The Browns have turned the page from the 2022 season into 2023, and we're doing the same by opening the Mailbag for the first time in the new year.
This week, we're talking about what could be ahead for the defense after a new defensive coordinator was hired. We're also talking about what could be ahead for one offensive position in the 2023 draft.
Let's dive in:
How does Kevin Stefanski plan to use our new DC to utilize the large amount of talent we have on that side of the ball? - Matthew Sowders, Fairborn, Ohio
This is the first of three questions we have here regarding the defense, which will understandably be perhaps the biggest talking point of the offseason after the Browns hired Jim Schwartz as their new defensive coordinator. We'll preface the answers by saying that we won't know exactly what big changes are coming to the defense until we see the Browns on the practice field again, and that won't happen until organized team activities begin in the spring.
Changes are bound to happen with Schwartz, though, and we can look at his history as a defensive coordinator to predict what could come. Schwartz's past defenses in Tennessee, Buffalo, Philadelphia and Detroit — where he was a head coach — were all predicated on stout play from the defensive line, so it's a safe bet that the Browns' front office will explore all ways to upgrade that group this offseason.
"I have been very fortunate over my career to be blessed with some really (good) defensive linemen," Schwartz said at his introductory press conference. "We run a very D-line friendly scheme that eliminates a lot of conflict for those guys, and we were able to play guys off of that. We sort of let those guys go and be disruptive."
To your point about maximizing the talent already there, Schwartz believes he'll be able to get even more out of Myles Garrett, the group's best player.
"I think that every offense we will play will probably start with that — how do we neutralize Myles Garrett and how do we keep him from wrecking this game?" Schwartz said. "It's my job to give him some answers and to be able to put some pieces scheme wise and personnel wise around him to allow him to be free and more productive."
Garrett matched his personal single-season franchise record with 16 sacks in 2022, but no other defensive player registered more than three sacks last year. The Browns were tied for 28th in the league with 34 sacks.
Finding more production from that group will be a top priority for Schwartz and should be a start toward maximizing the other talented pieces the Browns have on defense. More pressure usually leads to more mistakes from the opposing QB — and better performances from everyone on defense.
Check out the best photos from the 2022 season by the Browns photo team
I keep hearing only Anthony Walker or Sione Takitaki can be brought back — not both. What are the chances we can bring both back? I don't think Takitaki will command much in FA and that the Browns can bring both back for the right price. - Zach G., Toledo, OH
The Browns certainly liked what both players brought to the defense last season. Even though Walker only played three games due to a torn quad, he still remained a leader and was constantly around the locker room after his injury. The players have a lot of respect for Walker, who was also one of the most reliable tacklers on the defense before his season ended.
Takitaki was one of the guys who stepped up in Walker's absence and enjoyed a career-best year, and the Browns believe he took a big step in his fourth NFL season — his 71 tackles were a career-high.
Whether the Browns re-sign both will likely depend on what type of linebackers best fit Schwartz's defensive plans and how much cap space the Browns want to devote to the position. Schwartz, though, said that he's deployed a wide variety of linebackers in his defense over the years.
"We played with a lot of different style guys over time," he said. "I think the things that make the most difference when it comes to linebackers are instincts, communication ability and explosiveness. I played with some guys that have been in the low 220s. In Tennessee, (Titans ILB) David Long is outstanding, and he's 215 pounds. There have been plenty of guys in the NFL that have played light. Go back to (Pro Football Hall of Fame OLB) Derrick Brooks and remember him coming out — is he a safety or linebacker? He was just a cobra, and he could strike.
"I have seen some 250-pound guys that did not have the physical presence on the field, and I have seen some guys in their 215s or 220s that did. I think it falls to the other things. It comes from toughness, instincts, explosiveness and the ability to play fast and think quick."
What changes do the Browns need to make to get a defense comparable to the Bengals? - Jim M., Avon Lake, OH
The biggest difference between those two groups this season was in the defensive interior, particularly when it came to stopping the run.
The Bengals had two linebackers who stayed healthy and made stops in the run game in Logan Wilson (career-high 123 tackles) and Germaine Pratt (career-high 99 tackles). The Browns, meanwhile, suffered a myriad of injuries at linebacker — they ended the season with five LBs on injured reserve — and didn't discover consistent play from the LBs who did start.
The Bengals also benefited from excellent seasons from their defensive tackles. B.J. Hill turned in a career-high 68 tackles. Their other DT, D.J. Reader, was the sixth-highest ranked DT from Pro Football Focus this season. With all their interior pieces staying healthy and clogging the middle of the field, the Bengals built the seventh-best run defense this year with 106.6 yards allowed per game.
The Browns simply didn't have that same type of production from their interior, so reaching the Bengals' level next season can start with finding ways to significantly improve those levels of the defense.
Coach Schwartz was talking about a pic of someone named Dino during his press conference. Who was he talking about? - Jim B., Seville, Ohio
That would be Dino Lucarelli, the former Director of Public Relations for the Browns. He worked for the Browns for nearly four decades before retiring in 2013, and the media press conference room at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus is named after him.
This is the photo Schwartz saw across the room when he sat down at the podium and looked up.
Schwartz knew Dino well when he was with the team from 1993-95 as a personnel scout, his first NFL job.
Here's the fun story he was reminded of when he saw the photo:
"You all have to give me just a quarter of a second here when I see Dino's picture on the back wall right there. Dino set me up buying my first ever sofa in the NFL. I had finally got on full-time with the Browns, and I was trying to furnish an apartment other than stuff that was at the dumpster. He set me up with old 'Glue Fingers' – Dante Lavelli had a furniture shop. I went down and got a sofa that somebody had ordered and then didn't like when they took delivery. It was sitting, and he sold it to me for nothing.
"Dino meant a lot to me early in my career. I used to sit out in practice and talk to him. It's awesome to see his name up here and to come full circle that way."
Will the Browns be taking any receivers in the draft to help Deshaun this upcoming year or could we potentially see a DeAndre Hopkins trade to reunite with his old teammate? - Tristan S., Pleasant Hill, Ohio
I wouldn't necessarily count on a Hopkins trade happening. The Browns would have some cap hurdles to clear to not only handle his contract, but still find room to address other positional needs this offseason.
Drafting a receiver, however, is not out of the question. Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones were excellent last season — and the Browns have another young wideout in David Bell who could take a bigger role next year — but good receivers are almost always available early on Day 2. It's possible the Browns still dip into that position early in their picks.
Ohio State's Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Tennessee's Jaylin Hyatt, for example, are considered two top receiving prospects in the draft class, but there isn't currently a unanimous agreement among draft analysts that they're both first-round locks.