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With John Hughes signed long-term, Browns defensive line must maximize potential

Re-signing defensive end John Hughes to a four-year deal on Friday wasn't the splashy free agency move Browns fans want, but it symbolizes progress in what was a problematic area in 2014.

The team's two biggest issues were quarterback play and the inability to stop the run. It's difficult to win when giving up 141 rushing yards a game, but the Browns were decimated by injuries up front.

Three of the Browns' top-six defensive front options -- Hughes, Phil Taylor and Armonty Bryant -- missed 11 games apiece. Ahtyba Rubin played hurt basically all season and Billy Winn missed three games.

Hughes' $14.4-million deal, despite seven career starts, suggests the Browns consider him an ascending player. If Hughes maximizes that potential Taylor regains his first-round form and injuries clean up a bit, now a good defense gets better. Desmond Bryant played at a Pro Bowl level at times last season, helping stave off a potential contract restructuring or pay cut on his $6 million salary. Coaches are high on the potential of Bryant and Billy Winn.

Draft a nose tackle -- hello, Danny Shelton -- and now this defensive front is cooking. Rotations galore.

The Browns have not been spenders to start free agency despite $40 million-plus of leftover cap space. The reasons for that are unclear. Even if the approach is methodical, the Browns must spend at least some money.

That doesn't minimize the importance of Hughes' signing because of the cohesion it can help create up front if everyone's healthy.

The wild card is Taylor, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Taylor's $5.5-million team option off his rookie deal should have kicked in at the start of the new league year Tuesday. He should be locked in contract-wise.

Entering last season, the Browns liked his explosion off the ball and viewed him as a defensive end who can move inside on third-down nickel packages. If Taylor rebounds, that alleviates a lot of concerns up front.