Here's a blunt example of the kind of expansion malaise that has doomed the Browns over the past dozen years. During this span, the Browns have sent just two defensive players, Shaun Rogers and Jamir Miller, to the Pro Bowl.
Miller's 2001 selection seems like a lifetime ago and is tinged with the kind of tragic irony seemingly exclusive to the Browns. After posting 83 tackles, 13 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, Miller tore his Achilles tendon the following preseason and retired a year later. Since Miller's departure, the Browns have introduced three new head coaches, four different defensive coordinators and two different schemes. And naturally, the Browns have struggled to find a dynamic outside linebacker during this time.
Or, even one capable of stopping an opposing team's screen pass.
In most respects, the Browns have been victims of poor timing. Two years ago, Eric Mangini and pseudo-GM George Kokinis passed on Brian Orakpo and Clay Mathews. A year later, Tom Heckert was tasked with trying to find 3-4 talent, which meant that Jason Pierre-Paul was overlooked. In shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, the Browns missed out on some dynamic outside linebacker talent in Von Miller, Aldon Smith and Ryan Kerrigan last April.
In lieu of the draft, the Browns are currently looking at another season of Chris Gocong and veteran Scott Fujita at outside linebacker. Gocong flashed enough skill to land a contract extension, while Fujita ended his second consecutive season on injured reserve.
While each player is serviceable, the Browns desperately need to add an injection of youth and athleticism. Fortunately, recent draft history would suggest that Heckert is targeting a linebacker upgrade. In the past two years, Heckert has addressed the secondary and defensive line.
However, the problem once again is that this year's draft features more 3-4 outside linebacker talent than the traditional types sought by the Browns.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Traditional Defensive Ends will be reviewed in a forthcoming article.
Clearly, the Browns play one of the more traditional types of defenses in the NFL. Dick Jauron's 4-3 is a straight-ahead style of defense that asks defensive ends to rush and linebackers to move laterally. However, with the line between the two positions becoming more blurred at the college level, it's worth taking a look at this year's top pass rushing prospects.
South Carolina's Ingram is one of the draft's more intriguing talents. Depending on one's perspective, Ingram could be either the most versatile defender in the draft or the most one-dimensional. Ingram is primarily known as a pass rusher, but began college as an outside linebacker. In addition to playing defensive end, Ingram has also rushed from the interior on passing downs. While not as explosive as the NFL's premiere pass rushers, Ingram is quick and appears strong enough to make an NFL transition.
As for Mercilus, what's not to love? First, is there a better name for a pass rushing beast than Mercilus? Throw in the fact he's from Akron (also the home of James Harrison) and plays with a similar violent streak and Browns fans should begin ordering jerseys.
However, Mercilus is still a raw prospect and can only boast one full year of college experience. Also, Mercilus is the kind of player that is 100 percent energy and effort, which is equal part contagious to teammates and counterproductive when facing seasoned NFL offensive linemen. Mercilus will face a steep learning curve upon entering the NFL – regardless of which position he actually assumes. In visiting with the Browns last week, it would appear that Mercilus could be an option at defensive end.
After two years of Heckert drafts in Cleveland, some trends are emerging. First, Heckert has targeted one specific area of the defense in each of his two drafts. Second, he is not exclusively a Scouting Combine disciple. None of Heckert's four prime defensive picks – Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard – had dazzling Combine workouts. Finally, Heckert likes big schools – especially Nebraska.
After drafting Nebraska safeties Larry Asante and Eric Hagg in the past two years, Heckert visited with linebacker LaVonte David last week. While Asante didn't pan out in Cleveland and Hagg played sparingly last season, David could be the answer to the Browns' linebacker problems.
David played in a variety of defenses at Nebraska, including the 50 scheme, which allowed him to run from sideline to sideline and make plays. Despite his limited size (6'1, 230 lbs.), David was a solid tackler and showed the ability to chase down opposing ball carriers. David was unique in that he never left the field and showed impressive coverage skills.
Similar to David, Miami's Spence is another every down linebacker – one who is also a bit smaller than a typical NFL linebacker. However, Spence is perhaps the most instinctive of any linebacker in this year's draft. Utah State's Wagner is another undersized prospect (6'0, 240 lbs.), but is perhaps the strongest pure linebacker in this year's draft. A four-year starter, Wagner is better against the run than in coverage, but is still quick enough to move laterally. In terms of pure speed, UNC's Brown is blazing fast, as evidenced by his Combine workout.