INDIANAPOLIS — The front seven is priority No. 1.
As general manager John Dorsey prepares for free agency in two weeks and the draft in late April, he’s paying particular attention to the defensive linemen and linebackers. The Browns are looking toward playoff contention, and if they arrive for the first time since 2002, they will likely do so with a defensive front seven vastly different from the one last season.
The defensive tackle next to Larry Ogunjobi will be new and appears to lead Dorsey’s wish list. An end to replace or compete with Emmanuel Ogbah opposite Myles Garrett also seems inevitable.
Dorsey has money to spend in free agency and there are intriguing candidates at end — Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham, Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah — but the draft lines up with Cleveland’s needs along the front.
“The defensive line to me truly sticks out over all the other positions,” Dorsey said.
The change coming at linebacker isn’t as clear but a shakeup is expected, perhaps starting with Jamie Collins. He hasn’t met expectations during his time with the Browns, so it could be coming to an end.
Dorsey said he will meet with Collins’ agent, Bus Cook, on Friday at the scouting combine.
“We’re going to talk about the long-term plan for Jamie,” Dorsey said.
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Collins, 29, has two years and $23 million left on a four-year, $50 million contract. He signed the extension in the 2017 offseason after being acquired during the 2016 season in a trade with the Patriots.
Collins is one of the most talented players on the defense and was a Pro Bowler with the Patriots in 2015, but his production hasn’t matched his ability. He started all 16 games last season with a team-high 104 tackles, four sacks, an interception, four passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The meeting with Cook will likely include Dorsey asking for Collins to take a pay cut in a contract restructuring. If he balks, the Browns could cut Collins without consequential financial repercussions.
“I’m not going to talk about the business of football, what I’m going to do is I want to be able to hear everybody’s thoughts with his impact on this defense right here — and that’s from the linebackers coach, defensive coordinator, the head coach,” Dorsey said. “I want to hear the personnel’s input in this thing but I just want to sit down and try and talk to as many of our own players’ agents this week at the combine.”
A factor in the decision of what to do with Collins and the rest of the defense is the switch at coordinator. Steve Wilks replaced Gregg Williams and brings changes in philosophy and opinion to the 4-3 scheme.
“Once you understand the concepts that Steve is trying to apply, what it takes to have a position of success within the linebacker position, you want to make sure he fits that model,” Dorsey said. “Jamie is a good football player, so what we’re going to do is, we’re going to sit and talk to his representatives, we’re going to go back as an organization and talk about all these different things and then we’ll make a decision here moving forward.”
Collins was criticized by media and fans last year for an apparent lack of effort on certain plays, but the former defensive staff defended him.
“There was some inconsistencies,” Dorsey said. “You don’t know what leads to it. He may have been nicked. There’s certain things that come. All I know is he’s a very talented football player and you can’t have enough of those guys on your team.”
Last offseason Dorsey made a point of getting faster in the secondary. He mentioned Thursday how he’d like to get “longer” on the D-line to fit Wilks’ scheme, and more athletic at the three-technique tackle next to Ogunjobi. Incumbent Trevon Coley isn’t expected to return, at least in a starting role, after totaling 2.5 sacks in 31 games over the last two years.
“Any time you can get a three-technique to affect the passing game, I think it’s invaluable,” Dorsey said. “Those guys, they come in all different shapes and sizes. You see the shorter guys that athletically can blow right by a guy, then you see the longer guy that can actually either run around the guy or run through a guy.
“I would love to have some more athletic three-technique rushers.”
The Browns ranked tied for 22nd in the NFL with 37 sacks, 13.5 from Garrett. The pressure wasn’t enough.
“I thought we could’ve been a little bit more,” Dorsey said.
It starts with the front seven.