Highlighting the Best Rookie vs. Vet Battle in Cleveland Browns Training Camp
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The most important veteran-versus-rookie training camp battle for the Cleveland Browns this year came about almost by accident.
With defensive tackle Phil Taylor out until at least October with a torn pectoral muscle, his replacement will come either from a pair of veterans or a pair of rookies. And whoever wins out will be tasked with taking over for one of the Browns' best defensive players in a year when stopping the run is of the utmost importance.
Vying for the job are veterans Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering and rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn. Though one would think the veterans have the leg up in this competition, that may not be the case when examining their backgrounds.
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Paxson has been in the league since 2006 but has only a small amount of in-game experience. He's spent most of his professional career as a practice squad player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, didn't play at all in 2010 and was signed by the Browns in 2011.
Though Paxson appeared in all 16 games last season, it was never as a starter and he saw just 273 total defensive snaps (subscription required), most of which came against the run (Taylor, on the other hand, had 742 snaps, almost evenly divided between run defense and pass rush).
Schaefering also has a less-than-auspicious background. A nine-game starter in 2010 as a 3-4 defensive end, he was shifted to tackle last season when the defense moved to a 4-3 base and he never started a single game. He, too, was used primarily against the run and played just 235 total snaps.
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To Schaefering's credit, he did do better at stopping the run last year than Paxson, notching 14 defensive stops and 26 solo tackles; Paxson did have one sack but just 14 solo tackles—not a good number for someone supposed to stop the run, regardless of his low number of snaps.
Between Hughes and Winn, Hughes seems to have the upper hand. Not only does he have the benefit of better draft positioning (he was taken in the third round, Winn in the sixth), he also has better size. Winn, like Schaefering and Paxson, is smaller, and, like Schaefering and Paxson, also has a background of playing defensive end.
Hughes' prototypical defensive tackle frame (at 320 pounds, he is 25-30 pounds heavier than the other three tackles) is a leg up in the competition, but there is still a learning curve at the position that he'll have to overcome in order to win the starting job.
Last year, the Browns ranked 30th in rushing yardage allowed, giving up an average of 147.4 yards on the ground per game. That number clearly represents a failure of Cleveland's entire defensive front seven, of which Taylor was a part, but it would have been even worse without Taylor in the lineup.
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Though the Browns are hoping to field a new-look crew of defensive linemen this year, there's a great deal of risk in putting a rookie on the line to replace such a highly productive player as Taylor. However, one look at the pedigrees of both Paxson and Shaefering and it might be inevitable.
From an experience standpoint, both Paxson and Shaefering are practically in the same boat as the rookies. Schaefering has never started as a 4-3 defensive tackle, and Paxson had just one NFL game to his name before last season. Paxson is now 29 years old and is little more than a stopgap at the position if he wins the job. Clearly, Hughes and Winn are the future.
The other issue with both Paxson and Shaefering is that they lack the complete package needed from a starting defensive tackle. As I mentioned earlier, Taylor's snaps last season were almost equally split between run defense and pass rush (389 against the run, 353 in pass rush); similar splits can be found for the other three starters on the line.
Who do you think will win Phil Taylor's starting job in camp this year?
Hughes is a well-balanced player; he had 25 total tackles for the Cincinnati Bearcats last season along with five sacks. Winn's numbers with Boise State are also similar. While it's hard to say that a player's college numbers offer any insight as to how they'll perform in the NFL, there seems to be a better chance for Hughes or Winn to offer up more Taylor-style versatility than the two veterans.
As we all know, this is a crucial season for the Browns. On defense, the primary goal is to have their run-stopping match the level of their 2011 second-ranked pass defense. The loss of Taylor—no matter for how long—hurts that effort. So the Browns will be giving all four of the players fighting for his starting spot some seriously heavy workloads in camp.
For the sheer importance of the position, the competition between Paxson, Shaefering, Winn and Hughes is most certainly the rookie-versus-veteran battle to pay the most attention to in this year's training camp.
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