When the Cleveland Browns made the decision to release Sheldon Richardson, they committed to the idea that virtually entire defensive interior would be different for the 2021 season. Jordan Elliott, entering his second year, is the only player returning for the Browns defensive tackle position. The revamped group will have a different focus, which offers the Browns flexibility.
The Browns were able to go 11-5 last year and win a playoff game. Lost in that is the fact that the Browns experienced an early disappointment in the 2020 season when free agent acquisition Andrew Billings opted out of the season.
He was a big signing for the Browns defense. A two-gapping nose that is a tremendous run clogger and impacts the line of scrimmage. That would've benefited the linebackers behind him, protecting them from blockers, allowing them to run around and make plays, but it also would've enabled Larry Ogunjobi to be utilized more in a pass rushing role.
When Billings opted out, Ogunjobi had to go back to a role which has been a poor fit for him, being the primary nose. His best season as a Brown was his rookie season when the Browns had Danny Shelton in front of him, able to take a significant amount of heavy running downs. That allowed Ogunjobi to stay fresher and shoot gaps in more obvious passing situations.
Ogunjobi is now with the Cincinnati Bengals, having signed a contract in free agency, but the Browns have several options that can rush from the nose, including Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney.
The fact the Browns were able to achieve as much as they did in the 2020 season while Billings' contract was then deferred until 2021 may work out really well for the Browns.
Billings now becomes the centerpiece of the defensive tackle position. He is their best pure run stopping defensive tackle and allows the Browns to shape the rest of their group around him.
The three-tech position becomes a flexible spot allows the Browns to go in multiple directions. If the Browns want to put up a wall to try to control the line of scrimmage while protecting the linebackers, they can double up with another run stuffing presence. Elliott entering year two as well as rookies Tommy Togiai and Marvin Wilson will presumably be vying for that role.
These three also represent the biggest challenge for the Browns. Defensive tackle is a difficult position to step in and contribute immediately and can often take until year three to really blossom, which Elliott helped illustrate last year. The jump from collegiate interior offensive linemen to the NFL is massive. Suddenly, these players are facing double teams not just by fully grown men, but far more special athletes. That wear and tear over the course of a season can be significant.
The fact the Browns are taking a committee approach might help, but assuming all three make the final roster, it's going to be a work in progress throughout the season. That's not just about teaching technique, but it's about raw strength. Particularly with the Browns drafting younger, some of these guys will naturally fill out their frame in the next year or few.
Togiai and Wilson will also be competing for the backup nose role behind Billings.
In situations where the Browns utilize this stouter personnel group and they are tasked with rushing a passer, the most important element is to gain ground without getting out of their rush lane. Maybe they never get to the quarterback, but if they limit the quarterback's ability to escape and throw a hand up to potentially deflect a pass, they are doing their job.
Even against a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger who doesn't really move much anymore, the Browns defensive interior was successful when they stayed in their lanes anticipating he was going to get the ball out quickly and tried to deflect it. Vincent Taylor, who signed with the Houston Texans in the offseason, was able to deflect a pass that Porter Gustin then intercepted in the wildcard playoff game.
When the Browns want a three who can get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback, they have Malik Jackson. Jackson, who battled through a 2020 season where he was dealing with a lingering injury has said he's 100 percent entering the 2021 season.
Jackson is significantly cheaper than Richardson, which is part of the reason the Browns made that swap. It's a slight drop off in talent, but Richardson also routinely played 70 percent of snaps in a season and has had remarkable durability.
The Browns aren't likely looking to get that number of reps out of Jackson. In 2020, due to limitations with their depth, the Browns needed all the snaps they could get out of Richardson. The Browns aspire to have other viable options that can reduce the workload for Jackson as well as Billings.
In no small part due to Billings, if the Browns can put opponents into obvious passing situations on a consistent basis, it then frees them up to use Clowney inside. With Myles Garrett and Takkarist McKinley potentially coming off the edges, Clowney, who has historically been a more effective inside rusher, is able to utilize his power to collapse the pocket in order to pressure the quarterback.
Malik McDowell is another three-tech that is on the roster competing. Maybe he will be a huge surprise, but it seems more likely that the best case scenario is to make it through camp and end up on the Browns practice squad. Both in terms of proving he can function with an NFL organization and really getting his body right, that seems far more realistic.
It's difficult to find a way for him to make the final roster as it currently stands. If the Browns suffered a major injury, they might re-sign Richardson before getting to the point where they are willing to go to McDowell.
Not unlike the linebacker position, the Browns have seemingly divided defensive tackle into smaller, more specialized jobs, getting players that excel in specific roles rather than trying to find players that can do everything. For the Browns, it's divided into run stoppers and pass rushers.
Like with linebacker, it's helping them in terms of the salary cap, but it could also prove valuable in terms of keeping players fresh in the course of a game as well as over the course of a season, so long as the Browns defense functions the way they hope. A lengthy injury to Billings or Jackson could be devastating as they have the most stable skill sets in the interior and would be the most difficult to replace.
Rolling over the defensive tackle room looks promising on paper and on paper and fits this defense's overall approach, allowing the Browns to play smaller and faster across the board. The critical piece to keep an eye on will be just how much the trio of Elliott, Togiai and Wilson can bring to the table.