Cleveland Looks for an Improved D in 2008

by Tim Heaney on March 14, 2008 @ 15:43:10 PDT


The Cleveland Browns had one of the more surprisingly effective offenses in the NFL last year. They have already done their part to keep that intact by locking up quarterback Derek Anderson and running back Jamal Lewis while signing wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. The Browns have also paid close attention to the other side of the line of scrimmage; after acquiring defensive tackle Corey Williams from the Green Bay Packers for a second-round pick, they pounced on defensive lineman Shaun Rogers from the Detroit Lions in exchange for cornerback Leigh Bodden and a third-round pick.

Cleveland's main hindrance was their run defense last year. The acquisition of two defensive tackles with this much potential would normally facilitate a move to a 4-3 defensive set, but early signs indicate the Browns are expected to stick to a 3-4 set and move Williams to defensive end. Rogers and Williams were both significant interior parts of 4-3 systems last year, so there might be a bit of an adjustment period as they likely head to a new scheme.

Defense in the Dog House

Cleveland inhabited the bottom rung in team rushing defense for the majority of the 2007 season, finishing 27th in the NFL by surrendering 2,072 rushing yards (129.5 yards allowed per game). The Browns had ample troubles early on last season, allowing 89 points in their first two games, though one of them was a 51-45 shootout win against the Cincinnati Bengals. However, they allowed 100 rushing yards in each of their first six games before finally holding the St. Louis Rams to 79 yards in Week 8 after their bye - a game in which running back Steven Jackson carried the ball just eight times in his return from a groin injury. 

They were also riddled with injuries all season; now free-agent defensive end Orpheus Roye (foot), veteran linebacker Willie McGinest (back) and defensive back Gary Baxter (knees) among those forced to the pine for a significant period of time. Bodden and cornerback Eric Wright were also banged up throughout the season. The depleted roster and early defensive fatigue prompted head coach Romeo Crennel to initiate a rotation system, and the defense started to see minimal improvements as the team incorporated some more of its younger players.

Rogers' New Neighborhood

Taking a step to move away from aching bodies, the Dawg Pound swooped in to grab Rogers after the Lions' trade with the Cincinnati Bengals fell through. In order to grab the 6-foot-4, 340-pound University of Texas alum, they had to give up Bodden, a stud in IDP leagues who had six interceptions, 88 tackles and 15 pass deflections last season.

Rogers should certainly help upgrade a defense that included 30-year-old Robaire Smith and the 39-year-old Ted Washington swapping playing time along the defensive line. Rogers has compiled 15 1/2 sacks in the last three seasons but has faced questions about his character and effort. The only question here is how Rogers will adjust to playing both gaps if the team sticks with its original design. He is expected to start but not serve as an every-down player.

Acquiring a Franchise

Williams had a mediocre fantasy season last year, recording seven sacks for the second straight season while adding 35 tackles, three forced fumbles and an interception. Prior to the trade, the Packers had tagged Williams as their franchise player, but their depth at the position allowed them to trade him with 2007 first-round pick Justin Harrell and a healthy Johnny Jolly as likely replacements.

The former sixth-round pick is coming off of back-to-back strong seasons. He didn't record a sack in his last five games of the season when injuries shortened Green Bay's defensive tackle rotation, but he held up well against the run in extended snaps during the latter half of the season with 25 tackles from Week 9 on. The Browns signed him to a six-year deal, ensuring the opportunity to keep him during his prime years.  

Line of Defense

Crennel favored the 3-4 set during his stint as defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots and carried that philosophy with him to Cleveland. Now, with Williams and Rogers, he should have the ability to at least contain the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Raves, two ground-happy AFC North rivals. The Steelers have also lost guard Alan Faneca (New York Jets), and as long as quarterback Steve McNair is manning the Ravens offense the Browns could have an edge in quickness up front.

The Browns named Mel Tucker as their defensive coordinator in early 2008. Tucker, the team's defensive backs coach for the last three seasons, made the secondary the most reliable section of the defensive unit last season while helping to mold Bodden and Wright into an above-average cornerback tandem. Browns defensive line coach Randy Melvin worked alongside Crennel with the Patriots during their Super Bowl XXXV victory in 2001, so Rogers and Williams could provide some better clay with which to mold the front part of Tucker's defense.

The team doesn't appear to be finished making moves, and they are reportedly targeting the linebacker corps next. However, they lost out on several free-agent linebackers, including Travis LaBoy (Arizona Cardinals) and Calvin Pace (Jets). They will reportedly meet with linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who recorded three sacks for the Cardinals last season in a 3-4 system.

Fantasy Outlook

Rogers and Williams give the Browns a foundation along the defensive line off which to build the rest of their 3-4, although both players are mid-range options at best in fantasy IDP leagues. Do these moves make the Browns defense an upper-echelon fantasy option? Not really, but they certainly give them a more youthful front line against teams that would most likely attempt to pound the ball against them next season. These moves might improve Cleveland on the real field, but Cleveland's unit is still waiver wire fodder as a matchup play heading into the 2008 season.

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About Tim Heaney

Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.

He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.

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