BEREA — Jim Schwartz endeared himself to many Browns fans Wednesday.
He took a trip down memory lane and discussed cutting his NFL teeth in Cleveland as a scout under coach Bill Belichick from 1993-95. He emphasized the importance of holding the best Browns players accountable to establish the culture he’ll seek as the franchise’s new defensive coordinator.
Refreshing sound bites amounted to Schwartz “winning” his introductory news conference at team headquarters, but all involved realize words don’t matter unless actions validate them.
Schwartz, 56, won’t have a chance in earnest to prove he can spearhead a turnaround for the Browns defense until September.
However, he can assist the organization this offseason in positioning the defense to succeed, and the interior of the defensive line must be the top priority on his side of the ball.
Under the regime led by General Manager Andrew Berry, coach Kevin Stefanski and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, the Browns have neglected the defensive tackle spots. They have settled for bargain hunting instead of shopping for proven commodities. With how they’ve chosen to allot their resources since 2020, there is ample evidence they do not consider defensive tackle a premium position.
With Schwartz’s arrival, the days of forsaking clear-cut upgrades for the middle of the D-line are numbered.
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Regardless of which defensive coordinator the Browns wound up hiring after Stefanski fired Joe Woods the night of Jan. 8, team brass knew reinforcements were needed at defensive tackle. Heck, everyone knew. Yet Schwartz’s experience indicates he will push harder for key D-tackle acquisitions than other candidates would have.
Weaknesses up the middle of the defense contributed to too many offenses running wild against the Browns during the 2022 season, a glaring factor in the franchise underachieving en route to a record of 7-10. In 11 of 17 games, the opponent finished with more than 100 rushing yards. The Browns surrendered more than 150 rushing yards in seven of those games, including two in which they allowed more than 200 yards on the ground.
Schwartz has the requisite cachet to compel Berry not only to overhaul the roster at defensive tackle, but also to usher in a philosophical shift about targeting higher-caliber players there.
Schwartz is a former head coach of the Detroit Lions and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. His track record suggests he is capable of seizing complete control of the defense while Stefanski concentrates on adjusting the offense to the Deshaun Watson era. Coordinators like Schwartz often want to be assured during the interview process they will be supplied with a specific level of talent at certain positions. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if the sore subject of D-tackle was broached during the courtship.
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Schwartz’s resume is loaded with experience coaching star defensive linemen, and the primary objective of his scheme calls for upgrades in the trenches who will complement four-time Pro Bowl end Myles Garrett.
In each of his three defensive coordinator jobs — Tennessee Titans (2001-08), Buffalo Bills (2014) and Eagles (2016-20) — along with his lone head coaching gig — Lions (2009-13) — Schwartz has guided a D-tackle to at least one All-Pro season. The list is composed of Albert Haynesworth (Titans, All Pro in 2007-08), Marcell Dareus (Bills, 2014), Fletcher Cox (Eagles, 2018) and Ndamukong Suh (Lions, 2010, 2014).
“I’ve been very fortunate over my career to be blessed with some really good defensive linemen, and we’ve run a very D-line friendly scheme that eliminates a lot of conflict for those guys,” Schwartz said. “We were able to play guys off of that, and we sort of let those guys go and be disruptive.”
Translation: Schwartz’s goal is to create one-on-one matchups for his defensive linemen, and quality tackles are essential to achieving this. His thinking stems from the evolution of pass interference and illegal contact rules exacerbating the hardships of defenses whose bread and butter is pass coverage rather than pass rush.
“You can still win one-on-one on pass rush, and a devastating pass rush goes a long way,” Schwartz said. “You can create turnovers off of pass rush, and if you can rush with four it allows your blitz game to be so much more effective because you start blitzing on your terms as opposed to on the offense’s terms. You don’t have to blitz just to get pressure. You can blitz based on the situation, based on the personnel, as opposed to being forced to blitz to get pressure. … So we’re going to put a lot of emphasis on pass rush.
“Every offense we’ll play will probably start with [these questions]: ‘How do we neutralize Myles Garrett, and how do we keep him from wrecking this game?’ And it’s my job to give him some answers and to be able to put some pieces scheme-wise and personnel-wise around him to allow him to be free and more productive.”
The Browns finished the 2022 season ranked 25th in the NFL in both fewest rushing yards allowed per game (135) and attempt (4.7 average). They tied for 27th in sacks with 34, including Garrett’s 16. How bad was the drop-off after Garrett? Defensive tackle Taven Bryan was second on the team with three sacks.
Keep Schwartz’s reference to D-line personnel decisions in mind during the buildup to NFL free agency. It will kick off with the negotiating window opening at noon March 13 and the signing period beginning at 4 p.m. March 15.
Although the Browns don’t have a first-round pick in the April 27-29 NFL Draft because of their March 18 trade with the Houston Texans for Watson, the defensive front will almost certainly be addressed in later rounds with input from Schwartz.
The Browns have found themselves searching for a starting end opposite Garrett in most offseasons, and it’ll be the case again with Jadeveon Clowney hitting free agency fresh off his end-of-season discipline from the club.
Substantial investments at D-tackle will be a change for Berry.
Berry actually inherited good defensive tackles as a first-time GM in 2020, when Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson were the starters. But Berry let Ogunjobi walk in free agency in March 2021 and cut Richardson a month later.
To this point, Berry has opted for quantity instead of quality at D-tackle.
He signed former Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Andrew Billings to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in March 2020. Billings opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns, returned for 2021 and never panned out. He was cut on Nov. 13, 2021.
Also in 2020, Berry drafted defensive tackle Jordan Elliott in the third round (No. 88 overall). Claiming Vincent Taylor off waivers in September and signing veteran Sheldon Day to the practice squad in late December were D-tackle depth moves of note the same year.
In 2021, veteran Malik Jackson and project Malik McDowell were signed to one-year deals and started virtually all season. Neither one was retained. Jackson was on the tail end of his career, and an off-field incident crushed McDowell’s renewed chance in the NFL years after previous legal trouble resulted in jail time.
Given a shot to serve as a full-time starter for the first time this past season, Elliott struggled alongside former Jacksonville Jaguars first-round choice Bryan, whom Berry signed this past March to a one-year contract worth as much as $5 million, including incentives. Backing up Elliott and Bryan without much promise were two Berry draft picks: Tommy Togiai, a 2021 fourth-round pick, and Perrion Winfrey, a 2022 fourth-round selection.
Remaining on the roster, at least for now, are soon-to-be free agent Bryan, Elliott, Togiai, Winfrey and Ben Stille, an undrafted rookie who was plucked off the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad in November.
The addition of Schwartz means it’s appropriate to glance at the list of top pending free-agent defensive tackles.
Seven are on ProFootballFocus.com’s list of the top 50 free agents of 2023: Javon Hargrave (Eagles), Daron Payne (Washington Commanders), Dalvin Tomlinson (Minnesota Vikings), Dre’Mont Jones (Denver Broncos), Zach Allen (Arizona Cardinals), Sheldon Rankins (New York Jets) and David Onyemata (New Orleans Saints). NFL.com’s list of the top 51 free agents includes Hargrave, Payne, Tomlinson, Jones, Allen and Poona Ford (Seattle Seahawks). It excludes Rankins and Onyemata.
Some of those players may not fit Berry and DePodesta’s age profile — Onyemata is the oldest at 30, followed by Hargrave at nearly 30 with a birthday next month — or remain available when the market opens in March.
The more important point is big-name defensive tackles should no longer be viewed as unrealistic targets for the Browns, and Schwartz is now a crucial part of the equation.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at [email protected]
On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.
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