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Cleveland Browns: Full Position Breakdown, Depth Chart Analysis at OLB

Andrea Hangst@FBALL_AndreaFeatured Columnist IVJuly 3, 2015

Paul Kruger should remain the Browns' most productive and consistent outside linebacker, but he'll be in good company this year.
Paul Kruger should remain the Browns' most productive and consistent outside linebacker, but he'll be in good company this year.Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

For a 3-4 base defense like the Cleveland Browns', having capable pass-rushing outside linebackers is a must. Last year, the team did all right at the position, but it could have been more productive—especially with head coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil coming from the Buffalo Bills, whose defense totaled 57 sacks in 2013. The Browns, in contrast, had only 31 sacks in the 2014 season.

They were led by outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who should reprise his role as the Browns' sack leader this year. Kruger was brought aboard in 2013 as a free agent and had only 4.5 sacks in his first season in Cleveland. But he blossomed last year and expects even more from himself this year.

And that's not just by way of sack totals, either. Kruger, who spoke to ClevelandBrowns.com's Kevin Jones in May, is looking to improve every aspect of his game. He said, "I think the biggest thing for me is playing a well-rounded game. I just want to improve in every way that I can."

Kruger added that becoming a better player will make the entire defense better: "It boils down to playing team defense. A guy can miss a tackle here, a guy can miss a tackle there, but there's always something that could've been done by somebody else. We just have to get better as [a] unit, which starts individually."

Kruger played more defensive snaps last year than any Browns outside linebacker, according to Pro Football Focus, and that should continue into 2015. But he may have to share more time than he did last year thanks to the emergence of a journeyman backup and the arrival of a promising rookie.

That journeyman is Scott Solomon, who was tapped to take over for Barkevious Mingo late last season when Mingo's injured shoulder limited his effectiveness on the field. Solomon, cut five times before making his way to Cleveland, appeared in the Browns' Week 16 and 17 contests last year and totaled one sack and three quarterback hurries.

And now, Solomon is turning heads in OTAs and minicamp, earning the nickname "Bloodbath" because, in O'Neil's words, per Tom Reed of Cleveland.com, "(he's) like a heat-seeking missile coming off the edge." Solomon, though, doesn't yet project to be an every-down linebacker, but instead, according to O'Neil:

I think that he brings something to the table that we were missing last year, especially on early downs. We talk about aiming point, hand placement, his ability to set the edge in the run game. ... 

Being unselfish and being willing to take on two blockers at the point of attack, sacrificing your body so an inside backer can scrape through over the top and make a tackle for a loss. Those are things we've had other places I've been. We had them at times last year. It was inconsistent. Scott is going to give us a very steady player on the edge doing those kinds of things.

However, Solomon doesn't have to play every down to be effective, as O'Neil noted. Instead, the Browns should be able to field the proper combination of outside or rush linebackers depending on the situation.

For example, Mingo, according to O'Neil, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, is "by far our best outside linebacker in coverage." But that also doesn't mean that Mingo will be a starter by default, even with his Round 1 draft pedigree.

As O'Neil said, "No one is guaranteed anything on the defense. Joe Haden knows that, Donte Whitner knows that and Karlos Dansby knows that. You're going to have to earn playing time. We're deep in every position group. Mingo is going to have to come back ready to go, and he's going to have to earn it," adding that Mingo "is going to have to compete for playing time on early downs. He's going to have a role in our sub-packages."

In two years in Cleveland, Mingo has totaled just seven sacks—two of which came in 2014. He also has defended just four passes per year, a low number considering Mingo's talents in coverage. Of course, last year was marred by a shoulder injury Mingo played through all year.

But it's also that injury—and his subsequent recovery from surgery—that landed Solomon on the first-team defense in OTAs and minicamp. And it's Solomon who appears poised to be taking those early-down snaps away from Mingo this year. 

Mingo has a big year ahead of him. Whatever role he is asked to take on he needs to master, because the Browns aren't going to have endless patience with him when there's a defense that needs improvement.

There's also the matter of rookie Nate Orchard to consider. Orchard, whom CBSSports.com's Rob Rang said is the best fit of all the Browns' 2015 draft picks, had 18.5 sacks as a senior at Utah. Orchard spoke with Fox Sports Ohio's Fred Greetham at the recent rookie symposium and said that he's filled in at strong-side linebacker for Mingo during minicamp and OTAs but has also moved around the formation.

He is learning the nuances of his position, just like any rookie. But the Browns are optimistic that Orchard can in some way assist their pass rush in his first year while continuing to come into his own. Though Orchard may not get many starts, he should play a significant number of snaps, perhaps even spelling his mentor and fellow Utah alum Kruger.

The Browns are also experimenting with Armonty Bryant at outside linebacker, with Pettine saying, per ClevelandBrowns.com, "There are times when schematically we are 4-3. We say we're 3-4, but we're more 3.5-3.5 the way we do it. It's very fluid." Bryant's versatility and athleticism lend themselves to such a role. It was something they missed last year when Bryant suffered a torn ACL in October, ending his season.

As long as Cleveland's crew of outside linebackers have better luck staying healthy this year, the Browns should see an improvement in their pass rush. That Mingo can handle coverage duties while Orchard and Solomon can take on early-down quarterback pressures certainly helps their ability to keep offenses guessing, and Bryant allows them more scheme versatility.

Ultimately, Pettine and O'Neil want a more aggressive front seven than they had in 2014. If they can do that, they should have much better production when it comes to pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

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