As the Browns convene in Berea, Ohio for offseason practices this week, all eyes are on their offense. When will Johnny Manziel take the starting quarterback mantle from Brian Hoyer? Will Josh Gordon be suspended for the entire season? Even the release of the disappointing Greg Little made waves last week.
Given all the uncertainty on that side of the ball, Cleveland’s backbone this season may have to be its defense. And from the look of things, that’s not a bad plan. The Browns hired the defensive-minded Mike Pettine as their new head coach. They added two key players in free agency in linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner, both of whom just made The PFF 101 list. And despite the ‘Johnny Football’ hoopla, Cleveland used its Top 10 draft pick on talented cornerback Justin Gilbert.
Amid these offseason additions, Cleveland should also be excited about one of last season’s revelations, a former draft “reach” that proved to be one of the league’s most efficient run-stoppers. With that, let’s explore the Browns’ latest Secret Superstar, John Hughes.
The Browns’ 2012 draft, their last under President Mike Holmgren and General Manager Tom Heckert, will always be remembered for the ill-fated first round picks of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden. But an equally controversial selection came in the third round when they grabbed the defensive tackle Hughes.
A fifth-year starter at Cincinnati, Hughes didn’t receive much praise or attention heading into the draft. He was clearly athletic, having once been a tight end in high school, but scouts questioned his effort and apparent lack of pass rushing ability. Many mock drafts forecasted him for the seventh round, and some didn’t even have him selected at all.
It wasn’t just the media who misjudged his landing spot; Hughes himself confessed that he’d invited his family over for Day 3 of the draft because that’s when he expected to be taken. Though the Browns did need depth behind starting tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin, Hughes entered the NFL under much skepticism.
A Tale of 2 Seasons
Scouting reports saw Hughes as more of a run-stopping rotational nose tackle; he even admitted after the draft that he was “more of a run guy.” But after Taylor tore a pectoral muscle in the offseason, Hughes spent the first half of his rookie season playing both the 1-technique and more pass-rush-oriented 3-technique roles in Dick Jauron’s 4-3 defense.
He often rotated in regardless of situation, and it quickly became apparent that scouts’ poor pass rush predictions were true. Hughes mustered just one sack and four QB hurries in 174 pass rushes in his first eight games. He would finish the season with a 2.8 Pass Rushing Productivity mark, which was 59th out of 68 qualifying defensive tackles. His run defense also buckled under his sizable snap count, and by the time the Browns hit their bye in Week 10, Hughes’ rookie season was off the rails with a -8.4 overall grade.
When the Browns returned from their bye, Taylor had also rejoined the team and was significantly cutting into Hughes’ playing time. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as the rookie quickly turned into a more efficient player with the decrease in snaps. Hughes was still mistakenly put in passing situations, but his production in the running game shot up after being possibly overburdened earlier in the year. One look at the numbers show how he salvaged his rookie season in the second half:
|2012 Season||% Snaps Played||Run Stop %||PFF Grade|
|Before Bye (9 Games)||52.2||5.3||-8.4|
|After Bye (7 Games)||33.7||10.8||+1.1|
While he wasn’t a difference-maker by any means, Hughes proved he could hold up in the NFL. He entered his first full NFL offseason with something to build on.
That offseason Jauron was dismissed with the rest of the Browns’ coaching staff, and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton came in with his preferred 3-4 scheme. After being a defensive tackle on 83% of his snaps his rookie season, Hughes would play defensive end in a three-man front on 94% of his snaps in 2013. However, the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense isn’t as strict as it used to be, and Horton’s defenses in particular can make use of multiple gap concepts on the same play. Therefore, Hughes still lined up in a 3-technique last season in addition to the classic 5-technique that you see from a 3-4 DE. And yet, by the end of the season, he was one of the best run defenders at his position.
How did he make this leap? The difference for Hughes in 2013 wasn’t where he lined up, but rather when. Over 91% of his snaps came on first and second down, primarily in the Browns’ base defense. Rarely was he asked to play in pass rush situations, and instead he could focus on his strength in the run game. Shortly after he was drafted, Hughes said “I use my hands well to get off blocks and I feel that is my strong suit as a player.” He exhibited this skill many times last season. In Week 3 against the Vikings, for example, with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter, he controlled right guard Brandon Fusco, easily disengaged from the block, and dropped Adrian Peterson for no gain.
Playing as the rotational run-stopper that he was originally pegged for, Hughes finished with a +16.0 run defense grade in 2013. That tied for the seventh-best mark at his position, despite the fact that he played less than half the snaps of many of his peers. He increased his Run Stop Percentage from 6.9 in 2012 to 8.9 last season.
One thing the scouts got wrong was Hughes’ supposed poor effort, as his consistency became his strongest quality in 2013. He was downgraded on just 14 of his 200 run snaps, and had just one game with a negative run defense grade. The last thing you could accuse him of was taking plays off.
New Defense, No Problem
After the Browns turned over their coaching staff for the second straight season, Hughes will no longer be in the Horton defense that he thrived under. But as we discovered, this young defensive tackle’s success is more tied to situation than scheme. Hughes will fit fine in Pettine’s hybrid fronts, as long as he is used when he can flash his superior run defense.
With the Browns having already invested in Rubin, Taylor, and Desmond Bryant, Hughes isn’t likely get a ton of playing time this season, but as he’s shown in his short career, that shouldn’t stop him at all.
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