Royale With Cheese
Have you ever gotten an order of french fries and found a single onion ring in them? In the fanposts I've been doing, we've been looking at potential ILB candidates for the Rams in the upcoming draft. Baron Browning, a linebacker from Ohio State, doesn't really belong in this discussion. At OSU, Browning did play middle linebacker for several seasons. In the NFL, however, he profiles as a 4-3 SAM outside linebacker or as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He's better in that role compared to playing in the middle.
I like Browning as a prospect. He could be good in the NFL. I think he's a better prospect than Justin Hollins (5th round pick by the Broncos in 2019 who the Rams got off the waiver wire last year) and Samson Ebukam (4th round in 2017). The Rams do have a need at edge rusher, so Browning definitely is a prospect who could end up on their draft board.
If you watched the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, the CFP semifinal game where Clemson beat OSU with a late TD, you already know Baron Browning. Only in an indirect way.
Late in the 2nd quarter, Browning playing at MLB appears to be trying to loop around the DT to rush the passer. He initially fakes like he's going in the A gap, then begins to go behind the DT towards a different gap. When he begins to move, he turns his head, losing sight of Trevor Lawrence. If he had kept his eyes on the QB just a split second longer, he would have noticed that the QB wasn't taking a normal drop. The sea parts in the middle and Lawrence bursts through the big opening. Browning turns, runs and nearly catches Lawrence from behind way down the field, but can't stop the 67 yard TD run.
In the 3rd quarter, it is 3rd&6. Browning as an edge rusher gets a great jump right at the snap. He is too explosive for Tremayne Anchrum, the RT, beats him, bends the edge and slings Lawrence to the ground for a sack.
OSU is up 23-21 late in the 4th quarter. It is 1st down inside Clemson's own 20. Browning is the MLB. It is a QB draw. There is no play fake to the RB, just a hesitation step by the QB. Browning runs after the RB, completely losing sight of the ball, going the wrong way. The QB runs off tackle in the other direction, gains 11 yards and a first down.
With less than 2 minutes left, Clemson has a 1st down on OSU's 34 yard line, at the edge of FG range. The LG and TE pull and the QB acts like it is a QB power run. Travis Etienne runs past the OLB, who tries to grab him, but misses. Browning as the MLB doesn't notice what is happening and is unable to react. The RB catches the pass and scores the go ahead TD.
6'3'' tall, 241 pounds, 81'' wingspan, 33'' arms, 10'' hands (Senior Bowl measurements)
Justin Hollins is taller (over 6'5'' tall), but he has a smaller wingspan. Hollins ran 4.5 seconds in the 40, but he has more of a slender build. He's not as strong and powerful as Browning.
True senior. Graduated with degree in communications.
Browning was recruited as an OLB. He was a 5 star recruit, the 2nd ranked OLB per ESPN, and one of the top HS recruits in the country. In HS, he was a versatile defender who played as a stand up LB off the ball at times and other times was a DE with his hand in the dirt.
At 6'4'' tall and 223 pounds in HS, he ran 4.59 seconds in the 40. He said he didn't have a favorite NFL team, which I thought was odd, considering he's from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Browning enrolled early at OSU in January of 2017. Had a shoulder injury in HS and injured it again at OSU, causing him to miss spring 2017 practices. Surgery for torn labrum in his shoulder. OSU tried to make him a middle linebacker. His development was slow as he struggled with the new position and due to injuries. Browning would later say that he didn't feel comfortable playing inside and wasn't used to the position. He says playing outside as a strong side linebacker is his natural position.
Entering the 2019 season, Browning had yet to establish himself. Malik Harrison (3rd round pick by Ravens in 2020) was entrenched as the WILL linebacker. Tuf Borland was viewed as an inconsistent MLB. Pete Werner was also struggling at SAM. Browning at the time was the rotational backup MLB behind Borland.
Malik Harrison, by the way, as a rookie with the Ravens, had a 52.8 PFF grade in 264 defensive snaps (25% of team's snaps), making 6 starts. He played when another ILB got injured. Troy Reeder had a 60.4 PFF grade last season in 423 snaps. Just saying, if Malik Harrison had been on the Rams roster last season as a 3rd round rookie, would it have made a noticeable difference to our defense? Expecting 3rd round type rookies to make a splash immediate impact, I don't know if it is realistic.
