The Browns currently have twelve linebackers on their roster. There is plenty of versatility and toughness in that group littered with veterans and youngsters.
There is, however, a missing ingredient that is necessary to make defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 system work.
Like homemade pasta sauce without real crushed garlic, the 3-4 defense just isn’t the same without a dominant pass-rushing outside linebacker. It’s passable…but no way are we going to compare it to grandma Collova’s authentic Italian specialty.
Having a dominator on the edge is the difference between having a Super Bowl caliber defense and just a Super Bowl pretender defense.
From a NFL scout’s perspective, it is very difficult to project whether a former college football player can lineup at outside linebacker in this system. They have been termed the “hybrid” – they are neither end, nor linebacker (they are both).
Very few college programs ask their linebackers to rush from a three-point stance, nor do they ask their ends to standup and chase. Because of that, it almost requires a crystal ball to find the next James Harrison.
Kamerion Wimbley was taken by the Browns with their first round pick in the 2006 draft to fill that need. That did not work out so well.
The team drafted David Veikune in last years draft with hopes that he could make the switch from college end to 3-4 ‘backer. In the interests of trying to stay positive, we’ll just say, “it’s a work in progress.”
With that said, here’s a break-down of the possible “suspects” who might someday fill that role. Keep in mind that this column reflects only potential “3-4” linebackers [so players such as Sean Weatherspoon (Missouri) and Daryl Washington (TCU) were not included].
Many believe Jason Pierre-Paul (South Florida) can make the switch to linebacker, but don’t count me among them.
Although I see him as a legitimate impact player at defensive end (See http://dawgscooper.com/articles/cleveland-browns-have-a-need-to-fill-at-defensive-end), Pierre plays too stiff and does not have the lateral quickness to play OLB.
Sergio Kindle (Texas), on the other-hand, has the prototypical size (6’4” – 255 lbs.), edge-rushing skill, and fluid lateral movement to play on the outside. He is one of the few players in this draft class who has experience playing with his hands up or down.
He’s a superior athlete whose production hasn’t always matched his physical skill. There are questions about his motor, which have led to comparisons to the recently dispatched Wimbley.
No one can question Jerry Hughes’ production (46.5 tackles-for-loss, 35.5 sacks in three years at TCU)! Aside from his lack of height (6’2”), there are absolutely no scars on this terrific athlete.
Hughes is a relentless pass-rusher who plays with a killer instinct. He has a wicked quick first step, great flexibility in getting around the edge, and will come at offensive tackles with a wide repertoire of moves.
He reminds me of Pro Bowlers Elvis Dumervil and Robert Mathis in that they are short in stature, but big on game. He is a can’t-miss prospect who teams are going to be sorry they passed on (he is not projected to be drafted until the end of the first or beginning of the second round).
Brandon Graham (Michigan) likes to compare himself to Elvis Dumervil and some scouts are buying into the hype. He has been rising up mock draft boards a lot faster than his 40 time.
He is even shorter than Hughes and lacks the quickness or back-pedal needed to play in open space. He is, however, an extremely hard worker who uses his lack of height to gain leverage in the pass rush.
Graham is not a complete linebacker, but he can be a force getting after the quarterback. I see him more as a situational pass-rusher than an every down player.
Koa Misi (Utah) is another one of those college defensive ends trying to make the switch to outside linebacker. His college coaches say, “Never count Koa out,” but his slow forty time of 4.75 says otherwise.
His production in college was astounding, and on film he looks to be all over the field. He’s either an instinctive, over-achieving football player or a bust waiting to happen – only time will tell.
Jason Worilds (Virginia Tech) is the anti-Koa Misi. His measurables at the combine are far superior, but he had only one season of solid production on the field (18.5 tackles for loss; 8 sacks his senior season).
He does not always crack the ball-carrier at the point of attack, but he rarely misses tackles. He works hard on and off the field, so there is hope that someone can unleash some of his untapped potential.
A player to keep an eye on is Ricky Sapp from Clemson. He tore his ACL his junior year and came back to have a solid, but unspectacular senior season.
Being two-years removed from surgery, Sapp could be ready to break out and show off his rare combination of strength, speed, and agility. He is extremely intelligent and has had experience standing up and dropping back into coverage as a “bandit” defensive end in college.
Because of his injury, Sapp maybe a diamond in the rough who just may slip into the third round or lower.
Sources from inside the Cleveland Browns headquarters have indicated that they are taking long looks at former Buckeye (Euclid High, Ohio native) Thaddeus Gibson and Eric Norwood (South Carolina) as targets with their multiple picks in the third round.
Gibson could have benefitted from another year of seasoning at Ohio State to improve his technique. His college statistics would not cause many scouts to sit up and take notice, but he is a super athlete who is physically imposing and cat-quick for a man his size.
Coaches will fall in love with him when they see him in person, but they are going to have to coach him up if he is ever going to turn into a star.
Norwood is South Carolina’s all-time leader in sacks (29). He is a kid who did take advantage of staying in school by boosting his stock among NFL scouts.
His straight-line speed is not off-the-charts, but he has excellent lateral quickness. Whether it’s chasing down screens, ball-carriers, or quarterbacks, Norwood is always around the ball.