Sizing up the Roster – Defense/Special Teams
In continuing our review of the Browns and breaking down position groups, let us now take a look at the defense and specialists.
Defensive Line: Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, John Hughes, Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Armonty Bryant, Brian Sanford, Dave Kruger, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste, Justin Staples, Kendrick Adams, Hall Davis
Analysis: Switching to a defensive scheme (3-4) that requires fewer defensive linemen, and obviously there will not be as many tackles and ends on the final roster as there were in 2012. I could see anywhere from six to eight of these members included on Sunday lineups. Taylor, Rubin, and Desmond Bryant are the likely opening day starters, while Hughes, Winn, and Kitchen return as key contributors from last season. Outside of Sanford, the remaining linemen have little-to-no NFL experience and may wind up on the practice squad. Both Armonty Bryant and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste have shown flashes of brilliance in college – that needs to be duplicated early in order to remain on the roster.
Linebackers: D’Qwell Jackson, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, James-Michael Johnson, Craig Robertson, Barkevious Mingo, Quentin Groves, Tank Carder, L.J. Fort, Adrian Moten, and Tommy Smith
Analysis: The flip side of the new defense is the additional number of linebackers that the front office will likely keep. Besides base defenses, these athletes are regular contributors on special teams. I anticipate a solid rotation with the first seven listed above, while Carder and Fort are involved more in specialty packages and special teams. Alternating will be helpful for this unit, as they will be (likely) sprinting a majority of the time, especially the edge rushers. Groves and Kruger were solid acquisitions that can hopefully teach the young outside linebackers the correct way to play – D’Qwell Jackson is the veteran in the middle who can share some knowledge as well.
Cornerbacks: Joe Haden, Buster Skrine, Leon McFadden, Chris Owens, Trevin Wade, Josh Aubrey, Akeem Auguste, Abdul Kanneh, Vernon Kearney, Kent Richardson, and Kentronte Walker
Analysis: It appears that the only guaranteed spots are with the first four listed; Wade saw some action last season but will have his hands full holding off rookies in training camp. As with linebackers, this position group will be prevalent in special teams, be it by corner or via coverage. Heading into camp, it has been rather hard to gauge the performance of these athletes – jamming receivers and tackling still have yet to be included in practice sessions. The Browns have yet to field three (let alone two) solid cornerbacks in some time, hopefully two of the top three (Skrine, Owens, or McFadden) can excel in spots opposite Joe Haden and against slot receivers.
Safeties: T.J. Ward, Johnson Bademosi, Tashaun Gipson, and Jamoris Slaughter
Analysis: Barring a setback in Slaughter’s ruptured Achilles tendon (from last year) recovery, I see all four members being on the active roster this season. As it stands, Ward and Gipson appear to be the two starters, while Bademosi will have his chance (to move up in the depth chart) in training camp. Slaughter is the wildcard – the rookie from Notre Dame could shock everyone and grab the starting free safety spot, be a regular contributor on special teams, or be inactive during contests. Many have concerns with the safety position, as it includes young and inexperienced members – hopefully they can hold their own.
Specialists: Shayne Graham (kicker), Brandon Bogotay (kicker), Spencer Lanning (punter), T.J. Conley (punter), and Christian Yount (longsnapper)
Analysis: Yount is guaranteed his job (provided he is as reliable and consistent as he was last year). After the Phil Dawson era ended this offseason, the Browns need to find themselves a new kicker. Currently, the elderly Graham faces the youthful Bogotay; there are beliefs that the team could keep both. Graham would work mostly on shorter kicks, while Bogotay handles longer attempts and kickoffs. The punters have a combined one year of NFL experience; Conley was with the Jets in 2011 as a starter, while Lanning has never punted in the regular season. However, the latter spent time here last training camp – will his familiarity help him land the job?
Final Conclusion: Like the offensive side of the football, several difficult decisions will have to be made before the Week 1 matchup against the Dolphins. The most interesting aspects will be competition at cornerback and how the depth chart finalizes. Regardless of who ends up on this team, I look forward to seeing how Ray Horton works his magic with the defensive unit – the Browns appear to have equipped themselves in the draft and free agency with players who can effectively operate in this defense.