I don't think anybody associated with the Cleveland Browns can say that their front seven has had very much success since coming back in 1999. In fact, according to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Browns have never ranked any higher than 23rd (2003) and is on average ranked 29th overall.
Better days may yet be on the horizon. With the drafting of Phil Taylor in the first round (No. 21 overall) the Browns may have solidified the middle of their defensive line for the next half decade.
This is important, as new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who was the head coach of the Chicago Bears from 1999 until 2003, had some of the best defenses during his tenure in CHI.
These defenses featured two meaty, run stopping tackles on the inside and multiple speedy defensive ends off of the edge. It should be noted that the defense in 2001 finished first in the NFL with a rush defense that gave up only 1,313 yards and an incredible six touchdowns to opposing running backs!
In other words, when it comes to facing the run, Jauron is no pushover. One could make the argument that his success was largely based on the wonderful play of All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher as well.
This is precisely my point.
See, while Urlacher is now one of the best middle linebackers in the league, he primarily played a linebacker/safety hybrid in college at New Mexico.
What prompted Jauron to take Urlacher in the first round was the versatility that Urlacher provided. It was largely speculated that Urlacher could play inside and outside linebacker as well as be a solid backup at safety.
Kind of sounds like the Browns' recent draft pick FB Owen Marecic to me, but that's a different story for a different day.
While Urlacher struggled to gain traction as an outside linebacker, he got his chance to prove his worth when then head coach Jauron replaced injured starting mike linebacker Barry Minter with Urlacher, and thus began the career of an All-Pro player.
What's important about this history lesson? A reader might ask him/herself. It means that the Browns have a great opportunity to improve their defense for years to come. It is important that they find as quickly as possible a strong, fast and versatile linebacker that can man the middle of the field as well as take smart angles to the ball carrier and have enough speed to pursue the runner as well.
Could there be such a guy on the roster? Are there some available in free agency? What about in future drafts? The answer is: Yes.
There are guys that are currently on the roster that may be able to do a more than adequate job plugging the middle. Currently, the only true linebacker that hits the Urlacher mold is D'Qwell Jackson, a proven tackle machine.
However, in recent years Jackson has become an injury risk while playing the inside linebacker spot.
Chris Gocong is another possible option as he did a more than adequate job playing on the inside last season, and he comes from a system where Dick Jauron was involved, the Philadelphia Eagles. However, in the Eagles' brief time in the 4-3 with Gocong, he never lived up to his role as a true middle linebacker and was soon after traded to the Browns.
With the change back to the 4-3, it's hard to see Gocong becoming productive. While it's fair to say that he's matured and grown as a player, his lack of success solidifies that he won't be the best guy for the job.
Another option open to the Browns' is free agency. Among the hottest names circling, one of them is Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud.
Ruud has made some beautiful tackles during his six-year career in Tampa. He has finished with over 100 tackles in his last four seasons and has shown very little signs of slowing down. He also has experience dropping into coverage in a Tampa-2 type defensive set that Jauron likes to toy with sometimes.
This gives Ruud a significant step up.
The downside of signing a guy like Ruud is the fact that he's a vetaran and would require significantly more cash to sign than other players. Given that having one very good linebacker is key, it makes the sums easier to pay, but Ruud also isn't going to be in the league for the next decade like some other options would be.
In terms of free agency, they could also try to take a few fliers on guys that were undrafted and hope that they either work out, or that Gocong can do well enough on the field this season to play a significant gap-stop.
One potential player that they could target in undrafted free agency is Mark Herzlich of Boston College. A sophomore All-ACC linebacker, Herzlich learned the very next season that he had a rare form of cancer, Ewing's sarcoma, which caused him to miss the entire 2009 season.
After fighting back and surviving the brutal sessions to beat the cancer, Herzlich came back the very next year and completed his career at Boston College with a solid season with 65 tackles (50 solo).
What's more is that he tied for first on the team with two forced fumbles, second on the team with four interceptions and four pass break ups and also had 3.5 tackles for a loss.
While Herzlich's story is inspirational, his play as well is fierce and competitive to watch. A winner on and off the field, Herzlich certainly embodies what it's like to live in the gritty city of Cleveland.
However, from a talent perspective, he may be a pretty good fit as well. He has the versatility of an Urlacher type, as he played OLB in college but doesn't exactly have enough speed to play there in the NFL.
Other undrafted free agent options include Mario Harvey, Scott Lutrus and perhaps the most intriguing, DeAndre McDaniel. At Clemson, McDaniel played primarily strong safety. A four-year starter at Clemson, his career started in a big way when he picked off a ball thrown by Matt Ryan.
Throughout his career, he was experimented with in some very interesting ways, sometimes being used as a nickel corner or an outside linebacker.
The thing that makes McDaniel so intriguing is the fact that, in terms of what he brings to the table, he sounds a lot like Urlacher. Now, before you stop reading and post an angry comment, hear me out.
McDaniel, brought up by his grandmother from a young age, is not only an athlete, but is intelligent in terms of his academic, making the 2009-2010 ACC Honor Roll.
In terms of reading and reacting, he's very capable. He has a good understanding of where he should be on the field and what he needs to do. He finds the ball, pursues by taking good angles and bringing down the ballcarrier with solid technique. In terms of how he plays safety he's primarily a zone safety, and while physical, would not be the best fit for our scheme, but his versatility must be addressed as that adds to his value.
What makes McDaniel so fascinating as a linebacker prospect though, is his speed and coverage. At first glance, 4.54 doesn't seem that fast, however, consider this, he's 213 lbs has a 35-inch vertical (nearly three feet) and would have been the third fastest middle linebacker at the NFL Combine in March, had he been thought of as a linebacker.
As a safety, he is natural in his coverage and has the size and speed to keep up with tight ends and backs alike.
The worst that happens is we take McDaniel to be a backup for T.J. Ward, and we could definitely do worse. He was a projected second- or third-round pick and went undrafted, and you can't let an opportunity like that pass you by.
Finally, the last option would be drafting one for the future. In terms of realism, I think this seems like the most logical option, as next years middle linebacker crop looks to be very good. Among the top names on most everybody's boards (as of writing this) are Manti Te'o of Notre Dame, Dont'a Hightower of Alabama and Vontaze Berfict of Arizona State.
Berfict particularly looks perfect for what the defense wants to do. He sends a clear message to opposing offenses; "You better get comfortable down on the ground, cause you're gonna be there all day long."
He has quite a few personality problems and is what some call a "dirty player," but in my book, all that means is that the other teams are afraid of you.
He plays with a Ray Lewis type energy and won't let you forget that he just hit you. Definitely the perfect young guy for a defense that plays Lewis and Pittsburgh's James Harrison twice a year. A bit of a chatterbox, Berfict has no problem "talking the talk" and judging by his highlight tapes on YouTube, he "walks the walk" as well.
All in all, it's not going to matter who we get, only that we get. With no clear starter going into this season, it's a little worrisome. While it's not essential that we find a guy right now, anything that the team can do to ease the growing pains associated particularly with the defensive side of the ball, it needs to be done.
In other words, the quicker we grab the guys we need and have our defense set, the faster we can compete seriously in the AFC North.
It begins with the running game. Baltimore has Rice, Pittsburgh has Mendenhall and Cincinnati has Benson. All of those guys are more than capable of taking over the game. The difference between the Steelers and the Browns is that Pittsburgh consistently contains the run, the Browns, well I showed you the statistics in the beginning.
One thing is for darn certain, this defense is about one or two more pieces away from being fantasy football noteworthy, and that's a huge improvement in my book. We should be headed in the general direction of the Lions, not the Raiders.