By Bob Evans
One of the most complicated situations on the Cleveland Browns roster—no it is not the quarterback position—has developed with what the team is going to do at outside linebacker now that they are switching to the 3-4 defense. With plenty of available options in the 2013 NFL Draft, many people think it is a given the team will select the best available pass rusher with the No. 6 pick.
Regardless of what the team decides to do at No. 6 in the NFL Draft, their new regime will have to decide what to do with 2011 NFL Draft second rounder Jabaal Sheard.
Standing 6’2” and 255 pounds, one would think Sheard would be able to seamlessly switch from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. Prior to his draft, Sheard had been clocked running a 4.68 40-yard dash (pretty quick for a lineman or linebacker), but had never played a down in a stand up position in college at Pittsburgh.
Sheard was drafted to be the dominant pass rusher off the edge the Browns were severely lacking. In his first two seasons he was looking to be just that, logging 8.5 sacks his rookie year and seven sacks in year two. While he is not putting up Aldon Smith numbers, playing on a defensive line with very few threats to get to the quarterback and posting over 15 sacks in two seasons is pretty impressive.
At just 23-years old, Sheard has displayed a solid rush skill set in just two seasons—but nothing elite. There were times in the 2012 season one would wonder what was going on with Sheard, as he pretty much disappeared in the team’s first eight games—registering just one sack and 15 tackles in that time period.
For whatever reason, Sheard seemed to be going through a sophomore slump prior to their game against Baltimore. But from game nine on out, he registered six sacks and 21 tackles which included a two sacks, three tackle performance in the team’s final game of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the Browns’ new brain trust is uncertain with whether or not Sheard can develop into an elite pass rusher in the 3-4 defense, it may be smarter for the team to attempt to trade him.
Without a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Browns will have to rely heavily on their No. 6 pick to come in and be an impact player on the defense from day one. If the team could move Sheard for a late first or second-round pick, they could then draft two players who are a better fit for the defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s new defense.
Looking around the league, the Dallas Cowboys stand out as a pretty good potential landing spot. Albeit under a different front office group, the Browns and Cowboys have had a past relationship as trade partners for the NFL Draft. With the Cowboys switching to the 4-3 defense now that Rob Ryan has left town, the team will likely be in the market for a young pass rusher—especially since Anthony Spencer will likely be due for a major raise on the free agent market.
The Cowboys are not the only possible destination, as there are a number of teams who may prefer a 23-year old with two years of NFL experience to rolling the dice on a project from the NFL Draft.
Am I saying the Browns should trade Sheard? No; but they should surely listen to offers if they think he is going to have a difficult time transitioning to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.
While we all know it will time to install the new defensive system and get the right players for it, learning how to cover running backs and tight ends in pass coverage while rushing the quarterback from a stand up position is a difficult task for any player no matter how many years you are in the league. And if Sheard cannot make the switch with ease, why not attempt to sell high on the young man who has proven to be a threat as a pass rusher in the 4-3?
It will not likely come as a popular move in Cleveland, as Browns fans seem to react to every move of the franchise like it is the end of the world. But if the team can sign one or two veteran outside linebackers in free agency, and a team comes knocking with a mid-to-late first or early second-round pick, it is going to be very difficult for this organization to turn it down with Sheard in the unknown category.
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