For the past three seasons, the inside of the Browns’ defensive line was in part headlined by Danny Shelton. That ended this past spring when Cleveland traded the former first-round NFL Draft pick to the New England Patriots at the start of the new league year.
In one sense, the Browns will need to find a replacement for Shelton, the 12th-overall pick in 2015 who started 44 games. In another, the decision to part ways with him would appear to reflect Cleveland’s confidence in a crew of young interior players with bright futures ahead of them.
That group includes Larry Ogunjobi, Trevon Coley, Jamie Meder and Caleb Brantley, who all saw significant action — some more than others — last season.
“Danny’s going to be missed. He brought a lot of energy to the room (but) Jamie Meder’s fully capable. Larry Ogunjobi is fully capable. Anybody we stick out there,” defensive line coach Clyde Simmons said earlier this month as the team finished offseason workouts.
“One thing we do is a lot of cross-training. It’s not just going to be one guy trying to fill Danny’s shoes. It’s going to be several guys trying to fill them."
Indeed, each member of the Browns’ interior defensive line has his own backstory and skillset.
Ogunjobi, a third-round pick in 2017, came into the league as a raw but physically-gifted player with a big upside; Coley, an undrafted free agent and former practice squad member, started 15 games last season; Meder, who famously blocked a field goal that helped Cleveland earn its only win over the past two seasons, has been a steady force in the trenches; and Brantley, a sixth-round pick from Florida in 2017 who some considered a first-round talent, flashed that potential in spurts a year ago.
With a year of experience in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ system, there’s a certain comfort level, he said, that wasn’t there previously. “They are much better. When I say much better – comfortable. We were foreign. We were a lot drastically different than when you play in a 3-4 mechanism and you are catching and reading, staying on your side of the line of scrimmage,” Williams said, referencing the team’s previous alignment under a different regime.
Now? “We’re all vertical, knock back, coming off of the ball and knocking you back," he continued. "That’s why we were able to play a pretty good run defense. We will play even better.”
For all the struggles the Browns had in their winless campaign, stopping the run wasn’t one of them; Cleveland finished seventh against opposing rushing attacks. Now, along with edge players like Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, Williams sees growth from an interior line poised to make a jump this season.
“All of those guys are playing really well. They're all doing outstanding. The four returners that are in there are doing really well with Caleb and Larry being the young guys. They will take the next step,” Williams said.
“Jamie Meder, probably one of the best run players in the National Football League. You saw a little statistic last year. They are doing very well. Caleb and Coley are both doing very well in a three-technique position. Some of the new, young guys coming in here are giving them a fight. When you are in no pads right now, they have done a very good job competing and doing their jobs in no pads, but the real test for them is when they put the pads on.”
So far, though, the early returns have been promising.
“These guys come to work every day,” Simmons said, “and I can’t ask anymore of them.”