Cleveland Browns rookie Barkevious Mingo said on Tuesday that “[i]f everything is going well, I think this defense could be the best in the league.” This is the point where, by blogger code, I am probably supposed to go “LOL, Browns” or something.
But let’s take it a different direction, as I temporarily hand my card into authorities. Let’s look at just how frequently teams like the Browns have jumped to the #1 defense, and what they were like.
Let’s first of all get this out there: even though the Browns were 5-11 last year, they went 3-5 in close games and were a lot closer to an average defense over the course of the season, even before we look into the specifics. Cleveland was 19th in points allowed, and we know that while just looking at points can be useful, it also includes things related to the offense, like field position and turnovers. Cleveland was also 17th in net yards per pass attempt, and 13th in yards per rush attempt.
Looking at the 23 teams that ranked #1 in points allowed in a season since 1990, here is a look at the ten worst (using the average rank) in those three categories combined, the year before their rise.
Six teams ranked below this Browns team in terms of what they looked like from the previous season. While it is not typical, it would also be far from an unusual situation for a defense with a performance like the Browns in 2012 to shoot to the top spot.
This is different than saying they will do it, of course. Predicting any team to be the best defense is a fool hardy venture, even those that rank near the top. You think it will be Seattle or San Francisco? Probably not. I could list 31 other teams it probably won’t be, due to injuries or key performers declining or unknowns not working out. It probably won’t be Cleveland, and it doesn’t take rocket science to say that.
What did those turnaround teams reveal, though, and what do the Browns have that might allow for it in a best case scenario? Those teams averaged 5.2 new starters (where we define starters as the starters for majority of games at each position in each season), so almost a 50% turnover in key personnel.
Here were the most frequent positions of change:
- Safety: 14
- Cornerback: 12
- Defensive Tackle/Nose Tackle: 8
- Inside/Middle Linebacker: 7
- Outside Linebacker: 6
- Defensive End: 6
The secondary was by far the largest area where change occurred on our other teams. Interestingly, the “rush” positions were at the bottom in terms of turnover. This doesn’t mean that all these changes came from outside the previous year’s roster. Some were guys returning from injury, others were young players who had already been on the roster moving into a starting role.
Now, for the Browns. If you go by the projected depth chart at ourlads, the Browns will likely have six new starters this year. That includes, for sure, changes in the secondary at one cornerback position and safety. It includes Paul Kruger and/or Barkevious Mingo at outside linebacker positions, an addition of a young inside linebacker with the change to 3-4 opposite D’Qwell Jackson, and nose tackle (where Phil Taylor is back, but only started 7 games in 2012).
If I were to look for reasons why Cleveland could take a big leap on defense, it would be because two of their top young defensive players missed a lot of games last year (Phil Taylor and Joe Haden missing 5 games due to suspension/injury), because they are making a defensive change in scheme with new coordinator Ray Horton, who did well in Arizona, and because there are a lot of young players that could emerge. The average age of the projected starters on defense should be under 26, with only Jackson over the age of 28. If rookie cornerback Leon McFadden takes hold of the other cornerback position ahead of Buster Skrine, Phil Taylor is a beast at the nose tackle and stays healthy, and Cleveland finds a pass rush with the changes they have made, then yes, Mingo may not look like he is completely crazy.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]