Cleveland Browns 2016 season position review: Linebacker

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With the change of defensive scheme to Greg Williams’ defense, the Cleveland Browns linebackers will have different responsibilities in 2017.

The position is in good shape and may be the best position on the entire team. The 2016 season began with Christian Kirksey and Demario Davis starting at the inside linebacker spots, but a midseason acquisition subbed Jamie Collins into the starting role with Kirksey. Cam Johnson and Joe Schobert played in backup roles, while Dominique Alexander and Tank Carder played sparingly. With the change to Williams’ defense, I have included some players who played outside linebacker this past season in the 3-4 defense, who I believe will be linebackers in the new defense rather than defensive ends. The linebackers in this piece will not be assigned to rush the passer, but assigned to stopping the run and dropping back into coverage. These linebackers will fit the weak-side, middle and strong-side linebacker spots next year.

So with that, let’s take a look at the Browns linebacker unit and how they performed in 2016, while also looking at what the position needs to do going into the 2017 season.

2016 Browns Position Reviews: Quarterback, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Offensive Line, Tight End, Defensive Line

Linebackers currently on the Browns’ roster: Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins Sr., Demario Davis, Cam Johnson, Joe Schobert, Dominique Alexander, James Burgess and Tank Carder.

Notable Stats

Christian Kirksey: Posted 148 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three passes defended and two and a half sacks.

Jamie Collins: Notched 69 tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and two sacks with the Browns.

Demario Davis: Posted 99 tackles, six tackles for loss, two passes defended, one forced fumble and two sacks.

Cam Johnson: Notched 32 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass defended, two forced fumbles and three sacks.

Joe Schobert: Posted 28 tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass defended and a half a sack.

Dominique Alexander: Notched seven tackles and a fumble recovery.

Tank Carder: Posted five tackles.


The tandem of Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins leads the Browns linebackers. Kirksey really pushed himself into being the leader of the defense. He showed that he can be the centerpiece with his ability to read, penetrate and make plays in the backfield against. He can play sideline to sideline and play in coverage because of his excellent athleticism. He is a player to build around.

Jamie Collins was acquired from the New England Patriots midway through the season and immediately he formed a great tandem with Kirksey. Collins is a physical anomaly, standing at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and is able to run with tight ends, running backs and some receivers. He also has a really good ability to make plays in the backfield. On passing downs, besides going back in coverage, he has the ability to rush the passer better than most inside linebackers. Collins’ long-term contract really stabilizes the linebacker position with someone the defense can follow.

Demario Davis is a player who performed well in run defense, but struggled when put into coverage situations. He is quick linebacker who can get into the backfield and make tackles for loss. Davis is probably best in a limited role, rather than a starting role. With Kirksey and Collins starting, Davis can play in a more situational role where he subs in to defend against the run. He is a solid player for the unit.

Joe Schobert did not really produce much in his rookie season. After the acquisition of Collins, Schobert did not see the field as much. He is a player with good athleticism and movement skills in space, but he lacks the strength to be a strong player at the point of attack. He started this season as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, which did not fit his skillset. Most of his production this season came on special teams. A move inside in Greg Williams defense can really help him and better fit his skills. He could be a player to watch to see his development in his potential new role.

Cam Johnson is an athletic linebacker who is good at getting to the quarterback. His athleticism allows him to move well all over the field. He played most of the season as an outside linebacker, but in Greg Williams’ defense, he can play weak-side linebacker or some defensive end. He is a player with upside because of his pass rushing and athleticism.

Dominique Alexander and Tank Carder are primarily special teams players. They both received most of their snaps on special teams. James Burgess did not play this season and is likely to not make the team next season.

The Browns linebacker unit is the best position on the team. It has a young duo of Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins, who can rival the best linebacker duos in the entire league. The Browns will likely play most of their defense with just two inside linebackers when they are in nickel, so having these two in the middle stabilizes the unit. Behind them, the Browns have some nice young pieces in Joe Schobert and Cam Johnson. It also has a good reliable veteran in Demario Davis to play next to Kirksey and Collins in situations where a third linebacker is needed. The Browns linebacker unit is a position where little to no work needs to be done to it.


Duo of Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins

The strength of the linebacker unit is centered on the starting duo of Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins. Both players had a very good season in which they performed well against the run and in coverage. They are athletic players who are able to move well in space, which bodes well for them in the pass-happy NFL. The Browns have the center of their defense with the playcalling going through either one of these linebackers. The Browns have one of the better linebacker tandems in all of the NFL.


