One of the most critical issues we face as a Defense is improving the line position talent as well as our Linebackers. As a 4-3 base defense that shifts in and out of base to other looks and sub packages, we need a few things to be true about our starters and preferably our depth as well. We need natural football players, high level processing skills and explosion. On the defensive line especially, these traits will lead to good things.
Just ask the Baltimore Ravens, who owned the 2nd best D overall in the NFL in 2018. Unfortunately they lost some key players in Free Agency since the end of the season, but they are still worth looking at because the process of building a defense requires not only those star quality impact players, but also a very high quality group of depth players. Baltimore has achieved this in the key positions they value.
Michael Pierce at Nose Tackle was an UDFA in 2016…how is that for unearthing a gem? He is a run stopping anchor of their line, but he also demonstrated some very nice pass rush skills. He is a depth player that only played 38% of the snaps in 2018. In Year 3 he’s an elite player with power, explosion and the ability to diagnose run plays quickly. With an elite ability to shed blockers, he gets off and makes tackles. He allows very few big plays. This is what quality depth looks like that will eventually allow him to move into the starting position when Brandon Williams is moved out.
CJ Mosely was their elite LB for the last few years but his talent was primarily in Run Defense. They lost him to Free Agency this year. Despite incredible athleticism, his coverage grade reflects that early on he was a liability on passing downs, but he steadily improved. It was the processing part that held him back. Note to self…draft players that can process quickly!
Patrick Onwuasor, who came from Portland State (!) is waiting in the wings to take over for Mosely. He is an up and coming LB who is already showing high skill level in coverage, where Mosely was weak. He needs to shore up his run defense, but with better processing skills naturally, Onwuasor can be coached up on the run defense. The Ravens know what works for their schemes. Onwuasor is a high quality depth player. This is what we want.
Za’Darius Smith was a huge part of the Ravens success on defense thanks to his pass rushing skills. In 2017 he had 16 QB hits, 3 TFL’s and 3.5 Sacks. By year 3, in 2018 he came into his own and registered 25 QB hits, 10 TFL’s and 8.5 Sacks. This tremendous jump in production should not be a surprise in a program that really knows what it wants and puts their players in a position to produce once they grow into their NFL heads. Unfortunately they lost him as well in Free Agency. But guess who is waiting in the wings? Tim Williams, who they drafted out of Alabama like CJ Mosely.
Williams just finished Year 2 and with limited playing time so far, he has shown near elite run stopping skills and is working on pass rush. He had 3 TFL’s and 3 Sacks in limited time, so there is promise. But again, he is a high level depth player waiting to take over. This is the model to follow.
Couple of things to note about the Ravens key young players. They are not all coming from big Power5 schools. Every hear of Samford University? Grand Valley State? That’s where Michael Pierce and Matt Judon came from respectively. Onwuasor came from Portland State! Z.Smith came out of Kentucky. Baltimore is so good at evaluating talent, they don’t need to play it safe by drafting only SEC power school players. Also, some of their biggest contributors were drafted on Day 3. They are leaning on Alabama players heavily (Ozzie Newsome’s alma mater) but they have also seen many of them become those elite star quality players every team needs.
Again, evaluation is the secret to success in building through the draft. Pretty obvious, but not something we have had on the Browns for a very long time. Dorsey appears to be able to hold his own with likes of Ozzie Newsome, but can he do that over 10 years or more?
Here is what we face in the AFC North. Look at Pittsburgh’s star player grades. Astonishing level of talent. But they, like Baltimore, have gone through the stages necessary to plug and play drafted players: Find your elite GM, establish your playing schemes for the long term, identify and prove out the player types that fit your schemes. Rinse and repeat every year. Guess where the Browns are in this process? We just completed Stage 1! That is it. We are just getting started and need 2-3 years of scheme development in order to see what player profiles work best in our systems. Oh, and we need to keep our coaching staff for longer than a year! These things must happen for us to build a Defense, starting with the interior line.
So…that was a long way to what the DT class looks like this year! But all of the information we just digested is so important for perspective on just how far we have to go. Adding Sheldon Richardson to play 3-Tech was huge, he is a very good player and for now can be our starter for 2-3 years minimum. But we need depth behind him badly. Consider that we have Larry Ogunjobi playing well at the 0/1-Tech spot, we should be much better overall this season. But…when an even better player is within reach, you must always do what’s necessary to get him. We need DL depth so badly on this roster and our starters are no where near as good as a team like the Steelers…lord we have a long way to go!
The DL talent in this class is tremendous at the top and unfortunately we are likely to miss out on all of that. I believe our only hope is if Dexter Lawrence from Clemson drops into the 2nd Round that Dorsey might make a huge move to grab him. That is going to cost us some important capital though, so he needs to be worth it. He grades out incredibly high as a run stopper and has shown some real pass rush flashes in college. He compares very favorably to the college stats of Danny Shelton and Vita Vea. Shelton and Vea are both performing at PFF grades in the mid 70’s in the NFL so far. Lawrence would be a very important building block for us as he presents a far different type of player than Ogunjobi.
Our second scenario for adding some good quality depth is if we make a play for Dremont Jones from Ohio State who is very likely to be available at the top of Round 2. No doubt he will go fast, so you’d have to give up a lot to get that high, just like with the Dexter Lawrence scenario. Dorsey will have to weigh all of this against whether he could add another Free Agent that could stop-gap us for a year or two instead of blowing multiple picks to get one player. Remember, now that we have a GM that actually unearths really good players in those lower rounds, these picks have a lot more value to our future roster quality!