Coming off of a top 10 ranking on defense last season was a bright spot in an otherwise dark year for the Cleveland Browns.
Everyone knew that the focus in the 2012 NFL entry draft was going to be on the offense, making any additions to an already solid defensive unit an afterthought.
However, as we know in the National Football League being three deep at most positions is not a luxury anymore, but a necessity to be successful. Injuries will occur, and the next man up better have a legitimate shot at being as good as the starter.
That's why Cleveland's braintrust made sure to draft and sign strategically at the linebacker and defensive line positions. These manoeuvres paid off quickly as key players started to drop.
In training camp, powerhouse lineman Phil Taylor tore his pectoral muscle, and reliable linebacker Chris Gocong ruptured his Achilles tendon. Cap that off with what was, at the time, a looming suspension to veteran LB Scott Fujita.
The question is, with all the attention going to the Browns' first-round selections, Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who has made the greatest impact from this unheralded defensive rookie class of 2012?
The answer has a big No. 90 on his chest and weighs 295 lbs.
It is Billy Winn who has been Cleveland's best first-year player on defense, and he will continue to be throughout the next 10 games.
Winn's most impressive body of work came in last Sunday's 34-24 victory over division rival Cincinnati.
Bringing continuous pressure to quarterback Andy Dalton, as well as recording a tackle and recovering a fumble with a rumbling 35-yard return down field, is a pretty good afternoon no matter how many years you've been in the league.
"I've never scored a touchdown and it would've been a blessing to get one of those," Winn said. "It didn't work out, but I was able to get the fumble recovery and push the ball a little ways," reported The Plain Dealer's Branson Wright.
This was not an isolated incident; the sixth-round pick has been turning heads since day one.
Cleveland.com's draft analysis proves more true with each passing week.
"Winn is an athletic and active player who can rush the passer and stop the run. He boasts good size and excellent speed for the position, and uses his hands well to shed blockers."
It seems that the Boise State alumnus plays better as more odds are stacked against him. The line's anchor, Ahtyba Rubin, was out with a calf injury in the Cincinnati matchup, and Winn had a career day.
Couple that with the continuous absence of Phil Taylor, and Cleveland's young front unit could have easily wilted under pressure on numerous occasions.
They haven't, and the 6'4" Billy Winn is the reason why.
We cannot forget about fellow lineman John Hughes, who has been quiet and steady but has fallen victim at times to miscalculations typical of a rookie. Winn plays mistake-free football with the confidence and poise of a veteran.
Other first-year contributors worthy of a fist bump are the two undrafted linebackers Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort.
When fourth-round selection James Michael Johnson went down in preseason, it looked like disaster for the Browns linebacker corps. Remember, Chris Gocong was already incapacitated for the year and Scott Fujita was nursing a shoulder/neck ailment.
No one expected Robertson and Fort to step up the way they did and back D'Qwell Jackson to hold it all together.
The difference between those two linebackers and Billy Winn comes down to one word: consistency.
As good as Robertson and Fort were (and continue to be), they have not been consistent. This is, of course, to be expected by rookies in the NFL, which is why Winn's six-week body of work stands out so dramatically.
He may not be racking up the sacks as of yet; however, this is a tackle whose combination of size, speed and discipline makes him a focal point for the opposition's offensive coordinators.
Winn is not only the Browns best rookie defender, but by season's end, will be in the conversation of being their top overall defensive lineman.
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