If injuries don't derail the Cleveland Browns 2021 season, the team's lack of depth on the defensive line just might. that's why it is so important that Takk McKinley returns healthy and focused.
Both Oliver Vernon and Myles Garrett dealt with injuries last season. so did Adrian Clayborn, signed to provide quality depth behind the starters. things did not go according to plan for the defensive tackles either, as Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi played an extremely high number of snaps with no reliable backups behind them.
With how much defensive coordinator Joe Woods likes to rotate his linemen, the Browns knew they needed to improve the rooms this offseason. they went for quantity over quality, not selecting a defensive lineman until the end of the fourth round and sticking to the value side of free agency. it remains to be seen just how well that plan will work, and while two preseason games isn't anywhere near enough data to make a decision, the early returns aren't exactly promising.
Andrew Billings had a rough first game, but that was also his first on-field action in over a year after opting out of 2020. the team needs him to be a reliable space-eating run-stuffer, the likes of which they have not had since Danny Shelton.
Malik Jackson should be a quality starter, and could even be an upgrade over Richardson, especially if billings play well.
On the edge, Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney (when/if healthy) should form one of the most devastating duos in the league.
After those four players though, the line is a complete unknown; a bunch of questions with very few answers. Tommy Togiai, Marvin Wilson, and Jordan Elliott didn't do much against Jacksonville. Elliott was more effective against the New York Giants, but was also playing on the final drive of the game, which is not a great sign. Sheldon day, who spent a few weeks on the team's practice squad last season, was initially thought to be just a camp body, but now seems to have a legitimate shot at making the final roster.
None of Porter Gustin, Joe Jackson, Curtis Weaver, Cameron Malveaux, or Romeo McKnight are proven, not did they make much of an impact against the end of the Jags and Giants rosters. Malik McDowell is incredibly talented, and had an impressive outing against New York, but he's still a longshot.
There is talent in these rooms, but almost all of it is young and unproven. DT is a position that is especially difficult for rookies to play well at, and it was surprising to see the team not draft an EDGE.
If any of the four defensive line starters were to be hampered by or go down with an injury, their replacement, at least right now, would be a significant step down, one that the rest of the defense may not be good enough to overcome. And that's assuming Billings can return to form quickly; his preseason performance has been rough.
If the backups can't generate any rush against the Jaguars and Giants backup offensive lines, how will they do it against a good starting group?
Takk McKinley doesn't magically fix everything, but he goes a long way towards making both rooms significantly better. Having a quality third EDGE would give the Browns the freedom to manage Garrett and Clowney's snaps, something both players need. Garrett to keep him fresh for the most important snaps, and Clowney to keep him healthy.
He also allows the Browns to deploy Clowney as a defensive tackle, something he hasn't done a whole lot of as a pro, but when he has lined up inside, he's found a lot of success. In obvious passing situations, Cleveland can run out a front of Garrett, Clowney, Malik Jackson, and McKinley, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah providing more pass-rush support.
McKinley's speed off the edge will aid in slowing down teams with lateral threats, such as the Baltimore Ravens run game and the Kansas City Chiefs passing attack. He's explosive, bendy, and strong, possessing all the physical tools needed to be a really good starter in this league. And he's shown it on the field; he has a solid 11.9% pressure rate across nearly 1,200 career pass-rush snaps, and finished 13th in Pass Rush Productivity in 2018 via Pro Football Focus.
Garrett and McKinley have the burst and bend to effectively rush off the edge, and Clowney is more than capable there as well, but the rest of the EDGE room lacks the outside ability this defense needs. The defensive tackles outside of McDowell haven't provided much of a pass rush, so that only compounds the lack of outside rush. Perhaps Olivier Vernon heals up and re-joins the team as a late-season reinforcement, but that shouldn't be counted on.
Having Gustin or Weaver trying to keep contain on Lamar Jackson would be a nightmare. McKinley, however, has excellent speed for an end, and would be significantly better against Jackson and other mobile passers. No one player can slow down Jackson, but having a front-seven filled with fast and disciplined players can.
The problem with McKinley has been consistency and staying on the field. He's dealt with injuries, and his mental health has also been an issue, one that has kept him out of practice recently for the Browns and that has put his future with the team in jeopardy.
There will be a large role for McKinley, but only if he's healthy and focused on football. His mental health is, of course, the top priority, and hopefully, he can get the help he needs and get back to playing soon.