With Jadeveon Clowney already ruled out against the Pittsburgh Steelers due to an ankle injury, the Cleveland Browns are going to get a glance at what they hope is the future for the position of defensive end in rookies Alex Wright and Isaiah Thomas.
Between the amount of time Clowney spent in free agent limbo this past offseason and how little the Browns have gotten from their edge depth the past two seasons outside of some flashes from Takkarist McKinley, it was obvious the organization needed to invest in young talent at defensive end.
The Browns selected Wright in the third round out of UAB and Thomas in the seventh round out of Oklahoma.
Wright is in the mold the Browns want for their base ends. Big enough to hold the point of attack, long enough to avoid getting reached and fast enough to put the opponent at a disadvantage. But given how raw he appeared, Wright looked like he might need time to develop limiting his impact as a rookie. However, he proved to be adaptable in training camp impressing early and often. The Browns were relieved to re-sign Clowney, but they had reason to be excited about the potential of Wright both this season and going forward.
The Browns have utilized Wright as a base end as well as putting him inside on some rush packages just as they do with both Clowney and Garrett. Preparing to face off against the Steelers, Wright will have his opportunity to prove he can hold up as the left end on run downs, trying to force plays back to the inside where the Browns believe they can win with numbers.
Coming into his rookie season, this seemed like the area Wright would thrive the most, so it will be interesting to see how he performs when that is a major part of his job this week. He's heavier than Clowney and is still filling out his frame.
To this point, Wright has been in on pass plays than run downs as part of various rush packages. His burst off the line combined with his length can cause problems. Even if he can't get to the quarterback, if he can get movement on the blocker, he can then reach his long arms out and deflect passes, something that can in handy against the opener.
Isaiah Thomas looked like he might be more prepared to make an early impact than Wright, but with less upside due to a lack of flexibility and quick twitch movements. The draw with Thomas was that he was explosive off the ball with excellent football intelligence, which could enable him to be an effective rotational piece. In college, the Sooners were comfortable playing with him anywhere on the line and rarely took him off the field because he consistently did what was asked of him, playing team football.
Thomas made the most of his first impression in preseason, recording two sacks and a tackle for loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Unfortunately, he would suffer a broken hand the following week, which halted his momentum. The Browns would love for Thomas to go out and record a couple sacks against the Steelers, but they need him to simply do what he's always done - doing his job.
If Thomas can execute his one eleventh for 15 snaps in this game, that would be a nice boost for the undermanned Browns defensive line. The Browns are likely to activate Isaac Rochell to give them another rotational option to keep guys fresh and in case of injury.
Down the line, the Browns would like to hope that Alex Wright can eventually become the full-time base end across from Myles Garrett, taking over Clowney's role. Isaiah Thomas, meanwhile, could become a valuable role player and backup for a defensive line that has struggled to find rotational pieces the past few seasons.
For now, they just need the two to contribute to an overall team effort on defense against the Steelers that can put this unit back on track and allow this team to move on from last week's debacle against the Jets.