Steven King

Outside Of QB, OLB Is Most Important Position Browns Need

Created on Apr. 30, 2014 5:00 AM EST

The lack of good outside linebackers will eventually cause a team that uses a 3-4 defensive alignment to go into a free-fall.

The 3-4 is based on disguising looks, thus creating enough confusion on the offensive line to allow those linebackers to crash in from the outside unimpeded or at least increase the chances of generating a mismatch.

The fact that the Cleveland Browns, in Ray Horton’s only season as defensive coordinator, had outside linebackers who were sort of, kind of, OK, meant that their 3-4 alignment was sort of, kind of, OK overall in 2013. Not great, not terrible. Just OK. They made enough plays, but just not enough – especially at critical times.

For the team to climb in the AFC North basement this season after finishing 4-12 a year ago, improving defensively is a real key.

Yes, offense and scoring are paramount in the NFL today, more so that any time in the league’s history. If a team can’t score enough points, then it can’t get enough wins. It’s just that simple. And the Browns, who have struggled to score points in all but one of the 15 previous seasons in the expansion era dating back to 1999, know that adage all too well. To score points allows a club to be competitive. The best teams, though, are the ones that also play well defensively, which, in this era, is merely slowing down the opposition from time to time.

For that reason, even as Cleveland continues its seemingly endless search to find a difference-making quarterback in the 2014 NFL Draft to rev up the offense, it must also add difference-making outside linebackers.

So if there’s not an offensive player who causes them to salivate, don’t be surprised at all if the Browns use their No. 4 overall pick to take OLB Khalil Mack. He played for the University of Buffalo, and new Cleveland coach Mike Pettine was right there to see him up close and personally as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. And if South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney – he of the questionable, every-down work-ethic – is there for them at No. 4, the Browns might be salivating even more.

However, there is no one among Cleveland’s outside linebackers – returnees or newcomers – who is causing anyone to really salivate. And that’s the rub.

Jabaal Sheard made the tough move from defensive end to outside linebacker and led the club with 5.5 sacks last year, but didn’t do much else. Barkevious Mingo, the No. 6 overall draft pick last year, was next with five sacks after starting out like a house of fire before tailing off badly. Paul Kruger, the team’s big prize in free agency last year after being plucked from the division rival Baltimore Ravens, had 4.5 but didn’t make nearly the impact that was expected. He simply wasn’t around the ball a lot. He made no plays that really stood out.

Cleveland is hoping that all three players raise their games in 2014, and there is absolutely nothing to keep that from happening.

Now for the new blood.

Karlos Dansby – a former Arizona Cardinal who is the plum of this year’s free agent crop – should help this season, especially when his efforts are combined with those of Sheard, Mingo and Kruger. But with the fact that he will turn 33 years old halfway through the season, he’s hardly the long-term answer – the be-all, end-all to carry the Browns for several years.

So if it’s not Mack or Clowney, then the Browns are going to have get at least one outside linebacker somewhere in the draft who can come in and contribute sooner rather than later.

The position needs it. The defense as a whole needs it. And overall the team needs it.

Thus, if Cleveland comes away without getting that player, then the draft will not be a complete success regardless of whomever else – even a top-flight quarterback – it selects.

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