The Rams hold the 88th overall selection this year. If we went through the entire list of 2020 rookies who were picked from slot 88 through the end of the 4th round, I wonder what percentage of them had a substantial impact on their teams in 2020? The Bengals had a terrible LB situation after 2019. After Burrow and Tee Higgins, the Bengals doubled up on linebackers, drafting Logan Wilson at pick 65 (early 3rd) and Akeem Davis Gaither early in the 4th at pick 107. I really liked both of those prospects, they were among my favorite LBs in the draft.
Wilson and ADG were both backups as rookies. Neither of them played more than 33% of the team's defensive snaps. Each of them had 2 starts. Wilson had a 54.7 PFF grade and ADG was at 40.7. Nothing to write home about. The Bengals also got Hakeem Adeniji, an offensive lineman, in the 6th round. I believe at least one mock draft had the Rams taking him in maybe the 3rd or 4th round. He made 5 starts and had a 51.6 PFF grade. This would have made him by far the lowest graded OL if he had been a Rams starter.
I'm not saying the Bengals picked bad players. The NFL draft is about the future, not about the upcoming season. The stars who are 1st round or 2nd round picks, a few of those guys can have a huge immediate impact. Most of the rest of the prospects, they're typically not ready for big roles right away.
In 2019 at Ohio State, Werner emerged and had a good season at SAM. Browning once again split snaps at MLB with Borland. Browning played in nickel situations and was used as a pass rusher off the edge on some passing downs. There were a handful of games where Browning got more snaps than Borland and multiple other games where it was an even 50% split between the 2 players. Other games, Browning got very limited snaps, probably due to his injuries. The improved play by Browning in 2019 raised expectations for him going into 2020. Even though he wasn't a full time player, he flashed the ability to be disruptive and versatile. Browning considered declaring for the 2020 draft, but stayed in school. OSU experimented with Browning at DE in practices in 2019 and in 2020 fall camp.
In 2020, Werner was moved from SAM to the WILL linebacker (replacing Harrison). Werner was surprised when the coaches asked him to switch positions. One of the reasons for this switch was so that Baron Browning could slide over from being a part time MLB and play the SAM position.
2020: 30 tackles, 3 TFL, zero sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR in 355 defensive snaps.
2019: 43 tackles, 10 TFL, 5 sacks in 368 defensive snaps.
Career (Per ESPN. There are minor discrepancies in his stats from other sources): 102 tackles (60 solo), 6 sacks, 3 PD, FF, zero INTs.
Had some injuries in 2019. Reportedly core muscle injury in Michigan State game that he played through rest of year. Possibly a groin injury causing him to miss games. Held out of the 2020 conference title game due to covid protocols.
ESPN 81th overall, 5th ranked OLB (3rd round)
CBSSports 94th overall (late 3rd round)
PFF 125th overall (4th round)
Reports from the Senior Bowl practices said that Browning was one of the best LBs down there. Jim Nagy said that Browning might have the highest ceiling among all the OLBs, because he can set the edge, rush the passer and drop into coverage. Nagy said that Browning was a day 1 starter as a SAM in the NFL.
The LB coach for OSU praised Browning, saying "You ask him to do the job and he will do the job. Character through the roof and the ultimate team player. One of the most versatile LBs in the draft."
Versatile. Lined up in slot and is able to cover in both man and zone. Can rush the passer as DE with hand down, as OLB standing up, including from wide split. Has necessary size and athleticism to play most (or all) of the LB positions in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense.
Size and athleticism
Long arms with large wingspan. Agile, good change of direction in space. Good agility for player his size and weight.
Forward burst in small spaces, gets by blockers and closes in quickly on ball carriers.
Athletic. Slipped to knees, but poped back up immediately and helped to make tackle.
Sufficient speed to get out run out and cover RBs in the flat from the middle of the field.
Makes secure tackles in space.
Pass rushing instincts and decent technique. Able to bend edge around OTs and use his hand to try to prevent them from recovering. Understands how to work games with other defenders on loops and stunts. Power and speed as pass rusher. Explosion to QB, able to finish sacks with strength. Can spin back towards QB if initial rush stalled or cut off. Uses his hands to swipe away hands of pass blocker.
Sets hard edge. Takes on TEs and OL with strength, power and length. Delivers some physical blows to blockers to set the edge. In space, aggressively takes on TE block and drives the TE backwards.
Levels WR with wicked shoulder hit, jarring ball out.
Strong hit on RB, one on one in space, tossing RB to the ground.
