Training Camp

Zegura’s Deep Dive: Analyzing the defense after 3 weeks of Browns training camp

Defensive End

This may ultimately be the deepest position on the roster and do not be surprised if at least one Browns cut at this spot is immediately claimed and ends up on another 53-man roster. Your starters are both Pro Bowlers in Myles Garrett, who has been a practice wrecker at times, and Olivier Vernon, who has impressed with his brute strength and ability to get to the quarterback. Chris Smith remains that steady veteran backup who has the ability to both rush the passer and play the run. Last year’s third-round pick, Chad Thomas, has had a standout camp. He looks leaner and combines a fiery personality with the nasty disposition needed to truly set the edge in the NFL. What has really stood out about Thomas, who emerged relatively unscathed from a potentially ugly injury in practice Monday, has been his ability to generate pressure on the quarterback on a consistent basis. Last year’s fifth round pick, Genard Avery, who racked up 4.5 sacks in his rookie season, looks locked in as a situational pass rusher who can line up outside of either Myles or Vernon when they kick inside on obvious passing situations. Veteran Anthony Zettel, who had 6.5 sacks for the Lions just two seasons ago and played well for the Browns in limited action last year, is fighting for one of the final spots in the room. Rookies Jarrell Owens and Wyatt Ray have flashed with the third team.

Stock Up: Those who have the OVER in Browns sacks for the season

Check out the best 35mm film photos from the first few weeks of Browns Camp by team photographer Matt Starkey

Defensive Tackle

The starters are set here with Pro Bowler Sheldon Richardson joining soon-to-be Pro Bowler Larry Ogunjobi, who had 5.5 sacks for the Browns a year ago. When the Browns entire defensive line has been on the field together this training camp, they have been consistently disruptive and, in a word, dominant. Behind the starters, the competition for the two backup spots has been fierce. Per Freddie Kitchens, Devaroe Lawrence has been “unblockable” in camp, and that carried over into the preseason opener when he notched a big sack against the Redskins. As long as he is healthy – he’s day to day with a knee injury -- I think Lawrence has done more to secure his 53-man roster spot than any of the other backup tackles. Trevon Coley, a two-year starter known as a run stopper, is fighting to secure a spot on the 2019 squad. Daniel Ekuale, who was on the Browns practice squad last year, has had a very strong camp and shown an ability to get into the backfield and generate negative plays. Ekuale earned first team reps alongside Coley and Lawrence during the periods in which Richardson and Ogunjobi were not participating. Carl Davis is a former third-round pick of the Ravens who appeared in five games for the Browns last year. He has also received some opportunities with the ones, but has not flashed like the others just yet. Brian Price appeared in 12 games for the Browns last year but has been sidelined with a concussion in camp and has not been able to be on the field as much as anyone would like. 

Stock Up: Lawrence, Ekuale

Linebacker

The Browns made a serious investment in their linebacker room this offseason and will enter 2019 with a mix of veterans and high-upside rookies, all of whom will contribute either on the defense or special teams. The starters are the incumbents, MIKE Joe Schobert (Pro Bowler in 2017) and WILL Christian Kirksey, who returns from an injury that cost him the final seven games of the 2018 season. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks employs a base defense that typically only features two linebackers and five defensive backs that can often include three safeties. Fifth-round pick Mack Wilson has been a real star of training camp, showing a knack for intercepting the ball and looking like a veteran in coverage. That hot camp continued into the preseason game against the Redskins, where Wilson intercepted two passes, including one that he returned 40 yards for a touchdown. Wilson, who has received reps at both WILL and MIKE, will push for playing time and is the one guy right now who could challenge the starters as early as Week 1. Third-round pick Sione Takitaki plays with his hair on fire and flies around the field with an almost reckless abandon. He plays the game with intense physicality and you can hear his hits whenever he is on the field. He still needs to adjust to NFL coverage schemes and play with a more controlled fury, but you can see the potential for him to begin his career as a teams standout before transitioning to a full time defensive role. Adarius Taylor was signed as a free agent and gives the team versatility to play all three LB spots and has been with the starters at the SAM when the team has three linebackers on the field. He was a special teams captain with the Buccaneers last season and will make a huge impact for the team at that spot. Veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong is beloved by his teammates and has made a long career in the NFL as a special teams standout who also has the ability to fill in and start at LB when necessary. Willie Harvey is a rookie who has demonstrated excellent ability as a run and chase linebacker and is someone to keep an eye on.

