With Ray Horton being brought in as the Cleveland Browns’ new defensive coordinator, a switch to an attacking 3-4 defense seems to be in the cards. With the switch, most of the players in the front seven are in line for a position change. None of these projections are sure things. I could be way off on a few of them, but I am simply looking at the players’ skill sets and projecting them the best I possibly can.
When the Browns previously employed a 3-4 defense, Ahtyba Rubin was the nose tackle. I expect him to return to the position. He may have the athletic ability to hold up as a 5-technique (defensive end in a 3-4), but I feel that his best fit is at nose. Rubin isn’t ever going to be an elite nose tackle, but he’s a solid starter and his skill set fits the position well.
When Phil Taylor came out of Baylor, many draft pundits hyped him up as a pure nose tackle. Due to the hype, many expected Taylor to be drafted by a 3-4 team. In watching Taylor at Baylor, I always felt he had the athletic ability and versatility to play anywhere from nose tackle to 5-technique on the defensive line at the next level. Simply using him as a nose tackle and not moving him around at all would be wasting the freakish athletic ability that he possesses for a man his size. I expect Ray Horton to use Taylor in multiple spots on the defensive line, but in the base defense, I think that he’ll start at 5-technique (defensive end). Taylor has the combination of athletic ability and strength to really thrive at the position.
In being drafted in the sixth round, Billy Winn wasn’t expected to be a big-time contributor during his rookie season. Now that the 2012 season is in the books, his future looks very bright. Winn showed impressive athletic ability for a defensive tackle and also showed a great deal of versatility. He dropped into coverage on 18 snaps and lined up as a defensive end on 43 snaps in 2012. This versatility will help Winn in transitioning to Ray Horton’s defense. I expect Winn to compete for a starting position at 5-technique opposite Phil Taylor. I also expect Horton to take advantage of Winn’s versatility and athletic ability by moving him around.
When Jabaal Sheard was in the 2011 NFL Draft, many expected him to be a good fit as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. After playing his first two seasons at left defensive end, it’s time for Sheard to make the switch. Sheard’s role won’t change a ton as he makes the transition. Rather than being in a 3-point stance on most downs, Sheard will be standing up the majority of the time now. He will still be asked to rush the passer most of the time. Also, this may be surprising to many, but Sheard stood up on 22.1% of pass plays in 2012 and dropped into coverage on 6.1% of those plays. Sheard will undoubtedly have to drop into coverage more often and he may have to lose some weight (may not have to), but his skill set fits the position well and I expect him to play well in Ray Horton’s defensive scheme.
In transitioning to the new defense, D’Qwell Jackson will likely be moved to the weak inside linebacker position as the Mike linebacker. Jackson’s skill set fits the position well, but not quite as well as it fit the Mike linebacker position he played in the 4-3. Jackson will be asked to shed blocks more often in the 3-4 because there won’t be as many bodies in front of him to keep him clean. Jackson will have to improve his ability to get off blocks and make plays in the backfield if he wants to thrive in the 3-4 defense.
After starting eight games at strong side linebacker as a rookie in 2012, James-Michael Johnson will likely transition to the strong inside linebacker position as the Ted linebacker in Ray Horton’s defense. Johnson does a decent job of getting off blocks and making tackles. These are both important skills for the position, as he will be asked to take on lead blockers on a regular basis. I don’t expect Johnson to simply be handed the starting job, but I definitely think he will be in the mix for the starting Ted linebacker position.
John Hughes should transition to nose tackle in switching to the 3-4 defense. Hughes is strong at the point of attack and he rarely takes plays off. He should provide excellent depth behind Ahtyba Rubin at nose tackle.
Although Chris Gocong tore his Achilles tendon and missed the 2012 season, he is still under contract at this point in time. Gocong’s best fit in the 3-4 is undoubtedly at the Ted linebacker position. Gocong is good at taking on blocks and he can make an impact as a pass rusher from the inside. Horton likes to send his inside linebackers on creative blitzes and Gocong could be very valuable in this role if he is under contract. I expect Gocong to be in the mix for the starting Ted linebacker position with the aforementioned James-Michael Johnson.
Kaluka Maiava is an impending unrestricted free agent. Although he had a very under appreciated season starting every game at weak side linebacker in the base defense, I don’t expect him to return. If Maiava were to re-sign, his best fit would be at Mike linebacker in the new defense due to his athletic ability. Maiava would bring solid depth behind D’Qwell Jackson.
I am uncertain of how good a fit Frostee Rucker is for a 3-4 defense. Rucker has held up well in the run game as a base defensive end in a 4-3 throughout his career, but the double teams he will face in a 3-4 are a different animal. Rucker’s best fit, position-wise, is undoubtedly as a 5-technique. Rucker will probably be in the mix with Billy Winn to start at 5-technique, but I give Winn the edge due to the fact that he is much more stout at the point of attack.
I expect Craig Robertson to keep the same role in the new defense as he had in 2012. Robertson was a nickel linebacker throughout the entire season due to his abilities in coverage. Robertson is a restricted free agent, but he should be back in 2013. In the base defense, Robertson will probably transition to Mike linebacker, but I don’t expect to see him very often, if at all, in that role.
LJ Fort played 98 snaps in 2012, splitting time at both strong side linebacker and middle linebacker. Due to his length and physicality, I expect him to transition to Ted linebacker in the new defensive scheme. With a strong offseason, Fort could challenge for the starting job at the position.
Ishmaa’ily Kitchen played 212 snaps in 2012, mostly as a 1-technique defensive tackle. Kitchen is strong at the point of attack and his best fit in the new scheme will undoubtedly be at nose tackle. Kitchen should provide solid depth at the position.
Emmanuel Stephens was actually putting together a pretty solid campaign in 2012 before being placed on injured reserve with a neck injury. He produced one sack and 8 quarterback hurries in 149 snaps as a rotational defensive end. Stephens will be joining Jabaal Sheard in making the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. It is hard to tell how comfortable Stephens will be dropping into coverage and standing up because he hasn’t done much, if any, of it in his career up to this point. If Stephens is comfortable standing up, he has a chance to be a contributor because the Browns simply don’t have very many pass rushers on the roster at this point in time.
- Ted linebacker
- Outside linebacker
In my opinion, the Browns shouldn’t have as much trouble making the transition to a new defensive scheme as they did in the past. The Browns have a lot more talent in the front seven now than they did back then. Additionally, Ray Horton is a great defensive mind and he should do an excellent job of adapting his scheme to his personnel. The Browns currently have two huge needs in the front seven. An elite pass rushing talent at outside linebacker and depth everywhere.