Players to Watch for – 2014 Senior Bowl: Defense
In continuing with our Senior Bowl analysis, let’s take a look on the defensive side of the ball. With another coaching change (and a likely new defensive system), there will be some turnover from the 2013 roster. The Browns’ scouting department should spend a good deal of time with several guys in Mobile, Alabama in the coming days. I omitted punters and kickers, as I feel Spencer Lanning and Billy Cundiff had solid seasons and won’t be replaced by rookies.
Defensive Line: Tackles – Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh), DaQuan Jones (Penn State), Caraun Reid (Princeton), and Will Sutton (Arizona State). Ends – Dee Ford (Auburn), Kareem Martin (North Carolina), Trent Murphy (Stanford), and Chris Smith (Arkansas).
– Analysis: Assuming the base defensive front remains at a 3 – 4, then the Browns may only gloss over this group (at least in the earlier part of the draft). Donald and Jones are two of the better tackles in this year’s crop, but I anticipate both being chosen before the Browns are ready to take a defensive tackle. On the outside, Ford really impressed me in the championship game against Florida State – however, he falls into the category of being drafted before the Browns should select a defensive end. The franchise may draft for defensive line depth and special teams; similarly to how Armonty Bryant was last year. This could leave Caraun Reid as the only viable option on NFL Draft weekend.
Linebackers: Outside – Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Michael Sam (Missouri), Marcus Smith (Louisville), and Jonathan Brown (Illinois). Inside – C.J. Mosley (Alabama), Jordan Zumwalt (UCLA), Christian Kirksey (Iowa), and Christian Jones (Florida State).
– Analysis: Drafting Barkevious Mingo and picking up Paul Kruger in free agency last season offers few reasons to believe the Browns will take another outside linebacker early in the draft. Noy is my favorite of the group, but could go as early as the first round. Perhaps one of the other three athletes will slip into the later rounds and the front office gives him a chance to find the field in the fall. Many believe that both inside spots could be in flux this offseason. D’Qwell Jackson is due a huge roster bonus, leading to a potential release, and Craig Robertson had his issues in pass coverage. I anticipate at least one inside linebacker being added from the college ranks. Mosley tops the list, but I doubt the Browns take a linebacker with an early pick. It will be up to several front office members to figure out if any of the other three guys can be a starter and select him when it’s appropriate.
Secondary: Safeties – Jimmie Ward (Northern Illinois), Dontae Johnson (North Carolina State), Ahmad Dixon (Baylor), and Deone Bucannon (Washington State). Cornerbacks – Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech), Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State), Aaron Colvin (Oklahoma), and Chris Davis (Auburn).
– Analysis: Another part of the team with a question mark is safety; this relates to pending free agent T.J. Ward and whether the Browns re-sign him. If that is not the case, they must find his replacement and a rookie could be the option. Jimmie Ward (no relation) is intriguing, and I hope his smaller size and perceived lesser competition does not hurt his standing with the front office. Buchannon appears to be more in the mold of the incumbent strong safety, totaling 100 tackles and three forced fumbles last year. However, if the team wants more of a coverage guy, they may want Dixon who finished 2013 with seven pass breakups. The Browns took a cornerback (Leon McFadden) with their second pick in last year’s draft; that doesn’t mean the front office will stray from that philosophy in 2014. I believe both Jean-Baptiste and Dennard could start in the season opener, and the former’s size (six-foot three inches, 220 pounds) may vault the athlete up draft boards.
Conclusion: It’s widely believed that the front office feels more confident about the Browns’ defense than their offense. While that may be true, the scouting department must still determine who can be impactful defenders – regardless of the round they are selected (if at all). There could be one to four new faces on the starting defense in 2014; scouting and drafting the right guys are paramount for success.