The Cleveland Browns have made major changes on defense this offseason. The Browns defense transitioned to a 3-4 after Ray Horton was hired as defensive coordinator.
Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant were signed to shore up the front seven. As a result, the front three is surprisingly deep, and Kruger gives them a big time pass-rusher.
The Browns also drafted a player meant solely to be a pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo, but he's not the key to the new front seven. Instead, it's a player who has been a defensive end his entire career, and that player is Jabaal Sheard.
Sheard is a natural fit as a 4-3 defensive end, and that's why he was drafted by the Browns two years ago. He's had 15.5 sacks in two seasons, so the Browns know that he can get to the quarterback better than anyone else on the team.
Can Sheard transition from that to a 4-3 outside linebacker, a move that is not as easy to make as it may seem?
It seems too early to say.
One can be optimistic about his progress thus far. He was not traded right when Mingo was selected or when the transition was announced, unlike Frostee Rucker, who was quickly sent packing.
Still, being a linebacker means knowing a lot more about what the defense is planning and dropping back when needed rather then simply rushing the passer and stopping outside runs.
At 6'2" and 255 pounds, his size fits the role of a linebacker more, so that's not an issue. His speed may be, however, since he won't be right on the line to make a charge. On the other hand, defenses will be focusing on Paul Kruger and D'Qwell Jackson, which should make things easier.
I'm not worried about his sack numbers.
With three big bodies plugging up the middle and Jackson knowing when to drop into coverage, quarterbacks will still need to fear him.
It's knowing when to adjust on the fly that may be a problem.
That's the big transition Sheard will have to make, accounting for draw plays and the like. The only barrier to that is time, and that's something he does not have much of, especially if Mingo looks particularly good in training camp.
So, does Sheard fit in Cleveland's defense? Really, it depends which way Ray Horton goes. If they do more of a hybrid, where they could throw in the occasional 4-3 formation to go with the 3-4, Sheard will fit in perfectly fine, since he and Kruger both have that versatility to make it work.
If it is a raw 3-4 without wiggle room, then that will be a bit tougher. Worst case scenario, if he does get the reads down, he may end up just being used as only a pass-rusher, which is not the intent.
This is the type of situation that is particularly tough, since it's really up to him. He will be penciled in as the starter going into this season, and it's up to him whether or not he succeeds in that role.
Am I convinced he can make the transition?
No, I'm not going to deal in absolutes in this case.
I'm not going to say I have no confidence either, however. The front seven is among the best the Browns have had in quite some time, and if it has the potential to be even better, then that's icing on the cake.