Despite an already much-improved level of play this season, there will still be many holes for the front office to address in the coming months in Cleveland.
The defense this season compared to the last has been night and day, with a lot of weak spots that have been filled during the 2009 offseason by free agent pickup Scott Fujita, trade acquisitions Chris Gocong and Sheldon Brown and 2010 draft class members TJ Ward and Joe Haden.
One area that wasn't addressed however is potentially the most important area of a 3-4 defense, the defensive line. The emergence of 2008 late round draft pick Ahtyba Rubin has been a bright spot, as the nose tackle should be around for years to come. Along with him, Shaun Rogers has been efficient in his limited use, but the remainder of the line has been largely aging and ineffective.
Interesting prospects on the line currently are former-Viking Jayme Mitchell, practice squad retrieval Brian Schaefering, and unknown youngster Brian Sanford. While possibly great depth, impact linemen are needed to tie up all five offensive linemen moving forward, if any pass rush is to be generated.
So what options are available this offseason?
Barry Cofield, 26, New York Giants:
Cofield is the perfect fit for the Browns, a Cleveland native, Barry is currently in New York playing on a one-year/$1.759 RFA contract. At just 26 years old, he still has quite a few good years left in him and is the perfect size for a 3-4 lineman at 6'4", 306 pounds.For the Browns' sake, they should be hoping he still has some resentment for not getting a long-term contract at the end of last season from the Giants.
Jonathan Fanene, 28, Cincinnatti:
Fanene is out for 2010 on the Injured Reserve list and in the final year of your contract, that's rarely going to help your case for a contract extension. Good news for teams in the market for a solid defensive lineman however, as in 2009 Fanene had a solid season of 36 tackles, six sacks, two passes defensed and one interception.
Charles Johnson, 24, Carolina Panthers:
The former Georgia Bulldog has had a breakout season in his fourth year. Despite being a team that has only won one game this season, Johnson has continued to play hard, putting up 50 tackles, 7.5 sacks and a forced fumble. At just 275 pounds, he is a bit undersized for Cleveland's scheme, but there's no denying his immense talent.
Tony McDaniel, 25, Miami Dolphins:
McDaniel is just a bit undersized for a nose tackle at 310 pounds and could be better served as a defensive end. Highly athletic for his size, McDaniel is having a career year with 24 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes defensed. Alongside Ahtyba Rubin, Cleveland's line would have gotten a whole lot more powerful.
Remi Ayodele, 27, New Orleans:
Ayodele is a relatively young lineman still, but has already bounced around on a few teams, before becoming a stout piece of the New Orleans front lines this season. With 26 tackles and a sack, Remi is quietly putting together a solid season on a team that has relatively underachieved so far.
Ray McDonald, 26, San Francisco:
A 290 pound lineman of the 2007 Champion Florida Gators, McDonald was taken in the 3rd round of the 2007 draft. Still widely not having reached his potential, Browns' coordinator Rob Ryan has been known to get the best out of his players.His numbers aren't anything that will make jaws drop, but in nine starts he has five sacks, five passes defensed and an interception. Ray has a nose for the ball-carrier and would be worth a look in orange and brown.
Brandon Mebane, 25, Seattle:
A natural 3-4 defensive end out of California, Mebane has 137 tackles and 10 sacks in his four-season career with Seattle. At 25 years old, Mebane is just coming into his prime and we've only seen the tip of the iceberg on his abilities. Rob Ryan would love to mold this kid into a versatile linemen in his 4-6 schemes.
Clifton Ryan, 26, St Louis:
Ryan is another player that has spent the season on the Injured Reserve list in the last year of his contract. In his past three seasons in St. Louis, he's made 103 tackles to go with his three sacks, but had his best year last season. Clifton is just entering into his prime at 26 and is a monster at 324 pounds. Eric Mangini loves over-sized linemen and would jump at the chance to have Clifton on the roster.
Nick Fairley, DE/DT, Auburn:
Fairley has jumped up draft boards due to his dominating play and Auburn's entrance onto the big stage this season. He's a powerful hitter who has been known to play overaggressive at times, possibly drawing a lot of penalties at the next level, such as Ndamukong Suh and James Harrison this season. Projected to go in the top 5, it's likely he is out of Cleveland's reach.
Marcell Dareus, DE/DT, Alabama:
Dareus is currently a top 10 pick as well, but has been consistently a tough defender his entire career at Alabama. Cleveland would have to trade up if they become interested in Dareus, who has drawn NFL comparisons to Ty Warren of the New England Patriots. Dareus may be most known to Cleveland fans as the lineman who took Colt McCoy out of the BCS Championship Game. You can bet Colt would much rather be with him, than against him.
Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State:
While early, Paea is projected to be a mid first-rounder, so he is really the first lineman in Cleveland's draft reach. A 311-pounder out of Oregon State, Paea brings freakish strength with him to the NFL, recently putting up 225 pounds 44 times in a video, the combine record being 51. With that strength comes a tenacious ability to cause turnovers, setting a school record with eight forced fumbles to date. With his size, strength, and turnover ability he seems like a natural target of Eric Mangini.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa:
Clayborn has had a disappointing season by most accounts, not because it wasn't an impressive one, but because he was projected to dramatically improve on his 2009 feats. Scouts say Clayborn will be an outstanding prospect at the NFL level, but will draw concerns from NFL teams due to his off the field actions and questionable work ethic. At 280, it's likely he would be asked to put on weight in a 3-4 scheme, but given his talent he would be worth the late first round consideration.
Cameron Jordan, DE/DT, California:
Cameron Jordan is an intriguing prospect as he is already a 3-4 end at California. If team scouts aren't paying close enough attention, his numbers will be overlooked due to the scheme they play. Jordan gets pressure on the passer routinely and is a tough run defender. Given the drafting of Alex Mack in 2009, it's obvious Cleveland sends scouts to California, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to see him in orange and brown in 2011.
Allen Bailey, DE, Miami:
Scouts say Allen Bailey will be even better in a five technique at the NFL level, in other words, a 3-4 defense. Bailey could potentially be a late first round pick, it depends on the number of teams drafting defense that run schemes he will fit into. At Miami, Bailey has gone from 260 to 288 of pure muscle, and is a dominating figure on the line using his strength as well as finesse to get into the backfield.
Cameron Heyward, DE/DT, Ohio State:
An Ohio State pick, many Cleveland fans will be clamoring for Heyward, but he's been plagued by inconsistency this season that has dropped his stock. While still a good value in the second round, Heyward has a lot of polishing of his skills left to do, and will draw comparisons to Vernon Gholston leading into the draft. Cameron will be boom or bust at the next level.
Drake Nevis, DT, LSU:
Nevis is another player who could potentially jump up draft boards, but now is currently sitting mid-second round. His size may be a concern to teams at just 6'0", but weighs in at 292 pounds. Nevis has a high motor and never gives up on the play, but occasionally gets tied up by bigger offensive linemen on pass rush attempts. If put alongside other solid linemen, he could be great at the next level and is definitely worth the scouting trip to LSU.
Jurrell Casey, DE, USC:
Casey is still undecided on entering the draft, but is currently a late second-round pick. Casey gets solid penetration into the backfield but still needs to refine his game. His ceiling is much higher than where he'll be drafted due to concerns at the combine that he isn't ripped or fast enough, but his game speed is rivaled by few. Remember Joe Haden?
Lawrence Guy, DE/DT, Arizona State:
Lawrence Guy is another player who may go a round earlier, falling anywhere from high second to low third. If he stays at ASU for another season and builds on his stats, he could easily go in the first round of 2012. Guy stands at 6'5" with 300 pounds carried well on his frame. A physical lineman who is sure to mature and grow more, he'd be incredible value as a third round pick.
Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska:
After Ndamukong Suh's departure to the NFL, Crick now faces the double-teams Suh once occupied, and hasn't had the type of year predicted. Still a solid lineman, Crick is slated to go off the board in the third round. At 6'5", 285 pounds, he'll likely be asked to put on a few pounds and bounce to defensive end in Cleveland's scheme. Lined up alongside Ahtyba Rubin who is currently double-teamed would benefit Crick much like Suh did at Nebraska.
Jarvis Jenkins, DT, Clemson:
Jenkins has had a solid season at Clemson, benefiting greatly from the amazing play of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. On the season he had 51 tackles, including nine for a loss, and 16 quarterback pressures. Lacking that last step of closing speed, it's a coach-able aspect at the next level.
My top three choices for the players I feel most fit Cleveland's team:
Barry Cofield (New York Giants)
Cofield is a proven player overshadowed on a great Giants defense. Given his hometown love of Cleveland, Ohio, I would love to see Barry back in town.
Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks)
Mebane at 25 still has limitless untapped potential, with his age he could be a building block of the line for years to come. Coming out of California who runs a 3-4, he's already well-versed in the defensive technique.
Cameron Jordan (California Golden Bears)
I'm picking another California 3-4 linemen here due to his size, toughness and knowledge of the scheme. Stephen Paea was a consideration here as well, but Jordan could be obtained by trading down and acquiring more picks in theory.