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Browns free-agency look ahead: outside linebackers and tight ends

By Ryan Lewis Published: March 12, 2013

Paul Kruger, Andrew Luck

With the Browns transitioning to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 multi-front scheme, the search begins for players who properly fit the system. Those who can rush the quarterback from a two-point stance become much more valuable. On one side, Jabaal Sheard will be asked to stand up and learn a new position. But the Browns will still need to find a rush linebacker on the other side.

The draft offers several high-end options for the Browns at No. 6, including Oregon's Dion Jordan, whom ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. currently believes will go to the Browns in the first round. Other options would be Georgia's Jarvis Jones, Louisiana State's Barkevious Mingo, Texas A&M's Damontre Moore and BYU's Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah. This free-agency class also has a couple nice names.

1. Cliff Avril, 26, Detroit Lions -- Avril often profiled as more of a 4-3 defensive end but certainly could make the transition to a 3-4 rush linebacker. And with 9.5 sacks last season, he's shown the production needed at that position. Avril could receive several contract offers from teams running either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.

2. Paul Kruger, 27, Baltimore Ravens -- Kruger could be one of the more likely targets, a talented player at a position of need. And the Browns would be stealing a valuable piece from a divisional rival. When Kruger was given the playing time, he exceeded expectations, and played a big role in keeping the Ravens' defense as talented as ever after Terrell Suggs went down for much of the season. Kruger averaged nearly a sack a game during his final eight games, and brought the Indianpolis Colts' Andrew Luck down 2.5 times in the Ravens' opening playoff game. Kruger is mostly a free agent not due to talent concerns, but rather the Ravens needing to trim salary.

3. James Harrison, 34, Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers are in a similar situation regarding their salary cap, and while Harrison is still a very capable pass rusher, he's no longer on the same Defensive-Player-of-the-Year level he was two or three seasons ago. Horton said he'd like the Browns defense to resemble the Steelers defense of recent years, keying in on the blitzing the quarterback. Few names resemble the Steelers more than Harrison, who was recently cut because of salary-cap restraints.

Others: Antwan Barnes (28, San Diego Chargers), Connor Barwin (26, Houston Texans), Victor Butler (25, Dallas Cowboys), Quentin Groves (28, Arizona Cardinals), Manny Lawson (28, Cincinnati Bengals) and Shaun Phillips (31, Chargers).

Note: The Browns could also be searching for someone to start at inside linebacker along with D'Qwell Jackson. James-Michael Johnson did play inside and outside linebacker while at Nevada, and could be an option there.

The Ravens are in danger of losing a talented linebacker at the inside spot as well. Dannell Ellerbe, 27, is perhaps the most talented of the group. Other candidates for a starting inside linebacker role include: Nick Barnett (31, Buffalo Bills), Justin Durant (27, Lions), Larry Grant (28, San Francisco 49ers), Erin Henderson (26, Minnesota Vikings), Brad Jones (26, Green Bay Packers), Dan Skuta (26, Bengals), Daryl Smith (30, Jacksonville Jaguars) and Philip Wheeler (28, Oakland Raiders).

On the other side of the ball, the Browns could certainly be in the market for a weapon at a position new head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner are familiar with -- tight end. Chudzinski has worked closely with tight ends at different levels, and Turner has used a receiving tight end in his offenses (most notably Antonio Gates).

Benjamin Watson and Alex Smith are no longer under contract, leaving Jordan Cameron as the primary option. While athletic, Cameron is unproven.

1. Jared Cook, 25, Tennessee Titans -- Cook is often thought of as an athletic freak, but up to this point in his career, he's been more of an athlete than a football player. A shoulder injury derailed his 2012 season. But the tools are there, and Cook has major potential in the right system with a coaching staff who knows how to work a tight end into the passing game.

2. Dustin Keller, 28, New York Jets -- Keller's another talented receiving option who's had terrific chemistry with quarterback Mark Sanchez at times. Keller missed much of the 2012 season and was only productive in two games but has more of a track record than the other options.

3. Anthony Fasano, 28, Miami Dolphins -- Fasano hasn't put up the same numbers as other tight ends and probably has a lower ceiling, but he's also been one of the more quietly reliable tight ends in the NFL when used in the passing scheme.

Others: Gary Barnidge (27, Panthers), Martellus Bennett (26, Giants), James Casey (28, Texans), Fred Davis (27, Washington Redskins), Brandon Myers (27, Raiders), Dante Rosario (28, Chargers) and Delanie Walker (28, 49ers).


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