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Mailbag: Has run defense been fixed, especially with no new linebackers?

Q: Scott, do you believe the Browns have addressed the root cause issues with their 2022 run defense. Bigger DTs have been added to the roster, but no new run-stopping LBs have been added.

— @Howiefeldenkris

A: That’s certainly one of the most important questions facing the Browns, and I’m going to answer in the affirmative.

Replacing coordinator Joe Woods with Jim Schwartz was the first step. Upgrading the interior of the line was the critical next step.

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Jim Schwartz in middle of action and making presence felt

Dalvin Tomlinson brings bulk, athleticism and experience, and the Browns are confident rookie Siaki Ika can also be a disruptive force at 330-plus-pounds. If Tomlinson and Ika are paired together, the more than 650 pounds should make life more difficult on opposing run games through pure bulk. Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst II, Perrion Winfrey and Trysten Hill provide much more depth than was available last season.

The concern for me is if Schwartz’s attacking scheme will leave the defense vulnerable to a straight-ahead rushing attack. He is counting on the front four to create negative plays that then force the offense to throw, allowing him to unleash the pass rush. Schwartz will also deploy a safety or two in the box, relying on numbers rather than two-gapping tackles to defend the run.

Marquise Goodwin keeps running, working because sister has never been able to walk

A steady diet of runs will test Schwartz’s plan and, as you mentioned, the linebackers. If Anthony Walker Jr., Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Sione Takitaki can stay healthy — they didn’t last year — I trust the linebackers to take care of business against the ground game. If injuries are again a problem on the second level, more pressure will be put on Tomlinson, Ika and Co.


Q:
If offensive line coach Bill Callahan gets credit for unlocking Wyatt Teller, Ethan Pocic, etc., should he get docked for Jedrick Wills Jr. not reaching his potential? Or are the fans wrong & the Browns right that Wills is actually playing well? Maybe just the lows (seemingly quitting on plays) are REALLY low?

— @ideashift

A: A lot of good stuff to unpack here. Let’s go in order.

When evaluating a coach, you have to look at the body of work. Callahan has proved time and again he’s one of the — if not THE — best line coaches in the business. I’ve watched him on a daily basis for three years and see the time, attention and passion he puts into each player. So if one of them fails to develop as desired, I would put that on the player.

Nick Chubb cherishes time spent with Jim Brown, honored to share same position

Having said that, I’m much higher on Wills than many fans and media. He’s improved since being drafted No. 10 in 2020 and making the switch to left tackle. He has the requisite athleticism, had some outstanding games a year ago and is, at minimum, a starting-caliber left tackle. The frustrating part is that he’s yet to reach his full potential and has plays in which he doesn’t give maximum effort — and Twitter never misses those. He’s gotten better at finishing plays but still falls short too often. If he’s going to earn a long-term extension and greater respect of coaches, teammates and fans, that should be priority No. 1 this season. The Browns aren’t ready to give up on him, and I believe they’re correct.


Q:
Should I get my hopes up about the Browns signing DeAndre Hopkins?

— Phil from Brooklyn

A: No. I’ve read the reports and heard the rumors but still don’t expect the Browns to add the decorated wideout and reunite him with quarterback Deshaun Watson, his teammate for three years with the Houston Texans.

Analysis: Evaluating a potential signing of DeAndre Hopkins

The Browns already did a lot of work on the receiving corps in the offseason and like where it stands. General manager Andrew Berry traded for Elijah Moore, signed Marquise Goodwin and drafted Cedric Tillman in the third round to team with Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones. They also have legitimate salary cap concerns this season and beyond. Plus, Hopkins will turn 31 on Tuesday, and there’s likely concern he isn’t the same player.

Even if he’s lost a step, he’d still be an upgrade. But he’ll likely want at least $15 million a season, and that’s too much money for an aging player at a position in good shape.


Q:
After watching a couple of OTAs practices, what stood out about the defense under coordinator Jim Schwartz?

— Joe R.

A: We’ll learn more this week at mandatory minicamp and without a doubt during training camp in July and August. But after two open practices and an interview with Schwartz, there were certainly nuggets to glean from the OTAs.

Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. took turns playing in the slot. Last year that was strictly Newsome’s domain, to which he eventually objected. I expect Schwartz to have a more varied plan. He mentioned looking for the best matchups depending on the type of receiver for the given opponent. A taller, more physical slot receiver could draw Emerson, with Newsome assigned to the smaller, shiftier wideouts. Schwartz may also be more open to his corners following wideouts throughout the game. So if Ward is assigned to Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, that could include moving into the slot rather than handing him off to the designated nickelback.

Let’s stay in the secondary. Woods loved his three-safety package, so I expected a steep decline under Schwartz. That doesn’t sound like it’ll be the case. Grant Delpit returns as a starter, Juan Thornhill was signed to replace John Johnson III at free safety, then veteran free agent Rodney McLeod was added. All three have versatility, and Schwartz plans to employ them as a group a good amount.

Schwartz’s base is the 4-3, but he might not use the setup often. In addition to the three-cornerback nickel package and the three-safety nickel and dime packages, Schwartz revealed he’ll go with plenty of five-lineman formations in passing situations. He trusts his corners and wants to put as much pressure on the quarterback as possible. By going with an extra D-lineman, it reduces the double teams of his best pass rushers.

Q: Where are Mike Priefer and Joe Woods?

— @HowardS15110279

A: You’re referring to the special teams and defensive coordinators who were fired after last season.

Priefer doesn’t have a new job. As he reminded reporters late last season when asked about his job security, he’s under contract for 2023, so he can afford to take the year off.

Woods was hired as defensive coordinator by the New Orleans Saints. He won’t call the plays because coach Dennis Allen’s background is as a coordinator but will spend a lot of time with the secondary.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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