Even though the Browns have named Rob Chudzinski their new head coach, it is hard to predict what direction they will go in their defensive philosophies until the staff is completed. However, we’re going to evaluate the current roster of players and rank them in our view of their contribution to the Browns going forward. We’re breaking it down into offensive players and defensive players. Part one was the offensive players and the specialists.
The perception is the Browns’ personnel is better suited to the 4-3 defense as former GM Tom Heckert drafted for that alignment in 2011 and 2012. Chudzinski was asked what kind of defense he was going to run with the Browns.
“We’re going to be an attacking style defense,” Chudzinski said. “We’re going to create turnovers. That’s what we want to do. We want to get after the quarterback and affect the quarterback’s play. That’s the number one thing you want to do as a defense. Whether that’s a 4-3 or a 3-4 and nowadays there’s a lot of hybrid systems out there, it will tie in more with the coordinator that I hire. I think we have the versatility of going either way.”
The Browns finished 23rd overall, in the NFL defensively in 2012. They were 19th against the rush and 25th against the pass.
The Browns are in great shape in terms of the salary cap with reports of them being around $48 million under. There are 18 players who are set to become free agents with the most notable defensive players set to become free agents are Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita. The soon-to-be free agents are denoted with an asterisk.
Here is an assessment of the current players on the team.
Defensive Linemen— Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard, Frostee Rucker, Juqua Parker*,John Hughes, Billy Winn, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen, Emmanuel Stephens* & Hall Davis
Rubin missed some time with injuries and finished with 44 tackles, including two sacks. He also had two fumble recoveries.
Taylor missed the first half of the season with a torn pectoral muscle and was able to return in mid-season. He finished with 14 tackles and had a sack. The Browns run defense was much improved when Taylor and Rubin were able to be on the field together.
Sheard finished the season strong and ended up with the team lead with seven sacks from his defensive end position. He also had 54 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Rucker was a solid free agent pickup who started at end opposite of Sheard. He finished with 48 tackles and four sacks.
Parker was the other free agent that Heckert signed and he, like Rucker, was a solid addition. Parker had 24 tackles, including six sacks and two fumbles.
Hughes came in as a rookie and gained valuable experience filling in while Rubin and Taylor were out. Hughes had 34 tackles, including three sacks.
Winn had a very good season and like Hughes, received a lot of experience and finished with 26 tackles and a sack. He also had a fumble return.
Kitchen was a nice pickup after the Ravens final cuts and was able to play in the rotation. He was another rookie who gained valuable experience and finished with 17 tackles.
Stephens played early in the season before a season-ending injury. He had nine tackles with a sack and a fumble.
Davis was a late season addition to the active roster after injuries piled up. He played in a reserve role in the season finale with the Steelers.
Summary: Arguably, the defensive line is the strength of the team and hopefully, Chudzinski and the new staff will be able to utilize the strengths of the group, whether they employ the 3-4 or 4-3. Taylor, Rubin and Hughes would be candidates for nose tackle in the 3-4. Sheard might have to move to linebacker. In our player rankings at the end of this story, we have defensive linemen ranked as 7 of the top 11 players.
Linebackers—D’Qwell Jackson, Kaluka Maiava*, James-Michael Johnson, Tank Carder, Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita*, Adrian Moten, Craig Robertson*, Emmanuel Acho & L.J. Fort
Jackson has excelled in the 4-3 the past two years and was voted an alternate to the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season. He finished with 118 tackles to lead the team and had 3.5 sacks. Jackson also had two interceptions and two fumbles. He returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown.
Maiava, primarily a special team player, was forced into the starting lineup in the preseason when Gocong was lost for the year with a torn Achilles tendon. He finished with 53 tackles with two sacks and two fumbles.
Johnson was going to begin the regular season as a starter when Gocong and Fujita were injured, but he strained an oblique/rib muscle and missed the first four games of the season. When he returned, he played a bit the rest of the season and finished with 36 tackles.
Robertson was a pleasant surprise and finished second on the team with 93 tackles. He had a sack and two interceptions. Robertson made some plays and the former undrafted free agent rookie showed promise.
Carder was picked up at the end of training camp when he was released from the Bills. Carder played mostly on special teams and ended up with seven tackles in a reserve role at linebacker.
