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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
It's hard to say if the Browns' pass defense was good because of the personnel or simply because the run defense was so bad that opponents didn't have to throw. This unit allowed the fourth-lowest completion percentage and the fifth-fewest passing yards, but they also faced the fifth-fewest pass attempts. Meanwhile, they allowed a whopping 4.7 yards per carry on the ground, with only the Bears and Texans surrendering more rushing scores. In the two major statistical categories that matter to fantasy managers, the Browns performed poorly. The pass rush ranked 27th, producing 34 sacks, and their 20 takeaways ranked 25th.
The organization did not respond with sweeping personnel changes, though there are a few significant ones. The most important is the addition of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator. Schwartz is known for his ability to match schemes with the strengths of his players. That said, the concept and aggressive approach is always the same. Schwartz runs an aggressive, penetrating, one-gap, 4-3. He doesn't like to blitz a lot but will turn his front four loose to get upfield and be disruptive. Schwartz's defenses are known for getting to the quarterback for sacks and forcing turnovers. We can expect a lot more of both from this unit in 2023.
Any incoming coach would be thrilled to have a player like Myles Garrett to work with. The 2017 first-overall pick came with grand expectations and has done nothing to disappoint. Garrett is an elite, three-down defensive end that does a great job of setting the edge versus the run and is one of the league's premier pass rushers. He is a leader and the cornerstone of the Cleveland defense.
As most rookies do, Garrett got off to a modest start with 30 combined stops and seven sacks in 2017. Since that time, he's cranked out five consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks, including 16 in each of the last two. Early in his career, Garrett's tackle totals were on the low side, but that is no longer the case. After hitting 48 combined in 2020, he's peeled off back-to-back seasons with 50 plus. He can be counted on for two or three turnovers every year and has batted nine passes over the last three seasons.
Garrett is still looking for his first number-one ranking but was second in 2020, sixth in 2021, and third last year. He rests soundly on the elite first tier at the position and should be among the first five, if not the first three, defensive linemen off the board in any format.
What makes Garrett's sack total from last year even more impressive is that he did it without much help from the surrounding cast. Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be the bookend, but he flopped like a fish out of water. After Garrett, no Cleveland player managed more than three sacks. The team addressed that problem in free agency, signing Za'Darius Smith and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
Smith missed all of 2021 with an injury. Take that season out, and he has four consecutive years with at least 43 combined tackles and 8 sacks. Over his final two seasons with the Packers in 2019 and 2020, Smith averaged 39-15-12.5 and accounted for 7 turnovers. In his lone year with Minnesota last season, he totaled 32-11-9 with a pair of forced fumbles and 5 batted passes.
The numbers clearly establish that Smith can get it done. The part of the story they don't translate is that Smith was a standup 3-4 edge defender in all three of his previous stops. That begs the question, how well will Smith fit in Schwartz's scheme? It is something to keep an eye on, but I seriously doubt there will be a problem. Schwartz may ask him to try playing from a three-point stance but if Smith is not comfortable with that, he'll have the green light to stand up. Working to the strength of his players is a big part of what got Schwarts this job to begin with.
In this scheme, Smith is capable of 45-50 combined tackles, a dozen or more sacks, a couple of turnovers, and a top-20 ranking. What makes it even better, managers are not showing him much love, so Smith is falling through the cracks into the late rounds of most drafts. I see him as a quality DE2 that can be picked up in the late DE3 part of the draft.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo totaled 34 combined stops and 4 sacks over three seasons with the Rams. His first shot at substantial playing time came last year with the Texans, and Okoronkwo took advantage of it. With roughly a 45% snap share (518 snaps), he managed 44 combined tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble, and two batted passes. He enters camp as the favorite for the third end slot but will have to hold off Alex Wright, Isaiah Thomas, and rookie fourth-round selection Isaiah McGuire.
The organization used one of its third-round picks on Wright last year. He was considered a developmental prospect that needed to grow both technically and physically. But ended up playing more than expected (542 snaps) out of necessity. Wright produced 28 combined tackles and knocked down 5 passes but fail to put a mark in the sack column. He has the athletic traits and motor to be more productive in year two. On the other hand, if the team had high expectations, they probably wouldn't have signed Okoronkwo.
Rookie Isaiah McGuire deserves a spot on the dynasty watch list. He is a strong and disruptive edge defender with the physical strength and ability to stand up against NFL tackles. There are holes in his technique that need work both as a pass rusher and a point-of-attack run defender, but some good coaching and a year or two of experience could make him a solid starter for the Browns.
Over the last four drafts, Cleveland has used third-round picks on tackles Jordan Elliott (2020), Perion Winfrey (2022), Siaki Ika (2023), and a fourth-rounder on Tommy Togiai (2021), yet they still felt the need to sign former Vikings starter Dalvin Tomlinson, and former Cardinal Trysten Hill, in free agency.
Tomlinson is a proven commodity that adds stability to a position that's been a revolving door in recent years. He is a much-needed 325-pound anchor for the run defense. Tomlinson doesn't have much wiggle as a pass rusher but has the power to dump blockers in the quarterback's lap. From an IDP perspective, he is not a game-breaker but has consistently produced 40+ combined tackles and two or three sacks per season. While there is not much upside Tomlinson does provide good depth in leagues starting three interior linemen.