Solid wrap up tackles. Is ready for an end around and stuffs the run on short 3rd down, preventing first down.
As DE against run, uses his outside arm to rip under LT and attack inside edge.
After RPO handoff, Trevor Lawrence turns his head and eases up. Browning roughly shoves the QB to the ground, borderline dirty move. After the whistle, QB looks at refs, asking for a flag.
Motor and Hustle
Solid level of effort and pursuit. As slot defender to right side, he runs all the way to the opposite side of the field and pursues 20 yards from LOS with speed and effort.
Good pursuit range and speed for his size. Doesn't quit or stop running during plays, continues to try to run after ball carrier even if he's behind or away from the ball.
Outstanding at quickly getting depth in drops from LOS as OLB. Has potential to be a very good zone coverage pass defender.
Can fake pass rush, then turn hips and drop very quickly and cover curl and flat areas. Can line up mugging the center, then go flying out of there to the middle of the field, gaining great depth in zone pass coverage.
Pat Freiermuth is ranked as the 2nd best TE in the draft, the 44th overall prospect per ESPN. He's 6'5'' tall and 259 pounds. Browning covered him and ran laterally across the field with him, doing a pretty decent job matching the TE's speed. He gave up the catch, but I thought it was a good rep showing some man coverage potential from Browning against NFL level TE talent.
Starts to pass rush. Sees RB going out for pass. He stops, does decent job turning and running, able to track RB and not get left behind.
Was able to run with TE on corner route.
Reading and Awareness
A better player when he can just attack and not have to overthink plays. Thrives when given a structured, set assignment. Plays faster and more aggressive when he doesn't have to read so many things or juggle too many balls in his head at one time.
Lacks eye discipline and experience reading plays at ILB position. "Plays through a straw" at times.
Bites way too hard on play action fake on bootleg passes. Out of position, causing him to not be in proper relation to other defenders in coverage.
On jet sweep action, often steps in the wrong direction, unable to locate ball with his eyes.
Ghost jet motion by WR. He's already past the QB, so it isn't a very deceptive fake. Even so, Browning as the MLB is fooled and takes 2 steps in the wrong direction before he realizes the QB still has the ball. None of the other defenders appear to be faked out. Browning is the only one late to recognize what is happening.
Doesn't anticipate or feel rub routes coming. Collides with players, causing receivers to come open.
Playing as OLB, the middle LB appears to tell him slide over, because Browning is lined up in the wrong gap.
Communication appeared to be lacking on play where he should have alerted other LB to cover the TE.
On 3rd&15, as MLB. He completely loses sight of handoff to RB and pursues QB, running completely the wrong direction as the RB goes for 14 yards.
Initially he is in the proper gap on a run, but when the DT gets pushed to the side, he should adjust to what is happening right in front of him. He compounds the problem by not noticing that the LT is climbing up to him and gets caught by surprise by the block. This results in him not being able to constrict the running lane. He doesn't do a good job forcing the RB back to the other LB next to him, who is unblocked.
Offense shifts. He tries to call out adjustment. Overanxious, he stumbles, then regains his balance. But, he doesn't feel block coming from the TE and loses edge containment. Long run down sideline. He turns and pursues, making tackle nearly 50 yards from LOS.
Doesn't adjust the angle of his drop to match the route in front of him. I can't tell if that's what he's supposed to do in their scheme or if he was supposed to get closer to the WR in his area of the zone.
In zone, he takes 3 steps deep to try to carry WR deep when it looks like he should pass it off to the other LB. This causes him to be late switching off to the underneath TE, who makes the catch and picks up the first down.
Doesn't anticipate shallow crossing route by WR and gets caught flat footed in zone coverage. When he tries to pursue after the catch, he takes a poor angle, going too far upfield aggressively instead of going flatter or slightly giving up ground.
QB takes a quick step, acting like it is a bubble screen pass to the WR. Browning as the MLB takes off running towards the WR, taking 5 steps the wrong way as the QB starts running on a designed QB draw. Realizing his mistake, Browning turns and shows good recovery speed to get back into the middle. Still, sometimes being fast just means you are heading in the wrong direction very quickly.
Jet sweep to WR. Browning as MLB thinks the RB might have the ball and steps forward towards the LOS. By the time he realizes the WR has the ball, the WR is already 5 yards past the LOS.
Can do wide variety of things, but not necessarily elite at any one thing. Doesn't have length, size or sack production in college to project as a full time, dangerous pass rusher in NFL. A SAM is typically viewed as one of the less important positions on an NFL roster. No reason to draft one early unless that player is a monster.
