BEREA — Browns defensive end Jabaal Sheard didn’t hit the rookie wall this season, he ran right through it.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder leads the team with 71⁄2 sacks and is one of nine Cleveland players to start all 15 games. He hopes to add to both numbers Sunday when the Browns wrap up their regular season at home against Pittsburgh.
“It’s a relief to come this far and get a feel for what it’s like to play at this level,” Sheard said Friday following practice. “Because I’ve learned how hard it is being in the NFL, it’s also given me motivation to work even harder going into next year.
“But first, I want to finish strong and help contribute any way I can to getting us a win over Pittsburgh.”
While defensive tackle Phil Taylor was drafted in the first round by the Browns,
second-rounder Sheard has outshined him in their initial NFL season.
In addition to ranking 28th in the league in sacks, Sheard tops all rookies with five forced fumbles — one behind NFL leaders Terrell Suggs of Baltimore and Cliff Avril of Detroit. The latter figure also is the most by a Cleveland player since the franchise returned to the league in 1999.
“Jabaal has just played well from the beginning to the end,” said Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who is not known for hyperbole. “A lot of times you see some drop off along the way, especially from young players, but he’s been steady all along. He plays the game like someone who has been in the league much longer than that.”
Sheard says he takes pride in his consistency, as well as his durability, both of which he credits to his work ethic. The University of Pittsburgh product believes athletes should exert as much effort during the week as they do in games.
“I try to take practice seriously every time because I understand this is my job,” he said. “If you don’t push yourself then, you’re not going to know how much you’ll have when you’re going against big offensive linemen every week.
“That’s something my other coaches have always stressed, and something I believe in.”
While Sheard said he hasn’t set any personal goals for Cleveland’s season finale, he admits a victory would be a wonderful way to head into the winter. He did, however, express interest in making history with fellow draftee Taylor.
Barring a fluke injury between now and kickoff, Sheard and Taylor will become the first NFL rookie tandem to start every game on the defensive line since Tampa Bay’s Santana Dotson and Mark Wheeler in 1992. They also would be the first Browns DL duo ever to go 16-for-16.
“That would mean something because it’s been a long season and I’m pretty nicked up and pretty tired,” Sheard said. “Even with the coaches giving us a couple of days off over the holidays, I’m still pretty tired.
“But don’t worry, I’ll be ready to go Sunday and I’ll give it my all. They’ll be plenty of time to relax and recuperate after that.”
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org