Let’s continue the grading period for the 2017 Cleveland Browns season. Having analyzed the line, will now move to examining the second level of the defense. Earlier this week WFNY’s Joe Gilbert finished the defensive line with a look at the ends, and the only key part of the Browns improved run defense left is a look at the linebackers.
The Browns carried their entire linebacker group from 2016 as they didn’t sign or select a player at the position.1 As the season wore on, they added to the practice squad due to Jamie Collins’ injury, but the Browns trusted the group they carried over. The results were mixed, but overall the group is young and with Joe Schobert’s Pro Bowl selection, the position group has its first selection since Jamir Miller in 2002.
Here are the grades:
Overall Grade: C
Christian Kirksey: C- (59.6 PFF Grade)
138 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and three and half sacks
Joe Schobert: B+ (77.4 PFF Grade)
144 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks, three forced fumbles, and one interception
Jamie Collins: D- (35.9 PFF Grade)
31 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, and one interception
James Burgess: C- (43.9 PFF Grade)
76 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, and one forced fumble
B.J. Bello: INC
Dominique Alexander: INC
Top Grade: Joe Schobert
The top grade in the defensive end unit goes to Joe Schobert. Schobert was tasked with a tough assignment moving from outside linebacker to inside linebacker within Gregg Williams scheme in 2017. Schobert not only made the move, but he became a tackling machine in the role for the Browns, leading the NFL is tackles with 144. W
hile Schobert did attack the run game well, he will have to become more adept at covering the middle of the field in the future as the Browns allowed the NFL’s most yards to opposing tight ends. The hope is that Schobert is asked to do less deep middle (Tampa 2) coverage, and can play his natural depth and hook zone for his comfort. Schobert has the ability to run with most of the big interior receivers in the league.
Overall, Schobert progressed really well for a young MIKE linebacker and took the necessary strides to be the first Browns Pro Bowl linebacker since 2002, and that is something really special for the fourth round pick.
Biggest Strength: Run Stopping
The biggest strength in the linebackers has to be their ability to consistently contribute in the run game. They totaled 27 tackles for loss, and were constantly near the ball whenever the opposing team decided to run it. Browns linebackers contributed to the league’s seventh best yards against rush defense, and second best yards per carry defended.
Gregg Williams prides himself on stopping the run, and that was what Hue Jackson tasked him to do. James Burgess and Joe Schobert were especially key in those aspects in 2017, and both will have feature roles for the 2018 season where the Browns hope to get a healthy and productive Jamie Collins back.
Biggest Need: Pass Coverage
The biggest need for the unit is an improvement in pass coverage. Now, some of this comes down to scheme as Gregg Williams’ defense makes it hard on his linebackers in coverage, but there is no mistaking the Browns were killed by opposing tight ends. Each time a play-action sequence occurred, they were left looking completely and utterly lost.
They will have to seek out a proper balance in how they attack the run game and play their responsibility against the pass. Christian Kirksey will need to also be better in coverage is 2018, and Jamie Collins will need an uptick in that department as well. Outside linebackers have to be able to run with opposing tight ends and running backs in the NFL for their team to have success on defense.
Judging the Browns linebacker unit is a challenge. There were some really positive signs of growth from the position, and especially from Schobert. The biggest part of the group’s issue was the play from the outside linebackers. They will need to get some better production against the pass from the group, or they will continue to struggle against opposing defenses who highlight their tight ends.
The best positive to take away is the foundation of players who have shown they can accomplish high end responsibilities at the NFL level. It is no secret that Williams has to find the right scheme responsibilities that play to their strength as a whole. Kirksey and Collins will have to be much better in 2018, and if they are, the defense has a shot to be really good on all levels with the mix of the draft and free agency. This will be one of the veteran units on the team, and it will be relied on heavily for success.
Christian Kirksey will have a big bounce back year, and the Browns will add another piece at linebacker within the first three rounds of the draft.
- They also traded Demario Davis. [↩]