The Browns biggest makeover on the defensive side of the ball was at linebacker. The Browns are switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 where the primary pass rush comes from the outside linebackers. Out are Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava. Meanwhile, in are Paul Kruger, Quentin Groves, Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo. Most likely, three of the four starting linebackers will be new to the position as starters for the Browns this season.
The Browns made a concerted effort to upgrade their pass rush and made major strides in that area—at least on paper.
Linebackers: D’Qwell Jackson, Paul Kruger, Quentin Groves, Jabaal Sheard, Craig Robertson, James-Michael Johnson, Adrian Moten, L.J. Fort, Tank Carder, Barkevious Mingo, Tommy Smith and Kendrick Adams.
Jackson (6-0, 240, 29, 8th year) – Jackson thrived in the middle of the 4-3 under Dick Jauron and will be on the inside in the 3-4. He finished last season with 119 tackles with 3.5 sacks. He also had an interception which he returned for a touchdown. Jackson was a first alternate for the AFC for last year’s Pro Bowl. Jackson played well in the 3-4 under Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini and should have no trouble making the transition back.
Kruger (6-4, 270, 27, 5th year) – Kruger is coming off his most productive season by far when he had 42 tackles, nine sacks, six passes broken up and a forced fumble. He had 7.5 sacks during the final eight weeks of the season, which was tied for fifth in the NFL during that period of time. He had nine sacks in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Kruger had 4.5 sacks with 14 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in helping the Ravens win Super Bowl ILVII over the 49ers. He had two sacks in the Super Bowl.
He was the main target in free agency and the Browns were able to immediately land him, hoping to catch him entering his prime.
Groves (6-3, 265, 29, 6th year) – Groves had his most productive season last year under Horton with the Cardinals with 45 tackles and four sacks in seven starts. He also had seven special teams tackles and a blocked punt.
Sheard (6-2, 255, 24, 3rd year) – Sheard has led the Browns in each of the past two seasons in sacks, but he was playing defensive end. The Browns are switching him to outside linebacker in the 3-4 and it is to be determined how quickly he can make the adjustment to linebacker. The coaches are saying Sheard is making the switch well. He had 108 tackles in his first two seasons with 15.5 sacks.
Robertson (6-1, 229, 25, 2nd year) – Robertson played in all 16 games in 2012, including three starts. He finished the season with 83 tackles, including a sack and two interceptions. Robertson was running with Jackson as the starter at inside linebacker during the OTAs and minicamps.
Johnson (6-1, 240, 23, 2nd year) – The Browns had big plans for Johnson as a rookie after drafting him in the fourth round. However, he injured his ribs/oblique in the preseason and was inactive the first four games. He returned in the fifth game and played in 10 games with eight starts before finishing the season on injured reserve with a knee injury. Johnson had 32 tackles and also had three special team tackles. It is unclear how Johnson will fit in the 3-4 defensive alignment. He was playing behind Robertson in the minicamps.
Moten (6-2, 230, 25, 2nd year) – The Browns signed Moten for the last two games of the 2012 season after he was released by the Eagles. He was inactive for both games with the Browns. He played in 12 games in 2011 with the Colts and Seahawks.
Fort (6-0, 230, 23, 2nd year) – Fort made the Browns as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2012. He played in all 16 games, including starting the season opener. Fort finished the season with 13 tackles, including a sack and in interception. Fort was a key special team player with seven tackles.
Carder (6-2, 235, 24, 2nd year) – Carder joined the Browns after being released by the Bills in the final cuts. He was a fifth-round draft choice of the Bills and he played in 15 games with one start for the Browns. Carder had five special team tackles.
Adams (6-5, 250, 24, 1st year) – Adams was an undrafted free agent rookie from LSU who spent last season on the practice squad.
Mingo (6-4, 240, 22, Rookie) – Mingo was the sixth-overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft and is expected to be a major contributor in the pass rush.
Smith (6-1, 240, 22, Rookie) – Smith is an undrafted free agent rookie from Boise State. He will need to make an impression early to have a chance to make the roster.
Summary: The Browns added Kruger and Groves in free agency. In addition, they used the sixth-overall pick in the first-round to draft Mingo. Sheard was the team’s leading pass rusher the past two seasons and he has been switched to the outside linebacker position.
The Browns are counting on those four to give the Browns a formidable pass rush. Besides Jackson, Robertson, Fort. Johnson, Moten and Carder will battle for the other inside linebacker spot with the others providing depth.
(Next up: We take a look at the secondary)