December 17, 2014

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Browns defense in a rush for help

INDIANAPOLIS — A Ghanaian who had never seen a football game until 2008. A German who grew up watching the combine online. A lanky Duck who started his college career as a tight end. A Trojan who was told not to play again, so he became a Bulldog.

And a man named Barkevious.

Say hello to five of the prime candidates for the Browns with the sixth pick in the NFL Draft in April — BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah, Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, Oregon’s Dion Jordan, Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and LSU’s Barkevious Mingo.

Browns CEO Joe Banner stressed Saturday the need to strengthen the front seven of the defense, particularly a pass rush that he said must be able to worry an offense. With the switch to a 3-4 base, that falls on the outside linebackers.

“The players we bring in will be aggressive, attacking, competitive, mad as hell when we lose type of people,” Banner said.

Consensus can’t be found on how they should be ranked, but these five prospects will be connected to Cleveland for the next two months, and there’s a strong chance one may end up in a Browns uniform April 25.

Ezekiel Ansah

He has one of the best stories in the draft.

He grew up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and enrolled at BYU with the plan of playing basketball. After two failed attempts to make the team, he tried track and finally football. He played part time in 2010 and ’11 and didn’t register a stat on defense. He became a starter in 2012, totaled 4.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 62 tackles and nine battled balls and could be a surprise top-10 pick.

Not bad for a guy who had never seen or played in a football game before arriving in Provo, Utah.

“In comparison to other people that are out there and I have been playing only a few years, I still have a lot to do just to catch up to them,” said Ansah, whose nickname is Ziggy. “I’m gonna put everything I got to do my best.

“I know that regardless of the fact that everybody is telling me that I’m raw, I’m pretty good at what I’m doing.”

Banner said the Browns will be an organization not afraid to take risks. Ansah (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) would definitely qualify, but he could also return a tremendous reward.

“He’s strong, he’s physical, he’s fast, he hustles to the ball,” said executive director of the Senior Bowl Phil Savage, former general manager of the Browns. “Of all the players in the whole draft, he might have the biggest upside. It’s gonna take a lot of courage for a team in the top 10 to say, we see it with this guy and what he can become.

“He has rare ability, freakish qualities.”

Bjoern Werner

He played 4-3 end at Florida State and may not be the ideal fit for the Browns. At 6-4, 275 pounds he certainly looks more like a 4-3 end than a speed 3-4 rusher.

But his 23.5 sacks in three years in Tallahassee, including 13 in 14 games in 2012, prove he can rush the passer. And with coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Ray Horton committed to using a multiple-front system, they could probably find a place for a pass rusher who might not be the best in coverage.

“Teams are asking me to do that and I think I can do it,” Werner said of playing outside linebacker in a 3-4. “I did it at Florida State when Brandon Jenkins went down, and I think I did a good job and I think I’m athletic enough to do it in the NFL.”

Werner’s story rivals Ansah’s. He loved football growing up in Germany, attended weekly NFL Europe games and followed the combine online. He excelled in flag football and left his family behind to attend an American high school as part of an international football program. He quickly learned English but retained a wonderful accent.

“It’s such a man’s sport where if you line up against another guy and who’s going to be the stronger guy, it’s just an amazing game,” he said. “It’s just not like the physicality, even the mental conditioning where can you do it once or can you do it 50 times a game.”

Dion Jordan

Jordan is another project. He moved from tight end to outside linebacker in 2010 and is only 248 pounds at 6-6½. His length-speed combination is intriguing and NFL Network’s Mike Mayock compared him to San Francisco All-Pro Aldon Smith, who has 33.5 sacks in two seasons.

“He’s got frightening athletic skills,” Mayock said. “You’re betting on this kid two years from now.”

But Jordan won’t get a chance to impress teams at his pro day. After combine workouts today, he is scheduled for shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. He expects to be 100 percent in training camp.

“I’m going to attack my rehab after the surgery as hard as I did before, just to make sure I’m able to show up to camp and compete with all the other guys,” he said.

Jordan played in a 3-4 at Oregon, can cover tight ends and should fit right in with the Browns’ new scheme. But he’s not a finished product.

“He has potential,” Savage said. “He’s a prospect more than a player. He’s more a smooth athlete with length than sudden-burst explosive.”

Jordan, who had 14.5 sacks in three years, including five in 2012, doesn’t lack confidence.

“I feel like me lining up all over the field on defense shows my athleticism, shows that I understand the game and that I did a lot for the university,” he said. “But my whole thing is getting after the quarterback, so pass rush would be my No. 1.”

Jarvis Jones

Mayock’s prediction for the Browns at No. 6, Jones has the production NFL teams covet. He had 13.5 sacks in 2011 and 14.5 last year. He added 44 tackles for loss over the span.

But the Browns would have to be comfortable with the answers to two questions before they could invest in Jones. Can he have a long career despite having spinal stenosis — a narrowing of the spine? And can he be effective in a 3-4 system?

Banner said the Browns will weigh heavily a player’s medical history, so Jones’ tests have some convincing to do. He said MRIs on Saturday showed the stenosis hasn’t gotten any worse since being discovered after making a hit for USC in 2009. He went numb and was never cleared to play again by USC doctors.

Other specialists had a different opinion and he was given the green light to resume his career at Georgia.

At 6-3, 240, Jones doesn’t have the length of the other candidates and he said he was more comfortable in a 4-3, but Savage said he could “absolutely” play in a 3-4.

“He can race the edge, but is a bit straight-lineish coming off the corner,” Savage said. “He’s not huge. That’s not necessarily a requirement, but it helps.”

Barkevious Mingo

Mingo wasn’t a full-time starter until 2012 and totaled 14 sacks in three seasons, only 4.5 in his final year. But he’s tall (6-4), lean (241 pounds) and fast and rated the No. 1 right end by Pro Football Weekly.

“I think my speed separates me from every other guy in this draft,” he said. “I’m a fast guy and I’ve got a quick first step and I like getting to the quarterback.”

Mingo said he played more end than linebacker with the Seminoles, but can handle playing in the 3-4. Savage said 3-4 outside linebacker will be his position in the NFL.

“We dropped several times a game, were still up sometimes. It’s all football,” he said. “We covered backs, we covered tight ends. We did it all.”

Mayock likes him as a developmental linebacker but doesn’t think he deserves to be taken in the top 10.

“He’s got a little stiffness to him,” Mayock said. “He obviously runs very fast. When the ball goes away from him, he’s fantastic. He’s a run-and-chase linebacker. He’s got upside as a pass rusher.

“There is nothing about the kid I don’t like. I just don’t see a top-10 guy today.”

What’s in a name? Mingo said not a lot of thought.

“My mom just kind of threw it together and wrote it on the birth certificate,” he said.

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