The Browns have upgraded their linebacker corps for the past couple seasons. It is now one of the team’s best position groups. The current roster of linebackers includes: Jamie Collins, Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, James Burgess and Dominique Alexander. With the switch to the 4-3 defense, the Browns will have three linebackers on the field with many situations needing just two when the team moves to the nickel defense. So, the unit should be in good shape to handle the switch.
What can the Browns expect from their talented linebacker unit? WFNY can help answer that question with an examination of the Browns linebackers going into the 2017 NFL season.
Subtractions: Demario Davis, Tank Carder (on IR)
Projected Starters: Jamie Collins, Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert
The Browns starting linebackers may be the most talented starting lineup on the entire roster. The combination of Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey is one of the best linebacker duos in the entire NFL with both players with Pro Bowl level talent. Joe Schobert won the middle linebacker spot during training camp because of his impressive preseason performance, but also because of the injury to Tank Carder. Collins at the strong outside linebacker spot, Schobert as the middle linebacker and Kirksey as the weak outside linebacker seems to be the way the Browns will line up their linebackers on Sundays.
Jamie Collins was a huge midseason pickup last year when the Browns acquired him from New England. He is a big linebacker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but he also has great athleticism for his size. He is a linebacker who has the versatility to perform multiple roles on the defense. He can rush the pass, stand strong in run defense and go back into coverage. In the Browns defense, he is going to be the strong outside linebacker, who will be asked to use his versatility and perform multiple tasks. His size and athleticism helps him be strong at the point attack, while also helping him cover tight ends in coverage one on one. Though he struggled a little after coming over to Cleveland, he should have a big year for the Browns this coming season.
Christian Kirksey also has a good combination of size and athleticism. He had a sort of a coming out party last season, emerging as a true building block of the Browns defense. He really performed well defending against the run and making plays in the backfield. So, his position as the weak outside linebacker fits his ability to stop the run. He also is quick enough to help in coverage against slot receivers, which is another task he may be called upon to do. He is a good complement to Collins.
Joe Schobert won the middle linebacker spot- even before Carder’s injury- with an impressive preseason. After starting his NFL career off as an edge rusher, the Browns moved Schobert inside to a position that fits him better. His athleticism will be a key for his success at the position. He moves well in space, which will allow him to go back into coverage. He also has the balance, quickness and ability to evade blockers that will help him in run defense. His size may be an issue in terms of dealing with the traffic in the trenches. But, Schobert could have a big year playing alongside the talented outside linebackers.
Possible Contributors: Dominique Alexander and James Burgess on special teams
The Browns will not go play a lot of linebackers this season because Greg Williams likes to play in nickel, which calls for just two linebackers. So, playing time will be tough for the players behind Collins, Kirksey and Schobert. Quite frankly, barring any injury to the starters, I do not see any possible contributors at linebacker. Dominique Alexander and James Burgess can be contributors on special teams by being important players on the coverage teams.
Biggest Strength: Outside Linebackers
The strength of the linebacker unit is the outside linebackers, specifically Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey. As I stated earlier, the duo of Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey is one of the best linebacker duos in the league. Both players are great athletes with versatility to perform multiple tasks for the defense. Collins and Kirksey can go back in coverage or come up in run defense. The Browns are set at outside linebacker with these two players. I believe these two players make the linebacker unit the most talented position on the team.
Biggest Weakness: Experienced Depth
The Browns have great experience and talent in the starting lineup. But behind them, the Browns are filled with inexperienced players with little to no playing experience. Dominique Alexander and James Burgess are both linebackers who are entering just their second season in the NFL. Neither players received much of any playing time on defense last year. So, if the Browns suffer injuries to any of their starters, especially Collins and Kirkey, the team will have to rely on young, inexperienced linebackers to fill in that void.
Key Player: Jamie Collins
Jamie Collins is the most talented player of all the linebackers on the roster. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he is a physical freak with athleticism of much lighter athlete. He has the most play-making ability of all the linebackers, able to make plays rushing the passer, going back in coverage or surging through the gaps against the run to make plays in the backfield. But, he did not play up to his usual level of play last season with the Browns. A lot of that can be blamed on the transitioning to a new defense. But this season, the Browns need him to return to his New England form and be the centerpiece of the young and talented defense.
As I have stated throughout this preview, I believe the Browns linebacker unit is the best position on the roster in terms of talent. It possesses two players in Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey who have the talent to make the Pro Bowl. Alongside those two, the Browns have a young Joe Schobert who showed a lot of promise as the team’s starting middle linebacker. The unit has the potential to be really darn good.
But, the unit must come together and be that force that I believe it can be. With the youth littered throughout the defense, the Browns linebackers, in particular Collins and Kirksey, will looked upon as leaders and the centerpieces of the defense. They must set the tone for the defense and make plays for the defense. I am really excited to watch the unit this coming season and see them blossom into what I believe is a really talented corp. I think this position will play up to their potential in Greg Williams’ defense.