LAST YEAR CLEVELAND WAS WHERE FANTASY FOOTBALL HOPES WENT TO DIE. AFTER HIS BREAKOUT 2010, PEYTON HILLIS 2011 SIMPLY ADDED TO THE LEGEND OF THE MADDEN CURSE. FOLLOWING A promising preseason that boosted his draft stock, Colt McCoy looked every bit like a career NFL backup quarterback. Promising rookie wide receiver Greg Little often performed like a guy who hadn't played competitive football in more than a year (which, because he had been ineligible during his senior season at North Carolina, he hadn't). The debate rages on as to whether running back Montario Hardesty is more injury-prone or ineffective.
All that misery overshadowed Jabaal Sheard's outstanding rookie year. The second-rounder out of Pitt emerged as one of the best all-around defensive ends in the NFL.
No one doubted that Sheard could rush the passer. In that aspect, playing in college under longtime NFL defensive boss Dave Wannstedt had prepared him to make a smooth transition to the NFL. Sheard delivered with 8½ sacks, five of which were strips (third most in the league). Pro Football Focus credited him with 42 quarterback pressures, sixth most among defensive linemen.
But where Sheard really surprised was in playing the run. At 6' 2" and 255 pounds, he is a shrimp for a left defensive end. But Sheard is strong pound for pound and displays excellent quickness and leverage.
"I heard [the talk] that I was too small," says Sheard. "I always want to prove that I can play the run. I take a lot of pride in that."
The Browns kept him on the field as a three-down player, using him on 88.5% of their defensive snaps. He rewarded Cleveland with 55 tackles, including 40 solos. Sheard was one of only six NFL defensive linemen with 40 solo tackles and eight sacks on the year.
"He recognizes things quickly," says defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. "He doesn't have to stop and think. He reacts."
Perhaps most impressive, Sheard put up those numbers while being a marked man all season. The Browns never found a suitable bookend to draw some of the double teams and chips that became the norm for Sheard in the second half of the year. But this off-season they added the veteran tandem of Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker to play the other side of the line. Rucker's ability to stuff the run and Parker's skills as a situational pass rusher will open up more one-on-one opportunities for Sheard. And for one of the league's most overlooked defensive players, one on one will add up to some very big numbers.