Phillips has played under Browns’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner and may be inclined to join up with him. Groves had a decent 2012 outing (forty-six tackles and four sacks), but would be less expensive and would feel a need. Like Phillips, his familiarity with his former coach’s (Ray Horton) defense could sway the front office to offer him a deal.
Conclusion: The Browns need to get a playmaker in the secondary – whether it is a cornerback or free safety. If the team only signs one linebacker before the draft, I look for it to be someone in the middle. A rush end could still be taken in the first round and their linebackers would be in good shape. I purposely omitted the defensive line; the new schemes run by Horton will (at times) employ just three men upfront. With the depth added over the past two seasons, the front office should feel confident in that area of the team. A reliable veteran could be added, but I do not expect a high-priced free agent or early round draft pick to be added over the next two months.