For the Browns, the outside linebacker position should be an area of strength. Both Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard have proven to be effective pass rushers, and with Barkevious Mingo, the sixth overall selection last year, still developing, the Browns pass rush should bring terror to quarterback’s eyes…should.
The truth is that Cleveland should have been a force to be reckoned with last year. With Kruger coming off a 9.5 sack season and Sheard coming off a seven sack season, everything was in place for them to wreck havoc opposite of each other. When the Browns front office looked down at the end of season stats and saw that they finished with just an average pass rush, they had to be questioning what went wrong.
Kruger joined the Browns after an extremely effective finish to his 2012 campaign. In only six starts, he managed nine sacks in the regular season, and then capped it all off with 4.5 more during the Ravens postseason run to the Super Bowl. Needless to say, Kruger’s 4.5 total sacks in 2013 didn’t justify the five-year, $40.5 million contract he received from the Browns. At this point, Cleveland simply has to hope that last year was more of an adjustment period than a sign of what’s to come.
Likewise, Sheard, who’s about to enter his fourth season, saw his numbers drop across the board last year. Still, to Sheard’s credit, he was making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, a move that often takes some time getting used to. Like Kruger, Sheard will hopefully feel more comfortable in his role this season and perform as he did in the past.
The real wildcard in this whole scenario is Mingo. He has some real talent, and his progress this season is going to go a long way in determining how good the Browns defense will be. Mingo can single-handedly improve the Browns pass rush if he plays to the level expected of him. The five sacks he had in his rookie season should be the low mark of his career.
Looking forward, there really isn’t much need for the Browns to look at outside linebackers in the draft. Bringing in Mingo and Kruger last season showed that the organization was putting its trust in those two for the long haul. If the Browns want to look anywhere, it would be wise to bring in a situational pass rusher in free agency. Specifically, Shaun Phillips. He may be 32, but Phillips’ 10 sacks last year show that he is by no means washed up. More importantly, his price tag will be affordable, especially for a Browns team that has as much cap space as they do.
Expect the Browns/ outside linebackers to look improved this year. The three main cogs will be more comfortable in their roles and have been playing with a lot of untapped potential. If everything goes right, these three players could prove to be invaluable assets to Cleveland’s turnaround.