BEREA: Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard led all NFL rookie linemen with 8½ sacks, tied for third in the league with five forced fumbles and established himself as a key piece of the franchise last season.
Despite his early success, Sheard isn’t satisfied. He has not come close to reaching the same level as Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts or Julius Peppers of the Chicago Bears, but he’s aiming to earn a place among the league’s elite pass rushers.
“I hear about Freeney and Peppers and all these guys,” Sheard said Monday after practice. “I just want to be as good as them. I just want to be great. I want to work hard and hopefully one day be that dominant D-end that guys talk about.”
Sheard, a second-round pick (37th overall) in last year’s draft, has reason to believe he can achieve his goal.
As a rookie, he didn’t benefit from a normal offseason because the NFL lockout wiped it out. There were no experienced, veteran defensive ends on the roster who could show him the ropes as a professional. He didn’t even start his career in the spot he wound up playing. He spent training camp, the preseason and the first regular-season game at right end before switching to the left side in Week 2.
Now Sheard has a season and a structured offseason under his belt. In March, the Browns signed veteran ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker, who have already filled the role of mentors. And Sheard is entrenched as the starter at left end, the same position he played at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I expect him to pick up his game,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “I’d love to see him be a very dominant player. I think that he would expect that from himself, so whatever that means number-wise, I don’t know. But I expect him to be somebody that teams we’re playing are worried about blocking.”
Sheard’s 8½ sacks last season rank second among Browns rookies. Kamerion Wimbley, who’s now with the Tennessee Titans, had 11 sacks when he was a rookie with the Browns during the 2006 season.
Now Sheard has a double-digit sack total in his cross hairs.
“I think it’s possible with the D-line that we have and the defense that we have in general,” said Sheard, who started all 16 games last season. “I think with this defense, we all should have great stats this year, and we should all be out there [thriving] together.”
The 6-foot-2 Sheard said he improved his quickness in the offseason. He trimmed down by working out with trainer Pete Bommarito in Miami. Sheard said his weight fluctuated between 270 and 273 pounds last season. Now he weighs about 265.
Browns rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who routinely lines up across from Sheard during practice, has been impressed by the combination of speed and power Sheard displays as a pass rusher.
“He’s one of the guys that has all three moves,” Schwartz said. “He’s got the speed outside when he wants to use it. He’s got the bull rush when he wants to use it. He’s got a couple good inside moves when he wants. So he’s got a little bit of everything.”
Sheard is also focused on becoming a better all-around defender. The defense as a whole struggled mightily against ground attacks last season, ranking 30th in the league against the run (147.4 yards allowed per game). Sheard accepts responsibility and knows he must improve.
“Sometimes I like to hop around and not stay in my gap,” Sheard said. “So I mostly [need to focus on] staying in my gap more and getting off blocks faster and just helping out the defense any way I can.
“If they can run the ball down your throat all day, they may never pass the ball. So definitely you want to stop them and get to third-and-long, where they’re forced to throw the ball. That’s when you get a chance to get after the quarterback.”
Sheard is at his best in those situations, and he believes he’ll only get better.
“I was just a rookie last year,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of improvement to get to. I left a lot of sacks out there early in the season and later in the season as well. I left a lot of plays out there that I should have made, so hopefully this year I’ll make those.”