Cleveland Browns: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown, Depth-Chart Analysis
While the Cleveland Browns are in the process of revamping their offense, their defense is also getting a few tweaks. It makes sense—though the Browns had one of the NFL's top secondaries in 2014, their defensive front seven struggled both to stop the run and rush the passer.
Let's take a look at the players who are to make a big impact on the Browns defense this year and break down the likely depth chart behind them.
The Browns' defensive line may be the most important component to their front seven, mainly because it is a rotational group of players who will be called upon situationally to work against the run or the pass.
At defensive end, the primary players will be Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn and John Hughes, while Armonty Bryant will come in as a situational pass-rusher, handling rush duties as an end when the Browns morph into a 4-3 and as an outside linebacker in the 3-4.
Of these four, two—Armonty Bryant and Hughes—missed significant time last year with injuries. Now, both are healthy. But if a similar fate befalls them or any other defensive end this season, their most likely replacements are Jamie Meder, who played 27 snaps in Week 17 last season, per Pro Football Focus, and Christian Tupou, whom the Browns signed in late May.
The defensive tackle position will be similarly rotational. Phil Taylor, who played defensive end last year (and also ended his season on injured reserve), will move back to nose tackle, but he'll split time with rookie Danny Shelton. In fact, Shelton could be the starter by the time training camp closes late in the summer.
Backing the two will be Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, while veteran Randy Starks will alternate between defensive end and tackle, with an eye toward pass-rushing downs. Rookie Xavier Cooper should also have a situational role to play as well, though it may take until 2016 for him to be a major impact player.
The long-shot defensive tackles to make the roster this year are Tory Slater and Dylan Wynn, but one could stick around on the practice squad, especially because one injury to the starters could otherwise disrupt the planned rotation.
With only 31 sacks in 2014, the Browns are spending a lot of time this year trying to improve their pass rush. Their group of outside linebackers won't be as rotational as the defensive line, but at least four players will be heavily involved in the defense this year.
Like last year, Paul Kruger will lead the group. He had a team-high 11 sacks last year and is an every-down linebacker who can play the pass-rushing early downs as well as work in coverage. He'll be joined in early downs by Scott Solomon, who has turned heads in OTAs and minicamp this year while filling in for Barkevious Mingo, earning the nickname "Bloodbath" for his relentless pursuit of the quarterback.
Mingo has been sidelined for much of this offseason while he recovers from shoulder surgery. Defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said, per Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer: "No one is guaranteed anything on the defense... Mingo is going to have to come back ready to go, and he's going to have to earn it." But O'Neil did acknowledge that Mingo is the team's best coverage outside linebacker, so if he does cede snaps to Solomon, he will still be on the field in obvious passing downs.
The question is where rookie Nate Orchard fits in. The Browns' second-round draft pick totaled 18.5 sacks in 2014 for Utah. Though CBS Sports' Rob Rang thinks that Orchard was the best fit of the Browns' 2015 draft picks, he may be relegated to situational pass-rushing duties only because of Kruger, Solomon and Mingo.
As a reserve, the Browns have Darius Eubanks, who can work at either inside or outside linebacker. This positional versatility could lead to him earning a roster spot this year.
The Browns' group of inside linebackers might be one of the most underrated in the NFL. The unit features Karlos Dansby, Pro Football Focus' ninth-ranked inside linebacker from 2014, and Craig Robertson, who ranked 18th.
The position also boasts 2014 third-round draft pick Chris Kirksey, who was Pro Football Focus' top inside linebacker in coverage (Dansby was No. 2). Robertson, Dansby and Kirksey were also three of the Browns' top four tacklers in 2014.
These three won't relinquish their snaps to anyone—not rookie Hayes Pullard, Tank Carder or the versatile Darius Eubanks. Only injury will affect the playing times of Kirksey, Dansby and Robertson in 2015.
As long as the injury bug does not once again strike the Browns, the team is set at the safety position, with Donte Whitner—the team's leading tackler in 2014—working as a strong safety and Tashaun Gipson at free safety.
Gipson, though, chose to sit out the Browns' voluntary OTAs and worked out on his own in Texas. When he did report for mandatory minicamp, he had to watch from the sidelines, as he showed up with a pulled hamstring.
So, at least for the offseason, Jordan Poyer has been filling in for Gipson—something that may continue into training camp. It's not punishment for Gipson's holdout, according to head coach Mike Pettine, but because Poyer has handled the job so well.
But Gipson, who has 11 interceptions over the last two years, won't likely be bumped from the starting lineup for Poyer come Week 1. But if Gipson does suffer an injury, as he did last year, which cost him the final six games of the season, Poyer is more than capable of playing in his place.
Meanwhile, reserve safety Johnson Bademosi will reprise his role on special teams unless the Browns find him expendable because they drafted Ibraheim Campbell in Round 4 this year. Micah Pellerin is the other backup safety on the current roster.
The cornerback position, meanwhile, is a bit more unstable for the Browns this summer. Starter Joe Haden is in no danger of dropping on the depth chart, and it appears that veteran free agent Tramon Williams will be starting alongside him in place of Buster Skrine, who left in free agency.
Questions remain, though, about who the nickel cornerback will be. The front-runner is K'Waun Williams, who stepped from obscurity into the starting lineup last year and totaled 38 tackles and eight passes defensed. But 2014 Round 1 draft pick Justin Gilbert has improved both as a person and a player in the offseason and will be K'Waun Williams' biggest competition for the job this summer.
The primary backups at cornerback will be whoever loses the Gilbert-Williams battle and second-year player Pierre Desir. A player to watch, though, is rookie Charles Gaines, who has already worked both inside and outside in OTAs and training camp and is proving to be a quick study.
Fellow rookie Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, though, may have to take a medical redshirt year. He is coming off a torn ACL and dislocated knee he suffered in late December, and though he's optimistic about his chances to play this year, the reality is that the injury combined with the depth chart points to hid spending his rookie year primarily on the sideline.