Monday, September 06, 2010

Linebacker U

The Cleveland Browns roster now stands at a precarious 53 players. It is overloaded with linebackers and undernourished with cornerbacks. Yet all anyone can think of at the moment is “there goes another second round pick.”

Maybe it just seems this way but the Browns and the second round go together like LeBron James and Dan Gilbert. Montario Hardesty finds himself out for at least the season with a torn ACL and suddenly a Browns draft that looked so promising suddenly looks rather mediocre, T.J. Ward and Joe Haden notwithstanding.

Not surprisingly general manager Tom Heckert spent most of his post-cut press conference answering questions about why Hardesty, with his injury history, was drafted in the first place. Apparently it matters little to those doing the analyzing that Hardesty's latest injury is a new injury for him. All that matters is that he's been injured plenty in the past and so, if dog, rabbit.

Maybe Heckert will have to turn in his genius credentials after that pick, but who knows. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was injured plenty and no one ever thought he'd end up playing professional basketball. All he did was go on to have one of the more memorable careers in Cleveland Cavaliers history, but perhaps he's the exception and not the rule.

Still, facts aside, the focus on Hardesty is at once understandable and convenient. The Browns aren't exactly draft mavens in the second round with far more misses than hits over the years. And the Hardesty story does have the early makings of the Lawyer Tillman saga, another star-crossed second round pick. But it's not as if the Browns' season hinged on Hardesty in the first place.

In fact, the offense is the least of this team's worries at the moment. The real message coming through the rather odd composition of this roster at the moment is that the defense is going to struggle to raise its ranking at the end of last season as the 31st best defense in a league of 32 teams.

Forget about the actual players kept or discarded for a moment and just focus on the numbers. The Browns go into next week's season opener with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 12, count 'em 12, linebackers on the roster. That's more than any other team in the league, which means that if nothing changes the defense will at least lead the league in something.

Teams playing a 3-4 defense will always carry more linebackers than those playing the 4-3, but even by those standards the Browns' roster is seriously out of balance. If you go down the rosters of every team in the league, most playing the 3-4 carry 9 linebackers. A few have as many as 10. Those playing the 4-3 carrying 6 linebackers at most.

Heckert's and Mangini's fascination with linebackers is partially explained by the fact that D'Qwell Jackson is injured and may not return for a few games. But even 11 linebackers is excessive. And it's not as if the talent of that unit is so universally spectacular that Heckert and Mangini found it difficult to part with even of those assets.

Instead, it looks like the decision to keep this many linebackers was driven more by the weaknesses on both the defensive line and in the secondary. This is especially true in the secondary.

The Browns are currently carrying the least amount of cornerbacks in the league: 3. But Heckert was quick to point out that Mike Adams can play the corner, so there is that. And yet it may actually be a sign of progress that the team felt confident enough in the 3 (or 4) corners currently on the roster that they sent Brandon McDonald on to the next stage of his life.

McDonald was a Phil Savage project from the beginning. Thrust into a starter's role that he never deserved, McDonald simply didn't develop the consistency that a team needs. He'd always bracket one good game with 2 or 3 bad games and 4 or 5 mediocre ones. He'd make a nice interception and then blow coverage on a simple out patter on a wide receiver that would end up going for 25 yards. If he ever truly adopted to the speed of the pro game it was hard to tell.

A player like McDonald just puts too much pressure on a linebacker or a free safety because you're never quite sure he'll handle his assignment. It probably didn't help McDonald's cause that he seemed more interested in establishing his social media bona fides than in establishing himself as a credible NFL player. But ultimately he just isn't talented enough to play corner on a regular basis and the the Browns certainly aren't worse off because McDonald is now on the Arizona Cardinals roster.

The other thing about the secondary is that it is counting heavily on the contributions of two rookies in safety T.J. Ward and corner Joe Haden. That's an upgrade from McDonald, certainly, but regular season NFL games are going to be a real eye-opener for the two. The best fans can hope for is that the adjustments won't take too long.

Still, and with no disrespect to Adams, the Browns need more corners.

The number of defensive linemen on the roster is more conventional but that doesn't mean it will be any more effective when you consider that one of the keys to it is a a player coming off ankle surgery who wasn't on the field for one play of the preseason, Shaun Rogers.

Even when Rogers was healthy, the line was still ranked 28th against the rush. When virtually nothing else has changed about it except that Rogers is even less healthy than a year ago, how much better can it be?

Mangini has been almost effusive in his praise of Ahtyba Rubin and while Rubin is certainly a credible player, he's far from Rogers in his prime. Yet he currently sits as the best of a very mediocre bunch at the moment that includes journeymen like Kenyon Coleman and Robaire Smith.

When you add all of this up, any incremental improvement will have to come from the various smoke and mirror packages that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to throw at opposing offenses. But that can only go so far, especially as the season drags on.

The one thing that you can count on when it comes to the defensive roster is that it's going to change, probably this week and the next and the next after that. The Browns may get down to 10 linebackers and 5 corners at some point only to see that revert to 12 linebackers and 3 corners later. Ultimately, though, it won't change until each unit gets far more settled than it is at the moment.

The offense on the other hand will be more stable, which signifies that it is likely to improve on its standing as the league's worst offense. Then again, that wouldn't be particularly hard.

With Hardesty out, there probably won't be much week to week change in the running backs. Jerome Harrison will be counted on but Peyton Hillis and James Davis look like solid contributors as well. The same goes with the wide receivers. This is a big year for players like Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie and even Josh Cribbs, if he's ever going to be a credible wide receiver in the league. But expect the Browns to give those players, along with Chansi Stucki and Carlton Mitchell the whole season.

The offensive line is always in a state of flux but yet it's hard to see the Browns doing much with this unit either, barring injuries. As for the quarterbacks, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace are upgrades based on their play in the preseason but that isn't always the best barometer either.

Still, the offense is a relatively settled bunch and while it's not one of the more talented units in the league, it will be better and more points will be scored.

The Browns, particularly the “new” Browns, have never been a team with much luck, something Heckert is just finding out. But teams tend to make their own luck anyway and that should come once this roster improves. The question is whether fans have the patience to wait another 2 to3 years.

1 comment:

m. said...

"...and so, if dog, rabbit." it is fair to say all i know about football, i learned from reading you. dog, rabbit--has me stumped. who makes it over the end zone and how is as much a mystery as ever. i do keep trying. i know that you know i can't be faulted for all i don't understand about football in a city i've never been to. i can only guess at what makes it all tick like clockwork. i count on you for the score. you're a fine and patient teacher. what we all learn about patience, is that it is an exercise in futility to try and push the river. those teams that make their own luck[or lose trying]have atleast played with gutts and heart on those slippery rocks. that takes courage.we can't ask for more than that. m.