Heading into the 2019 season, the Cleveland Browns defensive line looked to be the team’s strongest unit on paper. Myles Garrett was coming off a career high in sacks (13.5) and was selected to his first pro bowl. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi was growing into a talented starter for the interior of the defensive line. Two foundational players both drafted in 2017 during the Sashi Brown analytics tenure.
General Manager John Dorsey’s focus during the offseason was adding additional talent across the defensive line. The emphasis was supported by the notion that an improved pass rush helps the secondary perform better. Dorsey thus traded for defensive end Olivier Vernon from the New York Giants and signed defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson during free agency to strengthen the defensive unit.
Pairing franchise talent Myles Garrett with veteran Olivier Vernon seemed like a nightmarish bookend combination for opposing quarterbacks. The addition of Sheldon Richardson filled the 3-technique defensive tackle role, which was an obvious weakness from the previous two seasons. Richardson’s presence on the interior would only help Larry Ogunjobi and decrease the percentage of double team blocks he encountered.
Reviewing the current state of the defensive line, it has not produced to the expectations of many fans. Myles Garrett is serving an indefinite suspension following his debacle with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Olivier Vernon has vastly underwhelmed while dealing with a knee injury for the back half of the season. Second year defensive end Chad Thomas currently has the most sacks (4) among active defensive ends.
The loss of Myles Garrett has dramatically impacted the presence of a defensive pass rush. He was leading the team with ten sacks and was obviously the most productive rusher off the edge. Olivier Vernon never really made the impact alongside Garrett that many anticipated. Playing opposite of Myles Garrett gave opposing coordinators matchup issues because of Vernon's pass rush ability. It gave varying opportunities for one-on-one matchups that were advantageous for Vernon's productivity. Besides non-statistical impact the sack potential never really came to fruition.
Vernon currently has the lowest sack total (3) of his career and his number of quarterback hits aren’t impressive either. His performance this season could be strongly connected to his lingering knee injury. Football is a physical support and injuries happen all the time, but Vernon’s high price tag doesn’t help his argument. It’s safe to expect more than three sacks from a player with a $15 million cap hit.
Olivier Vernon when healthy can be a quality complement when healthy, but injuries still have the jury out on his contract compared to performance. He has missed six of the last seven games, which required rotational players to setup into larger roles.
Chad Thomas has shown growth in his increased snap count after rarely seeing the field his rookie season. There are moments you wish his motor was higher and it really showed in the week 16 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. He’s joined by defensive ends Porter Gustin, Bryan Cox, and Robert McCray, most of whom spent time on the practice squad.
Unfortunately, the edge pass rush in recent weeks has been seemingly nonexistent. It raises questions about the effectiveness of Steve Wilks defensive scheme and the decisions to trade LB Genard Avery and waiving DE Chris Smith. The depth of the defensive line once deemed as strength has seemingly become a gaping weakness.
Although the edge of the defensive line has struggled to provide consistent results, interior starters Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson show promise. Ogunjobi currently has 5.5 sacks and has produced similar stats to last season. He is showing consistency as a player and does a good job of creating interior pressure. The depth behind him is extremely lacking and must be improved. Ogunjobi should only continue to grow as a player but his high snap count will impact his longevity and eventual production.
Sheldon Richardson on the other hand has been a welcomed addition to the defensive line. He currently boasts a 75.1 overall grade according to Pro Football Focus and he’s been a stable in the rushing defense. Richardson has also matched his career high in solo tackles (42) by being a sure tackler, something that can’t be said across the entire front seven. He has provided veteran leadership for a young team while deterring attention from Larry Ogunjobi.
Starters along the interior have really shown up this season. The interior lacks depth behind starters just like the depth for edge defenders and the productivity as a whole took a major hit following the suspension of Myles Garrett. Garrett was every bit the player we thought he could be when active. His absence has highlighted the lack of depth for the entire defensive line.
The expectations are high for a team that spends among the top-10 in salaries for defensive lineman. A middle of the pack pass defense ranking and a 30 ranked rush defense is very disappointing. In situations such as suspension or injury, having quality depth can help minimize the loss of production. At this juncture of the season the talent along the defensive line is partially disappointing. The productivity needs to be more consistent or there could be a complete depth overhaul.
For players like Chad Thomas, Porter Gustin, and Bryan Cox this is an opportunity to earn a bigger role in the rotation next season. John Dorsey is sure to add more talent across the defensive line in both free agency and the draft next year. Sunday’s matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals may be one final opportunity for rotational players to make their mark heading into the offseason.