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How the Browns defensive line received a depth chart makeover

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Browns signed another defensive lineman on Tuesday. Justin Zimmer, who has now been with four teams in four years, was signed off the Falcons’ practice squad and begins his Browns tenure as a third-string defensive tackle, according to this week’s unofficial depth chart.

This was just the latest in a flurry of moves over the past month involving defensive lineman. Six have been waived or signed in just the past two weeks.

Defensive end Chris Smith was waived on Tuesday. The team waived defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence on Oct. 26 to make room for Larry Ogunjobi’s return from suspension. A few days before that, the Browns elevated defensive tackle Brandin Bryant and edge rusher Porter Gustin from the practice squad.

Gustin was originally signed to the practice squad in early November, a month that also saw the team sign defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and put Daniel Ekuale on injured reserve (calf). Defensive tackle Eli Ankou was signed off the Jaguars practice squad in late October, six days before the team dealt edge rusher Genard Avery.

In the last two weeks the Browns have also added defensive ends Robert McCray and Trevon Young to the practice squad.

Of the defensive linemen in backup roles in Week 1, only Chad Thomas remains on the active roster. Lawrence, Smith and Avery are gone, and Ekuale is on IR. That backup group was intact through Week 9 against Denver, with the exception of Ankou replacing Avery, who was rarely active on game days.

The bottom of an NFL roster typically undergoes a lot of changes over the course of a season. But instead of becoming practice bodies who are rarely active on game days, these newcomers have found roles to play.

“That is the battle of the NFL, right? There is an old saying that if you keep them, eventually they are going to play for you, and when they play for you, they need to play well enough to win,” sad Kitchens. “That is the reason I always say that if we put someone out there, he is expected to play well and play winning football.

“I am happy with the guys that we have brought in. John (Dorsey) and those guys have done a good job of finding people to replace guys when we lose guys. That is part of the league, too, is finding guys like Gustin and Bryan that can come in and take snaps and be productive when they are in there.”

The newcomers have given the Browns the confidence to move on from Lawrence, Smith and Avery. The Browns haven’t offered much explanation for those moves. When asked about Lawrence’s departure, Kitchens sounded much like he did earlier this season when asked why Avery wasn’t playing.

“You have to make roster decisions during the course of the year,” said Kitchens. “You take seven or eight to the game so all you need is seven or eight at the end of the day. Devaroe did a good job while he was here, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Here’s a look at how those new defensive lineman have done, and how they compare to their predecessors on the depth chart:

Eli Ankou, DT

PFF run defense grade: 61.1.

PFF pass rush grade: 52.8.

Ankou has played in five games, and saw his snaps ramp up over the last two weeks, getting 35 vs. the Dolphins (he started in place of Ogunjobi) and 34 against the Steelers. He has one quarterback hurry and one tackle in 95 total snaps. Even with Richardson and Ogunjobi playing 90 and 89 percent of the defensive snaps vs. the Steelers, Ankou still played 60 percent.

Ekuale, who had 114 snaps over seven games, had three hurries and three tackles. His PFF grades were 52.6 against the run and 56.1 for pass rush.

Brandin Bryant, DT

PFF run: 68.7.

PFF pass rush: 53.8.

Bryant has played in the last two games, getting 22 snaps against the Dolphins and five vs. the Steelers. He has one hurry and two tackles.

Lawrence, who stood out during the preseason and received praise from his Kitchens, played in 11 games and had four pressures (two hurries, two hits) and seven tackles in 222 snaps. His PFF grades were consistently low (44.7 vs. run; 54.3 pass rush), and his overall defensive grade (41.6) was second-lowest on the team.

Bryan Cox Jr., DE

PFF run: 50.5.

PFF pass rush: 64.7.

Cox has played 52 snaps over two games, getting 32 vs. the Dolphins and 20 vs. the Steelers. He has six pressures (one sack) and three tackles. With Vernon still dealing with a knee injury and Smith being waived, Cox could see extensive time in the final weeks of the season, playing opposite Thomas.

Smith played 144 snaps over nine games, getting more than 20 snaps three times. He had six pressures (no sacks) and one assisted tackle this season. His PFF grades were 55.5 vs. the run and 49.6 for pass rush.

Porter Gustin, DE

PFF run: 65.9.

PFF pass rush: 57.3.

Gustin has played 59 snaps over the last two weeks (25 vs. the Dolphins, 34 vs. the Steelers), totaling three pressures (one sack) and two tackles.

Gustin’s spot in the depth chart is behind Thomas, who has raised his play while starting the last four games. He has totaled eight pressures (three sacks) and six tackles over that stretch. He had the team’s highest defensive grade (89.9) against the Dolphins. Taking his entire season into account, his PFF grades aren’t great: 41.1 vs. the run and 53.2 for pass rush.

Kitchens expected the defensive line to be the strength of the team this season, but not much has gone as expected for these Browns. The defensive line depth chart is just another example.

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