In 2013, the Browns were one of the best teams in the NFL at getting to the quarterback, leading the league in QB hits (121) and finishing tied for sixteenth in sacks (49).
Now while defensive lineman did not make up much of these stats, especially sacks where the d-line only recorded 10.5 sacks, the success in the trenches last season cannot be overlooked. Many times, these battles won by d-lineman may not have resulted in a sack for the guy on the line, but it did open up a hole for a blitzing linebacker or corner to burst threw.
Now even though the numbers weren’t there last season, there is a reason to be optimistic for this season’s d-line, and that’s experience. The three guys that should get the nod on opening day played a combined 42 games last season, out of a possible 48.
At left defensive end should be Ahtyba Rubin, a seventh year man out of Iowa State. He is surprisingly quick off the ball, and is a load to move off the ball at 6’2, 325 lbs. My main concern with him, especially off the end is his ability to beat these NFL tackles around the edge. Again, he is surprisingly quick, but it’s more that he’s surprisingly quick for a DT, not a DE. Plus, he struggled in Ray Horton’s 3-4 defensive scheme last season, as his sacks and tackles numbers remained low for the second season in a row.
At nose tackle should be Phil Taylor, a third-year man out of Baylor. If you’re wondering why Rubin isn’t starting at the nose tackle position, well you haven’t seen Taylor. He’s even bigger that Rubin (and yes, that’s possible) at 6’3 and 337 lbs. He’s perfect for his role in the middle because he has the ability to clog up the middle of the line and shut down running lanes for opposing teams. Again, one concern for him is that the production was down significantly last season. Some of this has to do with him not known for being known for rushing the passer, as he is know for being much more of a run stopper on the line.
Finally, at the right defensive end should be Desmond Bryant. He’s much more of a pass rusher than the other two, and definitely accounts for much more athleticism than the other two. He actually had the most sacks of any Browns’ lineman last season, at 3.5, but again that’s the lowest total he’s recorded in the past three seasons. His total tackles were also at a three-year low last season as well.
Now again, you can’t look too, too much into actual numbers and stats for defensive lineman, because that doesn’t always tell the entire story. The only reason I bring it up as a concern, is because these guys have shown the ability in past years to put up more significant totals on the stat sheet than what they did last season. But, this could be due to more double teams or something along those lines, which opens up holes for the linebacking core, whom accounted for the majority of the sacks last season.
Beyond the starting three, also look for John Hughes and Billy Winn to both get a lot of snaps as well, especially on third downs when the team is looking to get after the quarterback. Hughes finished second amongst all Browns’ defensive linemen in sacks, with three, and should be a good asset when it comes to giving Rubin and Phil Taylor a big man break every once and a while. Winn, meanwhile, added two sacks of his own last season and is one of the quickest d-lineman that the team has. He should add some much needed change of pace off of the end.
One more guy to watch for is undrafted rookie free agent Calvin Barnett out of Oklahoma State. From what I’ve read out of training camp, the coaches love him and are raving at his explosiveness off of the ball and his drive during practice. Don’t be surprised if he sneaks his way into the rotation early on in the season, especially if he has a good preseason showing.