November 21, 2014

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Combine Notes Day 3: Browns CEO Joe Banner says defense last year not good enough, wants to attack more

INDIANAPOLIS – Many fans, and some players, were upset with the decision to fire defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and switch from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 base that will use multiple fronts.

CEO Joe Banner had a simple reason for the moves.

“We felt like the defense wasn’t good enough, to be very direct about it,” he said Saturday at the scouting combine.

The defense ranked 23rd in yards per game (363.8), 19th against the run (118.6), 25th against the pass (245.2) and 19th in scoring (23.0), and Banner also cited “sophisticated” stats that measure success in crucial situations.

“We were ranked 20 or lower in most of those categories,” he said.

Numbers weren’t the only factor. Banner envisions a change in approach under new coordinator Ray Horton, whose Arizona defense was among the league leaders in blitzes in 2012.

“We wanted to have a more aggressive, attacking defense, because we want to bring in more aggressive-minded players, we want to be risk-takers, we want to be attacking, we want the other team to be on the defensive,” Banner said. “We want our opponents to be worried about where we’re kind of coming from and what’s going to happen, what are we going to do next.”

Banner established this philosophy, and the hires of Horton and coach Rob Chudzinski fit.

“We never want to be on the defensive,” Banner said. “Our coordinators are willing to take chances, which will occasionally blow up in our faces, but overall we think over time will prove to be successful.”

The switch to a 3-4 and the change in approach mean a pass rusher to join Jabaal Sheard is a primary need. Many are available in the draft, including BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah, LSU’s Barkevious Mingo, Oregon’s Dion Jordan, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, who are all candidates to be the pick at No. 6.

“The game is fundamentally about preventing pressure on your quarterback and getting pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback,” Banner said. “If you can do that, you have a chance to win any game against any team. When you can’t do that, you’re at a risk in any game.

“The defensive front (seven) needs some additions to be able to compete with the best in the league.”

PROVE IT, BY JOSH

Banner said it’s too early to tell if receiver Josh Gordon was worth taking in the supplemental draft in July. The Browns, under then-general manager Tom Heckert, forfeited their second-round pick in the 2013 draft.

“It’s to be determined,” Banner said. “A top-of-the-second-round pick on a wide receiver you would hope by the second or third year you’d have a big, big impact player. I think he still has improvements you could make and there’s hope that he can do that. He’s still got to grow and work hard in order to answer that question.”

Banner said he’d be more reluctant to trade another pick because he’s already missing the second-rounder.

“You generally would like to have all your picks, but if Josh Gordon turns out to be a good player, then we’ll have used the pick wisely,” he said.

TRADE UP, TRADE DOWN

Despite assessments from analysts that the top 10 of the draft lacks difference-makers, Banner believes there could be a market for the No. 6 pick.

“Despite all the coverage that goes on, I don’t think the drafts have been that much different,” he said. “There are usually some teams that want to move up. It’s never a ton. There’s always a team that has a need that is four or 10 picks back. I can’t remember ever sitting in the first round and not getting calls from somebody inquiring about moving up. I assume that will be the same.”

Banner would be willing to move down to acquire more picks.

“My history has been more trading down than up or staying,” he said. “Accumulating picks over the course of the draft is a good strategy generally.”

FREE-AGENT BUZZ

Banner and the rest of Cleveland’s decision-makers have their plan for which – if any – of their impending free agents they will try to re-sign. But he’s not saying what it is.

“Let’s say we’re trying to sign them and I told you we want to bring them back, that certainly wouldn’t be a very smart thing from a negotiating perspective,” Banner said. “If we weren’t, we don’t need to tell the other teams who’s going to be free or not free any earlier than necessary.”

Free agency starts March 12. The noteworthy Browns whose contracts are set to expire include kicker Phil Dawson, receiver/special teamer Joshua Cribbs, tight end Benjamin Watson, cornerback Sheldon Brown, receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and special teamer Ray Ventrone.

“We have a lot of cap room,” Banner said. “We have the cap room to do what we want, whether it’s to keep our own players or being active in the free-agent market.

“The fact we have cap room and other teams don’t I think will help us in the marketplace. Supply vs. the available cap room is on the teams’ side for the moment. I view this as a good year to be in the free-agent market and to be able to get fair market value.”

MED SCHOOL

Georgia’s Jones, Oregon’s Jordan and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner will have to overcome health concerns for the Browns to consider them with the No. 6 pick.

Jones was diagnosed with spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spine — in 2009 at USC and teams are worried about his long-term future. Jordan and Milliner will have shoulder surgeries to repair a torn labrum. The rehab is expected to take three or four months.

“We will put a lot of weight in the recommendations from our medical staff on any player, whether it’s a particular serious injury or whether it’s just a history of a lot of small injuries,” Banner said. “I don’t know how many teams do this, but we will put a grade for durability on every player in free agency and the draft, and that will be a factor in what we do.”

Jones spent most of Saturday meeting with team doctors and getting MRIs.

“I wanted to see all the doctors so they can see I’m healthy,” he said. “I haven’t gotten the final word yet, but most of the doctors feel like I’m fine.”

EXTRA POINTS

Illinois guard Hugh Thornton, an Oberlin High graduate, went through his combine workout Saturday. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.11 seconds, the three-cone drill in 7.45 and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.63. He bench pressed 225 pounds 27 times.

** Banner said he doesn’t expect to trade any players, or cut any established players. And he doesn’t plan a huge turnover of the roster.

“We’re looking to build on the players we have,” he said. “We’re not shopping anyone.”

** Banner said the sixth pick is too high to take a guard.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out but it wouldn’t philosophically fit with how we’re approaching the priorities and how we’re building the team,” he said.

Alabama’s Chance Warmack is possible top-10 pick and NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said he was the best player he watched last season.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.