Why Sheard is on the list
Having led his team in sacks in each of his first three NFL seasons, Jabaal Sheard has stumbled upon a soul mate in Mike Pettine.
Per the Akron Beacon Journal, the new Browns coach has plans to unleash his grittiest pass rusher in the same role that three-time Pro Bowl selection Mario Williams played in Buffalo's multiple 3-4 scheme last season, when Pettine served as the Bills' defensive coordinator. Listed at outside linebacker, Sheard is booked for additional snaps at defensive end and looms as a strong bet to top the 8.5 sacks he totaled as a rookie in 2011.
With another seven takedowns in 2012 and 5.5 more last season, Sheard has proven to be among the team's most versatile front seven defenders. He thrived at end in then-defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's four-man front in 2011-12 before producing as a 3-4 outside 'backer under Ray Horton in 2013. "With this scheme I'm a little bit more of a defensive end," Sheard said of Pettine's playbook. "So I get to rush a little bit more."
When I examined Sheard's three years of game tape, his better-than-expected speed stood out. The former second-round pick uses sneaky quickness to dart past offensive tackles, but he also has the long arms and arsenal of moves to fight off blocks for an inside charge.
Mobility and sound tackling help Sheard against the run. From play to play, he's a rapid-moving defender who doesn't give up on snaps.
"We were very encouraged watching the film of him last year," Pettine said this month, per FOX Sports Ohio. "We talk about the play like a Brown attributes and we want a guy that plays like his hair is on fire and if I had to pick one guy that fits that, matches that, the first name I would come up with is Jabaal."
There's no better example in Cleveland of what Pettine calls his "bitch-kitty pass rusher," outlined in Nicholas Dawidoff's Collision Low Crossers as a "a defensive end or, in a 3-4 alignment, an outside linebacker who would smell a warm quarterback and become an insatiable, unblockable, pocket-infiltrating force of war-daddy bedlam."
Sheard would have been a candidate to make last year's "Making the Leap" list, but the team spent a hill of greenbacks on edge rusher Paul Kruger before using its first-round pick on outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. Last year at this time, Sheard -- switching from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside 'backer -- was whispered to be potential trade bait.
Pettine, with a heart for chip-on-the-shoulder types, didn't take long to anoint Sheard for the unit's prized role up front.
It's unusual to say this about the Browns, but the challenge will be getting all their talent on the field at once.
Sheard could lose snaps to Mingo or Kruger if either take off in the new scheme. If we felt strongly that would happen, we would have made Mingo or Kruger our "Making the Leap" entry. As it stands, Sheard has outplayed all comers over the past three years and continually wins over his coaches.
For Sheard, the overt obstacle is adjusting to his third defensive playbook in as many seasons. On both sides of the ball in Cleveland, young players have seen their growth stunted by constant organizational upheaval and a revolving door of coaches.
Sheard is being given more responsibility than ever before. Worst-case scenario? He's not a fit. Realistically, he might need half a season to truly feel at home in the Browns' new attack.
Under Pettine's direction in Buffalo, Mario Williams notched a team-high 13 sacks last season, marking his greatest output since the former No. 1 overall pick ripped off 14 takedowns with the Texans in 2007.
With a deep interior line alongside him and Joe Haden and a talented secondary to the back, Sheard projects for double-digit sacks in 2014.
Sheard's track record and fit in this scheme also make him an ideal candidate for a second contract, which the team is mulling as you read this.
I love Mingo's speed and Phil Taylor's run-stuffing ways, but I don't see a more a disruptive player in Cleveland's front seven than Jabaal Sheard. He'll make that argument in 2014.