Even though it was happening a year after the deal was signed due to COVID-19, Andrew Billings was supposed to eliminate any concerns over the 1-tech because he had been so effective with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019, but the early returns have provided plenty of reason for concern.
The Cleveland Browns have an almost entirely new defensive tackle room for 2021. Billings was to be the true nose and they drafted Tommy Togiai in the fourth round to provide depth and a potential long-term solution at the position. Unfortunately, neither player looked good during the preseason, which has done nothing to silence concerns over the middle of the defensive line.
Billings played his first four seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals, earning a reputation as a quality run-stuffer, showing improvement each season. He offered very little as a pass-rusher, but he anchored well against double-teams and ate up space, allowing his linebackers to stay clean and fill their gaps close to the line of scrimmage.
He was supposed to fill that role for the Browns in 2020, which would have allowed both Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi to perform better at their more natural 3-tech spots. But Billings opted out of the season, and the Cleveland defensive interior was constantly gashed. The game against the Las Vegas Raiders was especially demoralizing; the Raiders offensive line was one of the poorer run blocking units in the league, yet had their way with the Browns DL to the tune of 209 rushing yards. That’s why getting Billings back for 2021 was so encouraging, as was the team’s quantity over quality approach to the rest of the room.
Along with Billings, the Browns spent camp with Marvin Wilson, Damion Square, Togiai, Sheldon Day, and Malik McDowell as new additions, with the hope that six players would prove themselves worthy of rotational spots, but while the process was sound, the results were less so.
Billings showed up to camp overweight, but that added mass clearly wasn’t helping his strength. He played in all three preseason games, and was getting pushed around by second and third-string linemen. To be fair, he hadn’t played in a game since December of 2019, so he was bound to be a bit rusty, but he did not look like a starting-caliber player, which is concerning, to say the least.
Togiai looked even worse, but at least he has a better excuse. He’s still only 21 years old and entered the draft with very little collegiate experience and even less technical refinement. DT is one of the most difficult positions for a rookie to succeed at, so it’s no surprise that Togiai had a rough go. Still, his lack of hand usage or any sort of urgency in his rush makes it extremely difficult to see him being active on Sundays, because his preseason tape was so far from what you’d want playing in a game that meant something.
He was a consistently disruptive player in college against the best competition in the country. He should be perfectly fine at some point, just not in 2021.
The tackle that looked the best during the preseason was perhaps the most unlikely. Malik McDowell was simply dominant over his two games, and while the level of competition may not have been great, none of the other tackles looked anywhere close to as good as he did, and Jordan Elliott played quite well over the last two games; McDowell was just that good.
That was his first NFL action after being drafted in 2017, having gone more than 1,750 days between games. He may be 6-6, but he plays with fantastic leverage to where he just can’t be moved by a double team, and his arms are so long that he can bull his way into the backfield with ease. He also possesses elite explosiveness, knifing through the line a step ahead of everyone else.
McDowell is still raw, and is essentially a redshirted rookie at this point, but he is the definition of a physical specimen and can more than hold his own physically right now, with the potential to develop into a truly elite player down the line.
There aren’t a ton of games on the Browns schedule where they’d absolutely need a traditional space-eating 1-tech, assuming that’s what Billings winds up being. It certainly isn’t in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game where it makes all the sense in the world to start McDowell at 1-tech, even if he’s more of a 3-tech.
But at some point, the team is going to need Billings to live up to his billing, pun not intended. They can’t rely on Togiai to take his place, and it’d be best to not count on McDowell speedrunning the Kurt Warner track. Elliott played around 315 pounds in 2020 but is down to the 290-pound range and looks noticeably slimmer, so he likely cannot function as a 1T. Malik Jackson has always been a 3T, so that’s off the table. If Togiai is inactive, as he probably should be, that leaves McDowell as the backup 1T when Billings starts.
There’s an argument to be made that McDowell is the second-most-talented player on the entire roster, so even though he is woefully inexperienced and incredibly raw, he’s going to play a huge role for this team, one that no one else in the DT room can.
It’s entirely fair to be concerned about the status of the Browns 1-tech position. There are legitimate questions there, and limited time remaining to find some answers. Perhaps they will come from the most unlikely source.