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Will this be Jabaal Sheard's breakout season?


This could be the year linebacker Jabaal Sheard makes the leap.

Don't get me wrong. Sheard had been one the Browns' most consistent draft picks this decade. 

He has started 45 games since his rookie year in 2011. He has registered 21 sacks in three seasons. He even won the Cleveland Browns' Walter Payton Man of the Year award, for community service. Sheard has already surpassed expectations. 

Some players remain in that consistent stage, as a solid contributors. Franchises need solid contributors to make the playoffs. 

But other players burst the bubble wide open and get acquainted to the entire NFL audience because of their outstanding play. The 2014 campaign is shaping up to be a season where Sheard could be introduced as one of the league's next dominant pass rushers. 

"We want a guy that plays like his hair is on fire," said coach Mike Pettine. "If I had to pick one guy that matches that, the first name I would come up with is Jabaal. He's versatile. He can play with his hand down, he can play up. And he plays violent."

OTAs and minicamps aren't the ideal places to gage improvements about Sheard's repertoire as a pass rusher. Rules prevent him from being as physical as he'd like. There is obviously no hitting allowed on quarterbacks. 

Still, at a monstrous 270 pounds, Sheard has been penetrating backfields as if he's a 250-pounder. His speed and size combination might be the most lethal on the roster – offense or defense. And his understanding of offenses combined with the Browns' defensive scheme make Sheard a ripe candidate for double-digit sacks. 

Don't think of Sheard as simply outside linebacker in a standup position. Don't think of any of the Browns' front-seven players limited to one position in this hybrid scheme. The coaching staff will line up Sheard wherever they can to unleash the 25-year-old on opposing quarterbacks. 

The Buffalo Bills' Mario Williams posted 13 sacks this way in 2013, under Pettine's direction, and is a legitimate comparison for Sheard. While a large portion of Williams' snaps were spent attacking the right tackle, many times he was seen standing up as a linebacker, even though Williams is listed as a defensive end. Sheard's job, like Williams' was with Pettine, will be knocking the quarterback on his broadside as many times as possible. 

While hypothesizing Sheard's potential breakout year, he wouldn't really have much of it. To him, this defense is about the unit.

"We're all good playmakers," Sheard said about his fellow pass rushers. "All of us can eat. All of us know how to get after the quarterback. We got so many playmakers. No matter what, guys do get tired. There's a lot of reps out there [to be had]." 

Sheard's teammate Paul Kruger was less modest, predicting big things for his counterpart. 

"Jabaal is just one of those guys, he's just a tough every-down type of guy who can knock your teeth out if he needs too," said Kruger. "I think he's going to have a lot of success in this scheme, for sure." 

Sheard's contract expires after the 2014 season. He's not thinking about his future now, but he is thinking about the Cleveland Browns. 

"I want to be here when the city erupts," said Sheard, with a smile. "I know it's coming. Hopefully this year is the year."

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