Stock Up: Wilson 

Cornerback

The Browns are deep again at this spot, and that has never been more necessary in the NFL game than it is right now. Denzel Ward went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie and is the team’s unquestioned No. 1 corner. The real battle is for the No. 2 spot. Early in camp, T.J. Carrie was on the field with Ward in all of the two cornerback looks and then would kick into the slot in three cornerback defenses. Carrie has missed some time lately with a hamstring injury and Terrance Mitchell has stepped into that spot opposite Ward in the majority of two cornerback looks. Rookie Greedy Williams has also received starter reps, and the battle between he and Mitchell for the No. 2 outside corner has really elevated both of their games this camp. Mitchell has consistently gotten his hands on the ball and looks to be showing even better form than he did a year ago, when he surprisingly won the No. 2 job. Williams has been better than advertised, showing tremendous ball skills (multiple interceptions in camp and one in the preseason opener), the expected man-to-man cover skills and an acumen for zone coverage that has surprised everyone on the staff. He will still have the occasional rookie assignment mistake, but the talent is there and, at some point, Williams will become a very productive starter on the outside for the Browns. Phillip Gaines seems poised to be the fifth corner right now and has worked both outside and in the slot. This next group is fighting to show they belong on the 53-man roster. Tavierre Thomas was a key part of the Browns special teams a year ago but has been sidelined the majority of camp with a hamstring injury. Lenzy Pipkins has had the best camp of this group of backup corners and also possesses inside-outside versatility. Robert Jackson had a rough start to camp but has bounced back with multiple PBUs of late and seems to have a knack for causing incompletions in contested catch situations in the red zone. Seventh-round pick Donnie Lewis Jr. has been working exclusively as a nickel corner, and the Tulane product has come on strong lately after missing time early with injury. Jhavonte Dean is a raw, long rookie who flashed early in the offseason. Special teams will be key for any member of the group behind the top 5 if they hope to land on the final 53. Given the versatility in the safety group, it is possible that the Browns only keep five corners.

Stock Up: Mitchell, Williams

Safety

Don’t be surprised if the Browns have three starters at safety, as Wilks is a huge fan of the “Big Nickel” defense. Damarious Randall is your free safety, veteran Morgan Burnett is your strong safety in more of the “base” or run-oriented looks and Jermaine Whitehead is your “Big Nickel,” which is part box safety, part linebacker and part slot corner. Whitehead has been filling the role previously occupied by Shaq Thompson (Carolina) and Budda Baker (Arizona) for Wilks. Whitehead also can play a two-deep safety alongside Randall in obvious passing situations. Eric Murray, who was acquired from the Chiefs in an offseason trade, is a very versatile defensive back who has played some free safety, strong safety, big nickel and pure slot corner thus far. His safety/corner versatility may provide general manager John Dorsey with a lot of flexibility when crafting the final 53. Rookie free safety Sheldrick Redwine has shown a nose for the ball, great closing speed and excellent natural instincts. As the game slows down for him, the Browns are expecting him to have a bright future at safety, but for now, he will be a core special teams player. Juston Burris was drafted by the Jets as a corner and is yet another Swiss Army knife type of defensive back with cornerback and safety skills. Burris was a special teams captain for the preseason opener and could be the sixth safety kept due to his special teams prowess and versatility. Tigie Sankoh and J.T. Hassell have shown scrappiness and physicality on the back end thus far.

Stock Up: Whitehead, Murray, Burris

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