Solid basic pass rush moves and hand usage, but doesn't have more advanced pass rush moves where he links moves together or shows elite ability to defeat NFL tackles.
Too aggressive at times, not under control. Can come in too hot on tackle attempts.
Takes too aggressive an angle and overruns plays in pursuit.
Took poor approach angle to tackle and got dragged for extra yardage.
QB run and defense is in trouble, because they loaded the box and Browning is the only defender in his area with too much space to defend. He needs to try to give his buddies time to recover and pursue, either by stringing the play out wide or slowing the runner down and forcing him to cut back towards the rest of the defense. Instead, Browning gets sucked inside and steps forward too eagerly, allowing the runner to go outside and run for a TD.
Jumps offside on a 3rd down lined up as OLB edge rusher.
Gets overanxious when he sees the QB start to scramble and overruns the tackle.
It is a long 3rd down. Browning as MLB is the spy in the middle. The QB steps up in the pocket away from edge pressure. Browning sees this and triggers, crashing into the pocket at a high rate of speed, trying to get a sack. The RG picks him off. This could have been a huge problem, because now there are no defenders left to contain the QB and if the guys in coverage turn their backs to the QB and run in man coverage, the QB might have been able to scramble for the first down. Fortunately, Pete Werner just happens to be in the right spot as he's covering the RB, sees what is developing and closes down the QB before any damage can be done.
Pro Comparison and Grade
Akeem Ayers (2nd round in 2011, Titans, from UCLA). 3rd round grade.
Prior to the combine, Mel Kiper had Ayers as the 13th overall pick in his mock draft. At the combine, Ayers was 6'3'' tall, 254 pounds, with 33'' arms. He draft stock dropped when he ran a 4.81 second time in the 40, very surprising, because Ayers on the football field looked fast. At his UCLA pro day, Ayers improved his 40 time to 4.70 seconds.
Ayers was considered to be a jack of all trades LB. In the NFL, he was a 4-3 SAM and used as a situational pass rusher, an OLB/DE hybrid player. In his 2nd NFL season, he led the Titans with 104 tackles, had 6 sacks and 8 passes defended. He was only half a sack from leading the team in sacks that season.
Gregg Williams was on the staff for the Titans before he joined the Rams in 2014. Ayers was expected to break out in 2013, but he had knee problems. In the middle of the 2014 season, the Titans traded him to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks.
Ayers played for the Rams in 2015. He made 10 starts. The following year, 3k in his roster preview for the LBs, gave Ayers a 9 out of 10 chance of being on the roster, while Littleton was given only a 3.5 out of 10 chance of making the cut. To the surprise of most people, the Rams waived Ayers before the start of the season.
Ayers might not have had a stellar NFL career, but he did start 57 games. He also won a SB ring as a rotational backup with the Patriots. In the win over the Seahawks, he played a dozen defensive snaps. He had 4 sacks for the Patriots, even though he only played about half the season with them.
I think Browning can be a good OLB in the NFL and at least be part of a team's edge rusher rotation. In today's NFL, you can't just have one good pass rusher. After a few plays, most pass rushers get tired and can't go full speed. To maintain consistent pressure on the pocket, a team needs to have multiple quality defenders they can rotate in, to keep guys fresh. Otherwise, at critical moments of a drive or late in the football game, the team's pass rush could completely disappear and the QB will just pick them apart.
Browning is the type of player who probably will never make the Pro Bowl. He might never put up a big sack total in any season of his career. He's a "glue" guy, a versatile LB who does some of the necessary tasks that makes the defensive unit better, but doesn't bring individual glory or credit.
If both Floyd and Ebukam leave in FA, that depletes the edge rusher group for the Rams. One way or another the Rams would need to add reinforcements there. Someone like Browning could be part of the answer. Ebukam played 36% of the defensive snaps last season, way down from his share in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He had a 56.9 PFF grade, ranking 86th out of 108 players. Justin Hollins played about the same number of snaps as Ebukam and was ranked 47th out of 108, so almost exactly in the middle of qualified edge defenders.
I don't think Nagy's statement is an exaggeration. I think Browning could step in right away and play significant snaps as a rookie in the NFL. He might make a bunch of mistakes and not be that great, but if the goal is add a player as good or better than guys like Ebukam and Hollins from last year, that's not a super high bar to clear.