John Dorsey didn't hesitate when asked at the NFL Scouting Combine what he considers the strength of the April 25-27 NFL Draft.
"It’s defensive line," the general manager of the Browns said in late February. "We all know that."
The Browns don't have a first-round choice after trading it to the New York Giants in the Odell Beckham Jr. blockbuster, but big names on the defensive front could still be available in round two.
To be clear, the Browns don't have an urgent need on their defensive line after trading for end Olivier Vernon and signing tackle Sheldon Richardson, both of whom will join Pro Bowl end Myles Garrett and tackle Larry Ogunjobi as starters. At the same time, this draft sets up to present tremendous D-line value when Cleveland is scheduled to first go on the clock at No. 49 overall, perhaps too good for Dorsey to resist.
Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is widely considered a top-five talent who could slide out of the first round. Not only did he suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while training in February, but he also has an off-field red flag in his past. As a senior in high school, he was caught on video repeatedly punching a woman while stepping into a fight between her and his sister.
The Browns hosted Simmons on a pre-draft visit, which he revealed on social media, and Dorsey passionately defended the player's character last month during an interview at the NFL owners meetings. The vast majority of draft analysts believe Simmons won't last until No. 49, but considering the love Dorsey has shown him during the pre-draft process, his name is one to watch in a potential trade-up scenario.
Ohio State's Dre'Mont Jones is another big-name defensive tackle who could be a target of the Browns. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller is among the draft analysts who project Jones to be taken in the middle of the second round. A Cleveland native and St. Ignatius High School graduate, Jones participated in the workout the Browns held for local prospects Friday at their headquarters in Berea.
Central Florida defensive tackle Trysten Hill doesn't have the same name recognition of Simmons or Jones, but he's another candidate for No. 49. The Browns hosted him for a pre-draft visit, a league source confirmed, and Daniel Jeremiah mocked him to Cleveland on the "Move the Sticks" podcast he co-hosts with fellow NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks.
"He had a changeover in coaching staff [last year]. He didn't really mesh with the new staff. He only started one game, but it doesn't matter," Jeremiah said. "When he gets on the field, he is so explosive, first-step quickness, a little bit of a bull in a china shop. He's got big-time talent, and we know one thing about John Dorsey — it's talent over everything."
"When you look at him, he's the best defensive player that they have [at UCF]," Brooks added. "This is a guy that is terrific. You do wonder what was the origin of the fallout [with the new coaching staff]. However, when you see him play, you realize, man, this is a really, really good football player, a guy that has nice quickness and athleticism and is also a really, really strong player."
Brooks mocked Boston College defensive end Zach Allen to the Browns at No. 49.
"Zach Allen would give them something that they don't have, which is kind of a base defensive end, edge setter," Brooks said. "He's not going to be a double-digit sack guy, but what he's going to be is a hard-nosed player at the point of attack, really good on run downs, can play in the rotation and he can give you some pass-rush ability. I just think he's a rugged player, one of those guys that you need to keep in the rotation because I don't know how long Olivier Vernon will be a guy that is a fit for them."
Dorsey drafted defensive end Chad Thomas in the third round last year partly because of his stellar play against the run at the University of Miami, so the Browns actually do have a player who could fill the role Brooks described. Then again, Thomas is still a mystery at the sport's highest level. He played in just four games as a rookie last season and did not record a statistic.
Other D-linemen to watch in the second and third rounds include ends L.J. Collier (TCU), Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech) and Anthony Nelson (Iowa) and tackle Renell Wren (Arizona State).
Of the prospects projected to be taken during day three, Charleston's John Cominsky is worth monitoring, if only because he's one of the most intriguing players in this class.
The Barberton native transformed from a 215-pound high school quarterback to a 6-foot-5¼, 286-pound defensive end and dominated enough at the Division II level to demand the attention of the NFL. He also participated in the Browns' local pro day.
"Cominsky has the balanced athleticism and play strength to develop into a quality NFL run defender," Dane Brugler, draft analyst for the Athletic, wrote. "But he will require time to adjust to the jump in competition, projecting best as a base end in a 4-3 front."
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.