The Browns defense have the most to prove heading into the season

Cleveland Browns (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Cleveland Browns (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of some untested starters on defense. Their development will determine how far the team goes.

The Cleveland Browns said goodbye to defensive leader Joe Schobert, and secondary players Damarious Randall, Jermaine Whitehead and Justin Buris in the off-season. All four players started at least half the year at one position or another. With a change in defensive schemes as well, focusing on more traditional 4-3 sets, that means the team could see anywhere from five to six new starters on the defensive side of the ball.

The returning starters for sure are Mack Wilson, Myles Garrett, Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward. Both starting safety jobs are up for grabs, as are two of the three linebacking spots, and let’s not lie to ourselves and think that left defensive end isn’t up for a competition too. Olivier Vernon has to earn his spot this year.

To fill out hose spots are Adrian Clayborn (DE), Andrew Billings (DT), Kevin Johnson (CB), Karl Joseph (SaF), B.J. Goodson (LB), Anderson Sendejo (SaF), and Donovan Olumba (CB) from the free agency pool. As well as rookies Grant Delpit (SaF), Jordan Elliott (DT), and Jacob Phillips (ILB).

So of the 10 new players (not counting anyone not signed yet or undrafted free agents), the team needs to determine five new starters. Sure, Vernon could be back in the lineup for 2020 but if he’s outplayed in training camp the team won’t feel the need to start him regardless.

Olumba, Clayborn, Johnson, and Goodson, however, have never been more than backups for their former teams. Joseph is too oft-injured to rely on and Sendejo can still be a starter but he’s been injured some too in recent years. Only Billings has proven to be a starter on his former team and even then he wasn’t all that impressive.

So the team needs to hope some of these untested talents step up in big ways. Everyone is hoping that Delpit and Phillips can start instantly but as any Browns fan knows its that relying on rookies to step up is a fools’ errand. That’s not to say they won’t or can’t, but expecting two rookies to solidify the defense on their own is a lofty goal.

Let’s also not forget the reliance on second-year-pro Sione Takitaki, who the team wants to play on the weakside (aka WILL), for the upcoming season as well. Takitaki didn’t play much in his rookie season but will now be asked to step up next to fellow second-year linebacker Wilson.

Having faith in guys like Joseph and Goodson (especially) is great and all, but the team shouldn’t be done looking for pieces in the off-season. Guys like Clay Matthews III could really solidify that defense, allowing Wilson to play more inside. As far as safeties go, the best bets are to hope that Delpit is ready and that Sendejo is healthy. Otherwise, this could be a long year.

As for the line, the team is pretty set even if the team doesn’t get Everson Griffen or Jadeveon Clowney. Vernon should be productive to a degree, and if not you can always use Clayborn or Phillips in a pinch. While some may claim he’s just a linebacker, he’s only about 30 pounds lighter and an inch shorter than Browns’ star defensive end Garrett. The technique and skillset may need to be polished but it makes for a better option to go with someone who knows the defensive scheme if a change needs to be made in week 12; as opposed to trying to sign a free agent at that point.

Either way, the defense has a lot to prove in 2020.

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