The 2011 NFL Draft showed just how serious the Cleveland Browns are about making the transition to a 4-3 defense. After engineering a stunning trade with the Atlanta Falcons, the Browns nabbed huge Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor with the 21st overall pick. In the second round, Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert added a speedy edge rusher in Jabaal Sheard from the University of Pittsburgh.
These were two positive moves from the Browns hierarchy. Transitioning to any new defense begins up front. Taylor and Sheard are likely to both emerge as day one starters for new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. Joined by last season's surprise package Ahtyba Rubin, the two rookies could help form the basis of an exciting young defensive line in Cleveland.
There is still the important position at left end to fill, however. In most 4-3 defenses, the weakside, right defensive end spot is occupied by a rush specialist. The strongside end is required to be more of a complete player, capable of applying pressure and strong enough to shut down the run. Think of legendary former New York Giant Michael Strahan when vizualising the classic left defensive end.
If the Browns are to have a firm foundation for their new 4-3, they will need to find a strongside starter who fits the above criteria. Here are five potential candidates who would make the Browns schematic change a success.
Carter endured an unhappy 2010 in the nation's capital after being forced to switch to outside linebacker in Mike Shanahan's ill-fitting 3-4 scheme. A proud proponent of the 4-3, Carter would likely relish any opportunity to return to his favoured system.
At age 32, Carter would bring valuable experience and leadership to the rest of the Browns young defensive front. Carter's versatility rushing from either side of the line would also provide Dick Jauron with important flexibility and the chance to create confusion for offensive blocking schemes.
Although he never enjoyed his experiences playing as a linebacker, Carter's time spent learning pass drops could prove very useful for Jauron. During his tenure as defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the mid to late 1990s, Jauron would often have his defensive ends peel off into coverage while linebackers filled the rush lanes. Carter's 257 pound frame and cat like quickness would make him ideally suitable for a similar tactical use.
Carter would be a cheaper option than the more high-priced free agents on this list and could flourish back in his natural position.
A speedy, undersized defensive end, Juqua Parker has gotten better with age. But at 33, Parker could become expendable in Philadelphia if new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo wants to get younger up front.
Weighing a mere 250 pounds, Parker might be considered too small for many 4-3 defenses. But Dick Jauron did manage to achieve success with undersized players like Tony Brackens and Jeff Lageman in Jacksonville.
If the Browns pack the middle of their line with the combined bulk of Taylor and Rubin, Parker's diminutive stature would be offset. This would create one-on-one opportunities, enabling Parker to take advantage of cumbersome right tackles with his explosive speed. Jauron could even line Parker up in a seven or nine alignment and let him rush opposite a tight end.
Like Carter, Parker would also be a useful weapon in some of Jauron's zone drop schemes. Parker has plenty of experience in this area from his years spent learning under 4-3 zone blitz mastermind, the late Jim Johnson.
A career-long practitioner of 4-3 defenses, Parker's comfort in a 40 front would be invaluable for a Cleveland team attempting to implement the switch under the difficult circumstances of a lockout.
Jason Babin surprised many with a breakout year in Tennessee. The journeyman defensive end excelled as the premier rush specialist on the Titans line. Babin is tipped to test himself on the free agent market, and his signing would have a lot of upside for the Browns.
Babin, like Juqua Parker, is a former Philadelphia Eagle and has experience in zone blitz schemes. He also learned invaluable pass-rush techniques working under legendary line guru Jim Washburn in the Music City. As Washburn often preferred to have his ends attack from wide alignments, Babin could develop into a dangerous speed rusher for the Browns defense.
Babin uses strength and relentless energy to pressure the pocket. He plays much bigger than his 260 pound frame would suggest. His presence on the left side would ease the pressure on rookie Jabaal Sheard to provide the lion's share of the pass rush. Having a threat like Babin for offensive lines to worry about could even help Sheard to produce big numbers earlier than expected.
The Browns would likely face strong competition for Babin's signature. A return to perennial playoff contender Philadelphia might be more appealing. But a big push to land Babin could well be worth it for Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert. Babin's enthusiasm and determination to prove himself more than a one season wonder could be infectious for a young Browns squad desperate to experience success.
A talented but temperamental defensive end, Ray Edwards would be a gamble for Cleveland. But his signing might also generate real excitement amongst the long-suffering Browns faithful.
Playing with excellent leverage, above average strength and a crafty hands technique, Ray Edwards has all the attributes needed to be a star defensive performer. On his day, he has certainly proven capable of taking over and dominating a game.
There are however two big question marks surrounding Edwards. The first concerns how well he would fare outside Minnesota, without the security of the Williams Wall and the extra attention paid to Jared Allen by opposing offensive lines. There have also been doubts concerning his motivation and commitment.
Signing a player with these questions surrounding him to fill such an importation role would be a huge risk for the Browns front office. Yet giving a Edwards a starring role in the scheme could offer him the perfect scenario to thrive and potentially provide the Browns with a big return on their investment.
Prizing a marquee free agent like Charles Johnson away from a rebuilding Carolina Panthers team may be a dream scenario for the Cleveland Browns. Johnson emerged last season from the shadow of Julius Peppers to be the lone bright spot amidst the wreckage of a 2-14 debacle in Charlotte.
Standing 6'2" and weighing 275 pounds, Johnson possesses the perfect size for the more physically demanding strongside defensive end position. Equally adept at stuffing the run and rushing the passer, the 24 year old former Georgia standout is a rising star.
Johnson's proficiency in repelling the run would be useful to the Browns in an AFC North division featuring tough runners Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice and Cedric Benson. With Johnson, Taylor and Rubin on the line, the Browns would have no trouble standing up to the power blocking schemes utilized by their division rivals. This would allow the linebackers to aggressively attack downhill and force teams into a pass first mode.
Johnson's power and quickness makes him versatile enough to move inside and become an effective three technique tackle in nickel and dime packages. This would enable the Browns to utilise linebacker Chris Gocong as a speed rushing end on third downs.
New Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera will no doubt be anxious to keep a building block like Charles Johnson in place. But with the financial commitment the Panthers have made to Cam Newton and multiple needs to fill, Johnson just might become available.
If the Browns can find a stellar left defensive end, they should have the makings of a fearsome font four: one that could make their transition to a 4-3 a success much earlier than anticipated.