The Cleveland Browns unexpectedly released defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Not because of his contract, which most would agree was too high, but because he was a reliable, professional defensive tackle and they are reasonably thin at that position. Given the way the way the Browns view defense, they are always looking at maximizing their strengths by minimizing their investment elsewhere and that might be their approach on the defensive line.
The Browns are thin at defensive tackle. They have three Sunday capable defensive tackles on their roster between Andrew Billiings, coming off of his opt out year, Malik Jackson, who was signed this offseason and Jordan Elliott, the lone player who contributed on the team last year as a third round rookie.
Yes, Sheldon Day is on the roster, but he's not an answer. He's a guy. They could go into the season with him, but he'd be entirely an insurance option and not a great one. They still need to find another player, but if they take a similar approach to defensive tackle as they did linebacker, that might be the simplest way to address this issue.
At linebacker, the Browns have divided the position into specific jobs. They have run stuffers and they have coverage players. Maybe they see Jacob Phillips as someone who can do both effectively, but that has yet to materialize. Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki are run stoppers. Malcolm Smith is a coverage linebacker.
If the Browns take the same approach with defensive tackle, Andrew Billings is run stopper first and foremost. He's going to demand double teams and still be able to drive the opposing line of scrimmage backwards.
Jackson and Elliott can contribute against the run as well, but offer more in terms of the pass rush. Elliott's sheer size and strength always suggested the Browns might want more heft up front with the power to move the opponent backward.
When they do pass rush, both can collapse the pocket, which is important for the defense. Staying in their passing lanes while limiting the space the opponent has to operate is important in how they want to defend quarterbacks that can make plays with their legs.
So maybe the Browns just want another clogging run stopper, maximizing their ability to stop the run.
The question is why would the Browns be willing to go away from a multifaceted defensive tackle with a sizable contract to a more specialized approach like they are with linebackers. The answer to that is likely Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett.
If the Browns need to play big, they can do that. They can have Billings and Elliott on the inside with Clowney and Garrett flanking them. They could even put Jackson as the big end on a side.
But when they want to go smaller, they want to get faster without sacrificing power too. Clowney and Garrett both have experience lining up inside and can dominate from that point. It's not always easy finding centers and guards who can match their athleticism or power.
They can put Takkarist McKinley on an edge and have him sprint after the quarterback. The team just re-signed Porter Gustin as well. They do need more help there, so part of the answer to replacing Sheldon Richardson might actually come by adding more edge rushers.
The Browns might just treat their edge rushers like they do their safeties. Finding ways to put as many of them on the field at once as possible. The Browns can vary from having a jumbo package on the field to operating a speed package, sometimes called a NASCAR package.
Opposing quarterbacks may be far less inclined to hold onto the ball in the pocket if they are worried about Clowney, Garrett, McKinley and Jackson chasing them down at any point.
It's possible the Browns are going to try to find a way to replace Richardson with another talented defensive tackle. However, it seems more likely they are finding another way to specialize another position, finding a way to cut costs, reduce the reliance on on defensive tackle in favor of loading up their edge rushers, willing to spend in terms of money and draft capital to do it.
The timing of the Jadeveon Clowney signing is a little frustrating only in that the Browns might have moved on from Richardson sooner. There were mitigating circumstances with his knee that didn't allow him to sign sooner, but had they been able to do this in March, they might have addressed the second nose in free agency. They now might be somewhat stuck doing it in the NFL Draft.
There are some decent nose tackles in the upcoming NFL Draft. Some people love Alim McNeil out of N.C. State, but he could be gone on day two of the draft. In round three, maybe, but if they're taking a nose in round two, it's not an exhilarating move.
It's just really difficult for a nose tackle to be good enough to justify that type of pick as the Browns know firsthand with Danny Shelton. Shelton was reasonably good at his job of clogging, but that's all he could do. McNeil is a far better athlete but he never really produced for the Wolfpack, so expecting him to be more productive in the NFL could be a stretch.
Marlon Tuipulotu of USC isn't as big or obviously powerful, but he's a solid, run stopping player and has put together a profile that could suggest long term success. He also might be available in rounds three or four, which is more my speed for a backup nose.
Jonathan Marshall of Arkansas is a hulk in terms of sheer strength and power. He had a productive senior season and he tends to wear down and needs coaching, but he could be a later round option perhaps.
Don't be surprised if the Browns aren't as obviously concerned about rushing to deal with the issue at defensive tackle as fans and media might be. It also might point to the fact that an already prudent move, adding more edge rush help, is all that more likely to happen early in the 2021 NFL Draft.