Jordan Elliott is penciled in at the three-technique tackle. This is usually the more productive of the interior positions in 4-3 schemes, yet he was not able to do much with the same opportunity last year. Elliott managed a pedestrian 19-15-2. 703 plays. That was more snaps than any Cleveland defensive lineman not named Garrett. The opportunity will be there in the new scheme, so maybe this will be Elliott's breakout season, but I'm not counting on it.
- DE Myles Garrett – Elite tier-one
- DE Za'Darius Smith – Potential late-round steal
- DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – Could be a strong addition if one of the starters goes down
- DE Alex Wright – Watchlist worthy but no grand expectations
- DE Isaiah Thomas – No impact
- DE Isaiah McGuire – Deep dynasty sleeper stash
- DT Dalvin Tomlinson – Decent DL3 target
- DT Jordan Elliot – Maybe the new scheme will make a difference
- DT Tommy Togiai – No impact
- DT Siaki Ika – Tomlinson's backup, not likely to play much this year
- DT Perrion Winfrey – No impact
- DT Trysten Hill – No impact
The Browns' linebackers were a dumpster fire last year, largely but not completely due to injuries. Anthony Walker was lost in week three but not before playing less than 75% of the snaps in the first two games as the previous defensive staff tried to force Jacob Phillips into a role. Phillips played every snap from the time Walker went down until midway through the week seven game when he too was lost for the year. The team had Deion Jones on the bench but would never see fit to give him the reigns. Instead, we saw guys like Tony Fields, Reggie Ragland, Jermaine Carter, and even Jordan Kunaszyk get in on the action. The end result was, no Cleveland linebacker playing more than 534 snaps on the season, and of course, a new defensive coordinator.
Heading into training camp there are no expected changes to the starting lineup at the second level. Time will tell if that is a good thing or not. One positive sign is that the organization re-signed Walker for another year. He is not an uber-talented, elite player by NFL standards but Walker is a proven, dependable veteran that plays with savvy and demonstrates leadership. He is not going to make many exceptional plays but makes good decisions and few mistakes. Sometimes all a team needs from their middle linebacker is to make all the routine plays that he should. Walker does that.
When Walker stays on the field full-time, he makes a great third starter for IDP managers. With the Colts in 2019, he went 84-42-2.5 with a pair of takeaways and a final ranking of 21 among linebackers. In his first year with the Browns (2021), Walker averaged almost nine combined tackles per game over fourteen starts.
The two questions that remain as we approach camp, are Walker's health and role. It's been a while since we last heard an update on his recovery from the torn quad. At that time, he was targeting the start of training camp as a return date. Maybe the fact that he and the team have been quiet on the issue, is a good sign. So long as Walker gets back to a full-time role, he will offer good value as a late-round pick for us. Most IDP experts are projecting this to be the case and I fully agree that it should be, but this is the Cleveland Browns we are talking about so anything is possible.
Could a healthy Jacob Phillips beat out Walker for the starting job? I would say yes, that is possible. Could Phillips be an IDP factor? Absolutely, it is safe to say that whoever the Browns put on the field at middle backer, will be productive, so long as they leave him on the field full-time. Phillips held that role for three games and about half of two others in 2022. Over those five games, he averaged more than eight combined tackles and recorded a pair of sacks, while reaching double-digit points in all of them. Simply put, the guy can play, he just can't stay healthy.
As a rookie third-round pick in 2020, Phillips suffered a knee injury in week one that cost him several games and derailed his season. In 2021 it was a torn biceps in August and last year it was a torn pectoral in week seven. It is easy to see why the organization continues to hold hope but it is frustrating for everyone involved. IDP managers need to keep a close eye on this situation and react accordingly when we learn something definite.
None of the Cleveland linebackers were immune to injury in 2022. Strong side starter, Sione Takitaki was lost to an ACL injury while weak side starter, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed the last four games with a foot sprain. Takitaki's availability for camp, and possibly into the season, is in doubt as he works his way back. Owusu Koramoah opted not to have surgery on the foot and is expected to be ready.
Neither of the two provides much IDP value. For Takitaki it is a matter of his limited role as the third linebacker. The issue with Owusu-Koramoah is something we have been trying to figure out since he came into the league as a second-round pick in 2021.
Coming out of Notre Dame, he was touted as a fast, rangy, and highly active, playmaking weak-side linebacker. Through two seasons as a pro, what we have seen is a rather average player that vanishes for stretches at a time and is often late to the dance. His scouting report leading up to the draft suggested that Owusu-Koramoah excels in coverage, yet he has never played 100% of the defensive snaps in any game thus far in his young career, sometimes seeing less than half the action in games.
Maybe the new defensive coordinator will bring out the best in Owusu-Koramoah. There are IDP managers that still believe enough to pick him up as a late-round LB5. I understand their perspective but will not be one of them. Let someone else take that risk.
- MLB Anthony Walker – Dependable LB3, providing he has a three-down role
- WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – Make him show us something before investing
- SLB Sione Takitaki – No impact/injury recovery
- MLB Jacob Phillips – High potential if he stays healthy and lands a full-time role
- WLB Tony Fields – No impact/injury sleeper
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