BEREA: Other than quarterback, no position will offer as much intrigue for the Browns this season than outside linebacker. Because of the switch in schemes — from a 4-3 to an attacking 3-4 — more than a few players will have to adapt.
Among them: first-round draft choice Barkevious Mingo, who played defensive end at LSU, and Jabaal Sheard, a third-year veteran who previously played defensive end. Both are being asked to switch to outside linebacker, a position that holds the potential to impact a football game with the right person playing the spot.
The Browns hired Brian Baker, a 29-year coaching veteran (17 at the pro level) to teach them and help them make the transition. Baker came to the Browns after stints with the Dallas Cowboys, St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings among other stops.
The Beacon Journal caught up with him Tuesday after the first practice of minicamp, which runs through Thursday.
Q: Is there a different mindset going from a read-and-react type defense to more of an attacking one?
A: In this league, a 4-3 front is still an attack and react front. I can’t imagine that they were taught to flat-foot read, to hold the gaps and don’t go. That’s old school teaching. In a 4-3 defense they’ve gotten up the hill. When we get into those spacings, I think they can play that way and then when we get into situations where they’ve got to be a little slower in terms of their read and react, I think they can do that. The good thing is that some of these guys [Atybah Rubin] have been in 3-4s before whether it be college or pro and I think up front, the whole front — outside linebackers included — are going to be familiar with what we’re trying to do.
Q: What do you like about your outside linebackers?
A: Really there’s not much I don’t like about them, to be honest with you. I’m really pleased with the guys, Jabaal, Mingo, then the two young kids [Kendrick] Adams and [Justin] Staples, guys who were defensive ends, never played any standup position in all of their lives. Now all of a sudden we’re standing them up, and they’re really grasping the concept of coverage, really grasping the concepts of outside force and inside fits, the kind of things as defensive ends in the 4-3 they never had to think of before. Those types of things are really good. I’m not surprised by about their physical skill level. … We feel like they can do athletically, the things the position requires. And probably right at the top of the list is [Paul] Kruger and the way he’s picked up the system. We think he’s going to be the guy that we paid for.
Q: What’s the difference for players making the transition from defensive end to the position.
A: Coverages, fits and reads; it’s a different position.
Q: Is the transition for a rookie like Mingo more difficult?
A: Actually, I think it’s better for Mingo. For one he’s a really intelligent kid and that helps. But I think not having been in any NFL system, kind of makes him this blank board. Every concept we’ve taught him is new; it’s new, but it’s not conflicting with what he’s done. … From that standpoint, I think it’s really helped us a little bit that he’s brand new to these concepts, brand new to everything. So he’s really embracing all of the things new. Because he’s a sharp kid, he’s really starting to envision what we’re teaching him and why we’re teaching him.
Q: What about Sheard, who had a couple of years in a 4-3 system as a defensive end?
A: He’s been the most pleasant surprise to me because he had the [play] of a defensive end and defensive lineman and having some of those things conflict with what he’s doing as an outside ’backer. I thought that would be more of a roadblock for him. Typically, those are those things that are. There are a lot of differences that he had to embrace as a 4-3 end in this league. He’s done a great job of separating that. He’s got a great understanding of football and just great special awareness. He’s just been really a pleasant surprise.
Q: Is there a timetable for when Mingo will start or do you see him in a linebacker rotation a la Aldon Smith in San Francisco who had 14 sacks as a rookie?
A: How many rookies have you seen get 14 sacks in the history of the league? To say he’s going to be one of those rarities to do something that not most rookies have done — there are guys going to the Hall of Fame who didn’t have 14 sacks as a rookie, so I’m not going to say he’s going to be that guy, but I think he will be a productive player for us in whatever role he happens to be. If he plays well enough to be a starter, he’ll start. If he plays well enough to factor into the rotation, he’ll factor into the rotation. I’m anticipating him doing well enough to do that.
Q: Can Paul Kruger, who signed with the Browns in March, be an every-down linebacker for this team?
A: No question. An every-down linebacker in this league, you hope the guy is good enough to play 3-4 outside ’backer, SAM or WILL or rusher. It doesn’t make a difference and really also get back to 4-3 mode as a sub-rusher or nickel rusher as a defensive end. That’s the prototypical 3-4 NFL outside ’backer — half linebacker, half defensive end. You asked about Kruger specifically; no question he’s that way.
Q: Quentin Groves signed with the Browns after spending time with defensive coordinator Ray Horton with the Arizona Cardinals. How valuable is his experience in the system and does that make him akin to another coach?
A: I think it depends on the type of coach. I put a lot of value in veterans. I think there’s no doubt that they’re the once out there playing. I think veterans are guys who understand little nuances of things that are going to happen that are not in the playbook that you might not have had on the practice field. Those are the guys who can fix problems and I think Q is a guy that I’m going to depend on to do that, probably more so because he’s a veteran than just the fact that he’s been in the system. But being in the system certainly gives you a guy who knows what’s going on, a guy you can kind of bounce some things off of. As you can tell I’m hesitating saying “another coach on the field” because I’ve never really embraced that concept to be honest with you. Coaches by nature handle a group; players handle themselves.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/browns.abj.