The Cleveland Browns will be counting on an improvement from second-year defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, who certainly looked the part over the last two preseason games.
The team spent the 2021 offseason completely reshaping its DT room. From the group that played in 2020, only Elliott remains on the roster. The quantity over quality approach in terms of capital spent on the position was a prudent one, though the results to this point have been less than stellar; 2020 opt-out Andrew Billings had a rough preseason and doesn’t look the dependable run-stuffer he was signed to be. Rookie fourth-rounder Tommy Togiai shouldn’t be active on Sundays, and Marvin Wilson, the highest-paid undrafted free agent in NFL history, was waived and is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad.
Malik McDowell, who went 1,751 days between football games, will play an important role for this team, as will 31-year-old Malik Jackson. With how much defensive coordinator Joe Woods likes to rotate his defensive linemen, each active member of the DT room will log a good number of snaps, and they’ll all need to provide quality play.
Elliot is a big part of that, as the 2020 third-round pick did not have a great first campaign. He is not a great athlete, nor does he have an overpowering physicality to his game, so he needs to win by being flat-out better than his opponent.
Coming out of Missouri, Elliott had a spin move in his repertoire, but was otherwise a very raw player from a technical perspective. And like most rookie DTs, his technique during his first season was sloppy when it existed at all.
He played 350 defensive snaps, earning a 51.3 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. That placed him 93rd out of 106 tackles with at least 350 snaps. He didn’t stand up to double teams or anchor in the run game very well, and was able to generate only four pressures on 185 rushes.
On 54 pass-rush snaps this preseason, Elliott registered five pressures, looking significantly better against both the run and the pass. He seems to have slimmed down a decent bit, and his hands are much more active. For whatever reason, he struggled in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but played significantly better against the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons. The opposing offensive lines had trouble moving the ball when Elliott and McDowell shared the field, with McDowell playing shade.
Consistency with pad level and balance when taking on double-teams is something Elliott must continue to get better at, but perhaps moving to three-tech full-time will help with that; Elliott’s body and role as a rookie fit more of a hybrid than anything, even though he has never been suited to play shade much, if at all.
PFF ranked Elliott 23rd on their 2020 NFL Draft Big Board, significantly higher than most other draft outlets. He didn’t log a great number of sacks, or even tackles for loss, but he was disruptive.
His 10.5% pressure rate over his town seasons for the Tigers was a great number, and it’s indicative of the player he could become at the next level. Perhaps he never reaches the heights of a top-25 prospect, but Elliott put some really nice flashes on tape as a rookie, and those flashes became much more consistent during the preseason.
Given, it was the preseason, and that’s not exactly indicative of regular-season performance, but the jump in technique should translate, as will his new physique.
The Browns defensive tackle room was supposed to be extremely deep this season. Now, it could be anything but. Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi played a combined 1,667 snaps in 2020, while Elliott and Vincent Taylor, the only other DTs to log snaps for Cleveland, totaled 594.
Aside from the two games that Sheldon Day will be able to play up from the practice squad, the Browns will again be running with four defensive tackles. Based on his play in the preseason, it is highly unlikely that Tommy Togiai will be active much, if at all, barring injury.
Jadeveon Clowney should be deployed inside often, which will help with the DT rotation, but his injury history is well-documented.
Richardson was not worth the $13 million salary he was owed, but he was reliable and consistent, two things that no one in the DT rotation this year aside from Malik Jackson (who is due to show signs of age at some point) is. Moving on from Richardson before the draft, even a weak class, signaled a confidence in the room that had better be justified, otherwise things could get ugly for this revamped defense.
Elliott is extremely important to making that happen, and he'll probably end up seeing 600 snaps or more. Those need to be impactful snaps, not ones where he's getting washed out by blockers or just staying engaged at the top of the pocket, watching the quarterback throw the ball.
Jordan Elliott needs to make significant strides in year two, and his preseason performance is encouraging. Now, he needs to keep it up when the games actually matter. If he doesn't, the Browns defensive line is in trouble.