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Chris Kiffin sees 'a lot of competition' ahead with crowded DT group

With eight DTs on the roster, the Browns’ competition at the interior defensive line next training camp figures to be fierce

Just a few weeks ago, before the 2021 NFL Draft, the Browns' defensive tackle depth was the thinnest of all position groups on the roster.

Just four players were listed at DT. Malik Jackson, a 2021 free-agent signee, was the only new addition to a group that lost top 2020 starters in Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson. Jackson joined second-year veteran Jordan Elliott, Sheldon Day and Andrew Billings, who returned to the roster after opting out of the 2020 season.

But in the weeks that followed, the Browns bolstered the position with veterans and a mix of young — and possibly overlooked — players who could make runs for backup jobs or even shots at starting Week 1.

The defensive tackle competition will be one of the most open and interesting position battles in future months, and defensive line coach Chris Kiffin is eager to see how it plays out.

"(Executive Vice President and GM) Andrew Berry, coach (Kevin) Stefanski did a phenomenal job of getting all these guys in here," Kiffin said Wednesday in an interview on Cleveland Browns Daily. "It's competitive. At the end of the day, there are only a limited number of spots. It's a good problem to have."

Check out exclusive photos of the rookies and coaching staff working during phase 3 of the offseason

So who else will be in the competition?

The Browns used a fourth-round pick on Tommy Togiai, a 300-pound tackle from Ohio State whom they believe could carry big roles in the future. Marvin Wilson, who surprised many by going undrafted following four years at Florida State, signed a free-agent deal with the Browns. Malik McDowell, a 2017 second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks, signed with Cleveland two days later, and Damion Square, a nine-year veteran, inked another deal shortly after.

Now, Kiffin and the rest of the Browns coaches will be responsible for ensuring all eight defensive tackles have enough reps to prove themselves come training camp.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you were drafted, it doesn't matter if you're an eight-year guy and it doesn't matter if you're a rookie," Kiffin said. "You have to earn your spot. That's what this league is about."

Kiffin got his first glimpse at three players from that group last weekend in rookie minicamp.

Togiai, Wilson and McDowell were all participants for the three-day stretch of practices. No other position group carried more guys with the Browns minicamp roster trimmed to just 18 players, but it provided Kiffin with plenty of opportunities to analyze and coach each player.

It's worth noting, too, that Kiffin was already quite familiar with Wilson, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound rookie who amassed 15 sacks in Tallahassee. When Wilson was taking college recruitments as the top-ranked high school player in Texas, Kiffin, then the defensive line/defensive recruiting coordinator for Ole Miss, met him and his family.

"I was very familiar with him," Kiffin said. "He's the alpha dog. You can see that recruiting him in high school, and you can see that on tape at Florida State, the way he commanded those guys on defense, and just talking to him. It's kind of a blessing he went undrafted because he has the biggest chip on his shoulder."

Kiffin also didn't hide any excitement when discussing Elliott, the 2020 third-round pick and the only player on the roster who received any snaps at DT for the Browns last season.

Elliott's 2020 sample size was small — he was active for all 16 games and recorded 15 tackles but only played in more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps in one game. Kiffin, however, believes he's ready to take a big jump in 2021.

"I don't want to be that guy to sit here and sound super excited about everybody, but I'm just telling you, the guy I'm most excited about is Jordan Elliott," Kiffin said. "Jordan missed all of OTAs and rookie minicamp last offseason because there was none. For him to play in all 19 games last year through the growing pains and really improve as the season went on, I'm expecting a big jump for him."

The reasons for optimism don't end with Elliott.

Square, for instance, was active in all 16 games for the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers. McDowell, at 6-foot-6 and 295 pounds, is one of the biggest players on the roster and received positive reviews from coaches following rookie minicamp. Jackson and Day have a combined 16 years of NFL experience, while Billings has 80 combined tackles in three total seasons.

All of those backgrounds are why the DT position will be one of the must-watch competitions when training camp begins. The Browns simply won't be able to keep everyone in the group when final roster decisions need to be made, and we won't know who's in line for starting jobs until reps are taken on the field.

"There's going to be a lot of competition," Kiffin said. "I'm super excited for when we actually get to that point."