The Cleveland Browns finished another disappointing and dysfunctional season in 2015, ending the season tied for the worst record in the NFL at 3-13. This past season brought on a lot of change, including a whole new front office led by Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta and a new coaching staff led by head coach Hue Jackson. With the changes, the franchise has brought new hope to its fan base. (…Again.)
Over the course of the last couple weeks, I have been taking a look at what the Browns have going into the really important offseason, examining through each position of the team. The next position in the series that we will take a look at is the inside linebacker group.
Inside Linebackers on the Roster
Recap of 2015 Season
The Browns inside linebackers were solid, but nothing to write home about, with veteran Karlos Dansby leading the unit. The two other prominent players in corp were Christian Kirksey and Craig Robertson. No one really stood out, but they were not the major problems on the struggling defense in 2015.
Karlos Dansby was the steady veteran who was the leader of the entire defense. In 16 games, he had 108 tackles, two forced fumbles, three interceptions, two touchdowns, and six passes defended. He seemed to decline a little bit with his advanced age (he’s 34), but he was still productive, including taking two of three picks back for touchdowns. His strength is his coverage ability and being able to read the quarterback. He was average against the run and is not much of pass rusher. Dansby is a good leader who helps gets his teammates into the right play. But he isn’t getting any younger, thus his future is slowly getting cloudier.
Christian Kirksey is the most athletic inside linebacker on the team, but he is still developing his skills. In 16 games, Kirksey had 63 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one pass defended. The 23-year-old probably has the brightest future of the unit because of his athleticism and coverage ability. He can cover tight ends, running backs, and even some receivers because of his ability to move in space. He can also rush the passer well for inside linebacker. That said, the young Brown does not get a lot of playing time in running situations because he struggles getting off blocks. He has a slighter build (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and his lack of strength hurts his ability to get through traffic and make plays at the line of scrimmage. Kirksey needs to keep developing and working to get stronger so that he can maximize his athleticism.
Craig Robertson is a solid player, but he is not a guy who will make the game-changing play. In 12 games in 2015, he had 59 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception, and five passes defended. Like Kirksey, Robertson’s best skill is his ability to play in coverage. He moves well in space and is a smart player, but, also like Kirksey, Robertson struggles versus the run. He is a smaller linebacker (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) who is just not big enough to be able to fight through the big bodies in the scrum to find the ball carrier. Overall, though, he is a solid player who can be a good rotational linebacker who can come in for certain situations.
Tank Carder is purely a special teams level player. He had 16 tackles in 16 games as a special teamer backup inside linebacker. He is a liability in coverage and just not productive enough versus the run. He should only be relied on in special teams situations.
The Browns inside linebackers unit is filled with solid players, but their inability to defend the run is a major wart. The group has undersized linebackers who are good in coverage, but they struggle to fight through when met with contact. Adding some more stout bodies in the middle will help improve the overall run defense. The Browns inside linebackers will not wow you, but they cover well and are not a huge detriment. This group just needs a few adjustments rather a whole slew of changes that some other units on the team need.
2015 Season Grade: C+
Offseason To Do List
Again, the Browns inside linebackers unit is filled with smaller players who are more comfortable in coverage than attacking the line of scrimmage. The Browns lack physicality in their linebackers. To improve the overall run defense, the Browns need to add a run defender to the inside linebackers this offseason. Either through the draft or free agency, adding at least one run defender will be key to making this group a better, more well-rounded unit.
Christian Kirksey has great athleticism. He moves very well in space, allowing him to play sideline to sideline against the run and in coverage. He needs to add weight and strength, however, to improve as an all-around linebacker. He can get controlled too much at the line of scrimmage and is unable to consistently get away from blocks. Adding strength will help him improve as a run defender.
The Browns inside linebackers unit just needs better depth overall. Right now, the unit is three players deep with no other viable options to take snaps. As mentioned above, getting more run defenders is needed in the depth chart. The Browns can get rotational players who are suited for a certain situation like run defense or coverage. Adding this depth will improve the unit and make it more versatile.