Fort was an undrafted free agent who similar to Robertson showed some promise. He started the first game of the season against the Eagles and will be remembered for the interception he dropped that would’ve given the Browns a win. He had 20 tackles with an interception and a fumble.
Fujita finished his third-straight season with the Browns on injured reserve with a shoulder/neck injury. He had just 14 tackles with a sack.
Gocong went down in training camp with a torn Achilles tendon and spent the entire season on injured reserve.
Acho was a sixth-round draft choice who was injured in training camp and spent the season on injured reserve.
Moten was signed at the end of the season and was inactive for the season finale with the Steelers.
Summary: The group most affected by the switch to the 3-4 will be the linebackers because the Browns are already in need of linebackers. Jackson has had back-to-back outstanding seasons as the man in the middle. He has played in the 3-4, but is much better suited to the 4-3. It is unknown how Gocong will return from his injury and Fujita will most likely retire. If the Browns switch to the 3-4, Sheard might have to rush the passer as an outside linebacker. Robertson, Fort, Johnson all showed some promise, but what defense will be the best fit for them will be up to the coaching staff.
Cornerbacks—Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown*, Buster Skrine, Trevin Wade, Johnson Bademosi & Prince Miller
The Browns missed Haden for the first four games of the season while he served a suspension for a banned substance use. The Browns lost all four games and dug a deep hole in which they couldn’t get out of the rest of the season. Haden missed another game due to injury and the Browns were 0-5 when Haden didn’t play. Haden still finished with 51 tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions and a fumble.
Brown showed his age at times during the season, but did make plays and finished the season with 60 tackles. He had a sack and three interceptions, including a return for a touchdown. Brown had his 175 game streak broken when he couldn’t play in the last season due to a concussion.
Skrine played quite a bit and was picked on throughout the season. He was beaten many times and was called for multiple penalties. Dick Jauron continually defended him and Skrine ended up with 85 tackles. He was much better suited to be a nickel cornerback in the slot.
Wade was a seventh-round draft choice who got to play with injuries in the secondary. Wade finished with 17 tackles.
Bademosi made the team as an undrafted free agent, primarily as a special team player. He was pressed into service in the secondary and finished with 20 tackles.
Miller was signed late in the season and played against the Steelers in the last game.
Safeties—T.J. Ward, Usama Young, Eric Hagg, Tashaun Gipson & Ray Ventrone*
Ward finished the season on injured reserve, but still finished with 68 tackles. He had a sack, an interception and three fumbles as the strong safety.
Young had a hamstring injury during training camp and was unable to beat out Hagg during the preseason. However, when Hagg struggled early, Young took over and became the free safety for most of the season. He finished with 53 tackles and had 1.5 sacks. He also had three interceptions.
Hagg spent most of the off-season running with the starters at free safety. However, once the regular season started he was unable to hold down the job and was inactive for several games. He worked his way back into the lineup only when injuries mounted. Hagg had 22 tackles, but had no interceptions.
Gipson was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted free agent rookie from Wyoming. Gipson worked his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season and had 33 tackles, including an interception.
Ventrone is primarily used on special teams, but did play in the secondary and had six tackles.
Summary: Ward showed he can be a play maker at strong safety, but the Browns are still trying to find a play maker at free safety. Young showed flashes and rookie Gipson did, as well.
Here is our subjective ranking of the defensive players:
1-Joe Haden;2-D’Qwell Jackson; 3-Ahtyba Rubin;4-Phil Taylor;5-Jabaal Sheard;6-T.J. Ward;7-Frostee Rucker;8- Chris Gocong;9-Billy Winn;10-Juqua Parker;11-John Hughes; 12-Craig Robertson; 13-Sheldon Brown; 14-Usama Young;15-James-Michael Johnson;16-Tashaun Gipson;17-Kaluka Maiava; 18-Scott Fujita; 19-L.J. Fort;20-Buster Skrine;21-Trevin Wade;22-Ray Ventrone;23-Ishmaa’ily Kitchen; 24-Tank Carder;25- Eric Hagg;26-Johnson Bademosi; 27-Emmanuel Stephens;28-Emmanuel Acho;29- Hall Davis; 30-Adrian Moten; 31-Prince Miller