By Tony Grossi
Sixth in a series analyzing the Browns’ draft needs.
Roster: Chris Gocong, D’Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita, Benjamin Jacobs, Kaluka Maiava, Brian Smith, Quinton Spears, Craig Robertson.
Gocong and Jackson each had his best NFL season in 2011 – and yet the Browns’ defense against the run ranked among the league’s worst. Again. It’s not necessarily a reflection on them. Run defense is a team thing, of course. But it indicates more talent is required on this unit for the defense to make inroads. In addition, opposing tight ends had 50 receptions for 626 yards and three touchdowns. At least two Browns’ losses were the result of big plays by tight ends. Fujita ended his second season in a row on injured reserve. He turns 33 this month. Of the remaining five linebackers on the roster, four were undrafted and the other was a fifth-round pick.
Needs:A big and fast athlete, one who can run with the pass catching tight ends and get to the quarterback on a rush, to eventually succeed Fujita.
Top 5 prospects:
1. Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
The classic ‘tweener who has the look of a Steelers linebacker – short of height, with short arms and innate pass rush ability. He had 21.5 career sacks lining up just about anywhere on the defense.
2. Luke Kuechly, Boston College.
Not a great athlete, but a great football player. An instinctive linebacker who may play any position but probably breaks down as an inside tackle machine.
3. Whitney Mercilus, Illinois.
Raised in Akron, he burst out with a breakout season in his only year as a starter. Led the nation with 13.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles. He should break in as a situational pass rusher.
4. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama.
Captain of the No. 1 defense and national champions, he is a strong tackler and has production and experience in an NFL-style defense. He played mostly inside but would move outside on rush downs.
5. Lavonte David, Nebraska.
A true tackling machine who scores high in all the qualities wanted on a football team. His lack of size is the only negative. But you can’t measure heart and this guy will never give less than maximum effort.
Under radar: Shea McClellin, Boise State.
Showed at Senior Bowl he can project to outside linebacker in a 3-4 system.
Last word: Since their return in 1999, the Browns have used a first-round pick on a linebacker only one time (Kamerion Wimbley) and have drafted the position in the second round only three times – hitting only on Jackson. The prevalent attitude seems to be that linebackers can be cobbled together in later rounds and free agency. The lack of blue-chip talent at the position is evident.
Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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