BEREA, Ohio -- The influence of Gregg Williams on the fate of the 2017 Cleveland Browns shouldn't be minimized.
With his hiring as defensive coordinator, the Browns parted ways with the cerebral Ray Horton, opting to go with Williams' in-your-face yet uber-confident defensive approach.
Williams might be the most significant offseason addition in a year when the Browns added the first overall pick in the draft in defensive end Myles Garrett. While Cleveland has had some talent on defense in the past, it has never really had a guy who challenges players the way Williams does. His on-field confrontations have been matched by the way his defenses play -- aggressively and physically.
The last time Cleveland saw a Williams defense was on Oct. 25, 2015, and the Browns walked out of St. Louis beaten and battered. On the first play of the game, the Rams' secondary forced a fumble after a reception and scored a touchdown. Williams' defense had four sacks in limiting the Browns to six points, and in the fourth quarter Josh McCown took a vicious hit from linebacker Mark Barron. The Rams forced McCown to fumble twice, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald lived in the Browns' backfield throughout the contest.
That was Williams' attacking style at its best, bullying an overmatched opponent.
Williams now takes over a unit that, given its overwhelming youth, should be ready to grow together; 34 of the Browns' defensive players have played three years or fewer in the NFL. This is Williams' show. Every time Hue Jackson talks about the Browns' defense, he invariably defers to Williams.
The incessant chatter about Williams in Believeland gives the impression that a deity from Olympus has descended on the Browns' facility. Need a special blitz drawn up? Check Williams' playbook. Having problems lining up on the field? Williams is there to make sure the line is straight. The media slouching during an interview? He'll point it out. Advice for the Cavs? Williams has it. Need a special season-ticket salesman? See if Williams has some time.
He's one of the assistant coaches in the league with that cachet, and Jackson is comfortable giving him the freedom to succeed.
Jackson's confidence in Williams was apparent in a trade made last week, as the Browns gave up linebacker Demario Davis for safety Calvin Pryor. In his time with the Jets, Pryor was mainly a strong safety. But Jackson says that since Pryor also has some experience at free safety, he'll give Williams the freedom to play Pryor wherever the defensive coordinator feels he best fits.
"Gregg finds ways to make sure that we put the best guys out there," Jackson said.
In trading Davis, the Browns gave up a player penciled in as a starter. The search is on for his replacement (Tank Carder spent a fair amount of time there Tuesday), but Williams' presence might minimize the need for an additional starting linebacker.
Williams proudly pointed out in his introductory news conference that in addition to his famed "come get some" challenges to players, he has more than 40 defensive fronts at his disposal. He will not be afraid to run a 4-2-5 alignment or even a 3-3-5 should the occasion demand it.
"One thing about Gregg," Jackson said. "He has a lot of flexibility in his system to be able to play guys wherever we need to play them.”
Screaming and verbosity aside, Williams will be judged on results. He takes over a defense that has not stopped the run since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, and that gave up 24 points or more in 14 of 16 games last season.
In his 15 years as a defensive coordinator, Williams has had six top-10 defenses in terms of total yards allowed and eight in the top-13 in terms of points surrendered. The Browns re-signed linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey; added cornerback Jason McCourty and Pryor; drafted Garrett, Jabrill Peppers (whom Williams is very high on) and defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley; and welcomed Desmond Bryant back from injury. When traded, Davis posted on Instagram that the Browns were on their way to "shocking the world."
In his initial news conference, Williams warned the media that he wouldn't be giving one-on-one interviews -- "If I want another friend I'll get a Labrador" -- but since his hire he's been cordial, friendly and every bit as intense on the field as expected.
With uncertainty at quarterback and at receiver, defensive improvement won't just be a nice addition for the Browns. It will be a necessity.
While practices are still being conducted without pads, it's tough to argue that the Browns aren't giving their defense every chance to carry the team to wherever it's headed in 2017.