Shifting Schemes: Cleveland Browns Switch to 3-4
Over the past two seasons, the Cleveland Browns have been running a 4-3 base defense, that has posted decent results. However, the Browns fired their coach and coordinators (including Dick Jauron), and this move will have an effect in IDP leagues heading into the 2013 season. The Browns hired former Cardinals defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, to lead their defense.
This hiring has all but assured that Cleveland makes the switch back to the 3-4, as Horton brings a strong knowledge, as well as success of running a 3-4. Horton has said that he plans to run a hybrid defense, depending on the packages and personnel he has to deploy, but Cleveland’s base defense is looking like it’ll be a base 3-4. What does this mean for IDPs of this team heading into 2013?
Since switching to a 4-3 defense in 2010, the Browns had run the defense with some success and 2nd round pick, Jabaal Sheard has been the primary beneficiary of the defense. In two seasons, he’s notched 95 tackles and 15.5 sacks. In 2012, Sheard’s numbers dipped and his pass rush grade dropped severely (-18.5 in 2012). His total quarterback pressures also dropped from 55 to 37. As of this writing, Sheard is slated to transition from a hands-in-the-dirt defensive end to a pass rushing outside linebacker.
Ahtyba Rubin has been a solid interior defensive tackle, especially from an IDP standpoint. He’s had 3 straight seasons of 40+ tackles and posted at least 2 sacks per season over the course of that time span. His IDP value, on the surface, could take a bit of a hit as he’ll transition to nose tackle, where his job will focus on taking up blockers, allowing the linebackers to make the plays. However, in 2010, he notched 57 tackles and 2 sacks while playing soe tackle. His value will take a hit in the big play leagues, as he won’t be asked to rush the pass often, but could be a sneaky play in DT leagues with his upside for tackle numbers. His value could take a bump if Phil Taylor plays the nose.
Billy Winn is someone that should make the transition rather easily and the coaching staff is really liking what Winn can do. Will it result in measurable IDP numbers? I’m taking a wait and see approach on Winn’s prospects as he’s slated to man the right side in the 3-4. He showed his ability to stop the run, as he graded positively (+5.0), making 16 defensive stops in 242 run snaps. It also remains to be seen if Winn can handle an every snap role, as he appeared in just 60% of the defensive snaps. Winn is someone to keep an eye on in dynasty leagues, but in a redraft format, will be waiver wire material.
Phil Taylor is the favorite to play nose tackle, even though Rubin has experience in the role. Taylor is a 350+ pound mammoth that should be able to eat up interior offensive linemen. Rubin and Taylor will probably battle for the position during the off-season, but Taylor should get the nod. After coming off the PUP in Week 9, grading positively in run defense and placing near the top among nose tackles in run stop percentage at 10.7%. His IDP value will be limited at his position, however, as he should be considered a late round target in leagues that require a defensive tackle.
I mentioned Jabaal Sheard briefly in the defensive line section, but he will making the transition to outside linebacker, which will definitely impact his IDP value. He goes from a top 15 DL, to an afterthought in most formats with the exception of big play leagues. He should be able to make the transition, as he’ll be asked to take on a role similar to James Harrison or Clay Matthews, where their primary focus is to get to the QB, something that Sheard has done 15.5 times in his short career. Sheard’s role caps his IDP value, as rush linebackers tend to score very inconsistently, because of their reliance on the sack and low tackle numbers. Sheard should be able to hit the double digit mark in sacks and makes for a decent match-up play on a weekly basis, just not an every week starter.
D’Qwell Jackson is the linebacker to target in 2013. After posting 118 tackles, his tackle frequency dipped to 10%, but was on the field for 1,155 defensive snaps. Jackson is expected to be the cog of the defense and Horton is already envisioning him as being the Daryl Washington of his defense. Jackson has also enjoyed IDP success as 3-4 inside linebacker, even though he suffered some injuries during that time. In the seasons where he appeared in 13+ games as 3-4 inside linebacker, he averaged 116 tackles, including 154 in 2008. He’s enjoyed tackle frequencies of 12%+, so if Horton can get the same type of sack numbers that Washington enjoyed in Arizona, Jackson could be headed for another elite season. Jackson’s ADP is slipping, so it’s entirely possible to get an LB1 at an LB2 price.
James-Michael Johnson is expected to man the other spot at the inside opposite Jackson in the new 3-4. Johnson ended his rookie year on IR with a knee injury, but didn’t undergo surgery. Johnson appeared in 294 snaps at both SAM and WILL, posting 35 tackles, for a respectable 12% tackle frequency. His IDP value will hinge on him being able to take on an every-down role in the defense, after appearing in just 45.2% of the snaps in 2012. He makes for an interesting sleeper in 2013.
The assignments for the corners won’t necessarily change. Joe Haden will continue to line up against the opposing teams’ top receivers. Haden was targeted 70 times last season, allowing just 41 catches and producing an 18.5% pass defensed or interception (PDI) frequency. His total 13 total passes defended were a career low, as were the 51 tackles, which could be in part due to the fact he was targeted just 70 times (compared to 85 in 2011 and 77 in 2010). He’ll remain a top option in leagues requiring a CB, since QBs can’t avoid not throwing to their top receivers.
As of now, it looks like slot corner Buster Skrine, will be starting opposite Haden as Sheldon Brown may not be back with Cleveland. Skrine was constantly picked on, but actually produced decent IDP digits when it came to tackles. In 746 defensive snaps, he notched 85 tackles, producing an 11.4% tackle frequency. If he gets the starting job, he could have sneaky IDP value as a late round sleeper in leagues requiring a CB.
TJ Ward returned from an injury plagued 2011, to play in 14 games and graded out as PFF’s 6th best safety. From an IDP standpoint, he was still nowhere near his 2010 numbers, producing just 68 tackles in over 1,000 defensive snaps. If there is a silver lining for Ward’s IDP prospects in 2013, it’s the fact that he was a 3-4 SS in 2010 and he’ll return to that role in Horton’s new defense. Horton has coached Troy Polamalu, Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, so Horton has a very nice canvas to work with in Ward. Strong hitter and fundamental tackler (just 4 misses in 2012). Ward has the upside to return to the elite DBs in 2013 as long as he can stay healthy. He should be had on the cheap, so if you’re in a league where your league mates look at past stats, he’s primed for a bounce back.
Anything can change with free agency scheduled to begin soon and the draft right around the corner. Keep your bookmarks locked on PFF’s Fantasy page for all of latest changes.
Mike Woellert is a Senior Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @Mike Woellert