Reliable Backups

The Browns are set with their starting linebacker unit, but the Browns do not have a lot of reliable backups at this point. Demario Davis is the only reliable linebacker on the roster. He is a veteran who has experience starting. But, behind him, the Browns only have young linebackers who are still developing and have yet to show consistent play. Finding some reliable backups could make this unit the top linebacker in the league.

To Do List

  1. Sign Christian Kirksey to a long-term contract

The Browns already did the original No. 1 task this offseason by re-signing Jamie Collins to a long-term contract. Now the Browns must turn their attention to his starting mate in Kirksey. Kirskey has one year left on his contract, so signing him should be a priority this offseason. He forms a great young nucleus at the linebacker position with Collins, so keeping them together for years to come is a must.

  • Chris

    What are the primary roles of a 4-3 OLB? Is that more of a pass-coverage, run-stop, or pass-rush priority? In a 4-3, does that likely mean Kirksey and Collins are outside with Davis inside?

  • mgbode

    there is so much nuance in that statement – it really depends on the defense called. also, note that GW will not play a strict 4-3 and he’ll use every front he can to match up against offenses.

    Generically, in a 4-3:
    SOLB have important outside run-stuff and TE coverage
    MLB are your thumping run stoppers and QB rushers
    WOLB are your chasers (speed guys)

    But, teams have mixed-n-matched different guys in different roles so much to not be predictable. And, lots of teams love having speed on both ends.

  • Chris

    That’s pretty much what I was looking for, thanks. And thank you for not just saying “all three!”.

  • jpftribe

    Collins and Kirksey are keepers. Schobert can provide some depth once Davis is gone. It will be interesting to see what role they ask Nassib to play, but last year it was pretty much rush the QB, ala Kruger.

    IMO that is it. There is no one that can play a traditional OLB role and no one that can play the hybrid role Williams had in his offense in LA. Carder, Johnson et al are a liability, one dimensional stop the run. Browns could not contain TE’s all year and pass rush was non existent.

    Good news is Williams D is less reliant on the traditional OLB, and hopefully they draft Garrett. We’ll see much more nickel and 3-5 down lineman at the expense of OLB. Need a SS that can support the run and cover TE’s, especially with teams now lining up with two of them regularly.

  • tigersbrowns2

    unless GW can light a fire under D.Davis’ arse , i see Davis as a weak -link … this can be addressed in FA (Timmons , R.McClain , M.Smith etc.) or in the draft with R. Foster etc. … a stout defensive unit will go a long way in turning things around in Cleveland.

  • Jaker

    I love the Collins-Kirksey combo and feel that they are the centerpiece of the defense we are building. And if we improve the DL (Garrett at 1, DT in rd 2/3), they will ONLY get better. As long as those 2 are in the lineup, we need very little else from the position.

    Your TDL is perfect. A Captain Kirksey extension would be an awesome surprise this offseason, and there is really nothing else needed there right now. See what Schobert, Johnson and co. can add as STers and as backups. Addressing this depth should be the last thing our FO should even discuss

  • Jaker

    I feel like we will rarely see 3 or more LBs on the field at once. Literally like 20% of snaps in this new D. And considering the versatility of both Collins and Kirksey, it’ll allow us to play with 5 DBs practically the whole game (aside from GL packages). I think addressing Safety and CB should be the direction at 12 over LB.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi JAKER … so then getting a top-notch S & CB may be the ticket ??

  • tigersbrowns2

    i’m seeing some big-name FA’s … MG brought up CB T.Johnson , then you have FS E.Berry , CB B.Carr & CB P.Amukamura

  • Jaker

    That’s my thought. I think with the way things are right now, we are best going after DL early, making that a strength, keeping the LBs as is, then filling the DB holes. Great DBs matter less when you can’t apply pressure, but when you apply constant pressure, you can get away with some mid round DBs (also this is a deep CB draft, so a 4th round CB might not be that bad)

  • paulbip

    Collins stinks in pass coverage. Check out PFF.

  • Joe

    Packers used two down linemen on defense in the last two games with LB’s standing beside them.
    Browns may use that, will use a 3-4, will use a 4-3, may use a 4-2-5, may use a 3-2-6, and may use all the afore-mentioned in a single game.
    Players will not line up in the same place or at the same position throughout the game or season.
    The distinction between a 4-3 & 3-4 team is only in frequency.

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