By Bob Evans
The Cleveland Browns and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be making the switch back to the 3-4 defensive scheme in 2013. With that “attacking” style of defense comes a major need at the outside linebacker position for the Browns, as they have nobody experienced in rushing the quarterback from a stand-up position on the roster.
Regardless of the defensive scheme employed in 2013, it was obvious the Browns needed to upgrade their ability to get to the quarterback. In 2011 under former defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, the Browns mustered just 32 sacks on the season—which was good for No. 23 in the league. In 2012, Jauron’s unit improved to No. 11 in the league with 38 sacks—but they really did not have a dominant pass rusher on the roster.
In a 4-3 defensive scheme, you can get away with not having someone who lights up the stat sheets with a large number of sacks as long as the four men on the line are getting enough push to create some chaos for the quarterback. However, with just three men lining up against five offensive linemen in the 3-4, a team must have at least one dominant pass rusher for an offensive line to worry about.
Starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard could end up being that guy for the Browns; as he has racked up 15.5 sacks in his first two years in the league. However, Sheard has never been asked to stand up and rush the quarterback from an outside linebacker position, which could make the transition a little more difficult for Sheard and the Browns.
Many people expect Cleveland to address their need for a dominant pass rusher with the No. 6 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, as there are a number of players who could come in and be a cornerstone for the franchise for the next 10 years. But sometimes it isn’t that easy, which is why the Browns should target these five players in free agency.
Shaun Phillips, 31, San Diego
Phillips is a 6’3” and 250-pound sack machine set to hit the free agent market for possibly the last time in his career. He has racked up 69.5 sacks in his nine-year career, and is coming off his third best sack total (9.5) season since being drafted by the Chargers back in 2004.
One thing new regimes generally do to make the transition easier is to bring in players who are familiar with the culture and expectations of a new coaching staff. With new head coach Rob Chudzinski being a former assistant with the Chargers and offensive coordinator Norv Turner being Phillips’ former head coach, the Browns could end up being an under the radar team to land Phillips’ services.
Connor Barwin, 26, Houston
It feels like it wasn’t too long ago that Barwin was being considered a franchise player for the Houston Texans. The former Cincinnati Bearcat had a breakout year in 2011, posting 11.5 sacks for the Texans. After the season, Houston thought about using the franchise tag on their up and coming star outside linebacker, but instead the two could not come to terms—and it could end up hurting Barwin’s wallet.
Barwin had a disappointing season, posting just 3 sacks in 16 games. The Texans also drafted outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus pretty high in the draft, which means he should see increased playing time in 2013—making Barwin expendable.
At 26-years old, Barwin still has time to bounce back, and could come at a discount price for the Browns. Obviously he isn’t a player to bank your pass rush on, but if he bounces back he could be a major steal.
Anthony Spencer, 29, Dallas
At 29-years old, Spencer is coming off his best season in the NFL. He posted 11 sacks in 14 games in 2012 for the Cowboys in his sixth season—likely earning a major payday in the process.
The 6’3” and 250-pound product out of Purdue would certainly come at a high cost for the Browns—one this writer isn’t sure he is worth. His 11 sacks in 2012 are nothing to be ignored, but only having 21.5 over his first few seasons is something that leaves a lot to be desired for anyone ponying up big money for him.
Paul Kruger, 26, Baltimore
Baltimore’s defense thrives on having impact players with an ability to get to the quarterback, and Kruger is emerging as an important part of that. In his fourth season in the league, Kruger posted nine sacks during the regular season, and has added another 2.5 sacks during the 2012 postseason.
Kruger is further down the list because it is highly doubtful the Ravens let him go, and if he hits the free agent market he will command high dollar. The 6’4” and 270-pound product of Utah would definitely be an excellent fit for the Browns new 3-4 defense, but with Ray Lewis set to retire there is no way Baltimore can let him leave their organization.
Victor Butler, OLB, Dallas
Butler is the lesser known of this group, but he played solid time behind Spencer and Demarcus Ware. In his four seasons as a reserve, Butler has posted 11 sacks in 63 career games and shown an excellent open-field tackling ability—something the Browns could certainly use.
Prior to his tenure in Dallas, Butler was a sack machine in his final two seasons at Oregon State. In his junior season in 2007, Butler was primarily a sack specialist—bringing down the quarterback 10 times and accumulating just 23 total tackles. In his senior season, Butler developed into a well-rounded player by posting 12 sacks and 65 total tackles.
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