This past offseason, the Cleveland Browns inside linebacker position lost two of its biggest contributors, Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson. So, the position will be taking on a much different look going into the 2016 NFL season. The inside linebacker position consists of Demario Davis, Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, Justin Tuggle, Tank Carder, Scooby Wright III and Dominique Alexander.
So, what can we expect from these linebackers? Let’s take a look at the 2016 Browns inside linebacker group.
Key Additions: Demario Davis, Justin Tuggle, Joe Schobert and Scooby Wright III
Key Losses: Craig Robertson and Karlos Dansby
The Browns starting duo at inside linebacker will look slightly different this season with the pair of Demario Davis and Christian Kirksey. Last season, the Browns had Karlos Dansby starting alongside the constant shuffle of Kirksey and Craig Robertson. Davis was signed this offseason, after playing his first four seasons with the New York Jets. In 16 games last season with the Jets, he notched 90 tackles, two sacks and two passes defended. His starting mate, Christian Kirksey will be entering his third season with the Browns. In 16 games last season, he posted 63 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble and pass defended. It will be a new look for the center of the Browns defense.
Demario Davis was brought in this offseason to replace Karlos Dansby and be the leader of the inside linebacker group and the entire defense. Davis is a young linebacker who will give the defense more athleticism and speed in the middle of the defense. Davis is now the center of attention for the Browns, looked upon as someone who can show the ropes to the young talent in the inside linebacker room. He has the most experience of all the inside linebackers. Davis will be the key cog in this group for it to be a successful unit.
Chirstian Kirksey is now the main man at the other inside linebacker spot, after Robertson left in free agency. Kirksey has the talent to be a full time starting linebacker, but he must be more consistent. He has the speed and athleticism that teams love in their linebackers, able to play from sideline to sideline. He is now thrust in the sole limelight as one of the starting inside linebackers, no longer sharing playing time with anybody else. Kirksey could have a breakout year for the Browns in his first chance to be the full time starter.
The Browns’ starting inside linebackers, Davis and Kirksey, will form a young and athletic duo in the center of the defense. Davis and Kirksey are players with good speed who can both play from sideline to sideline. The duo can be the ballhawks for the Browns defense and make plays all over the field. It will be fun to watch the athletic linebackers making plays and run all over the field.
The Browns other contributors in their inside linebacker unit is made up of veteran backups and rookies. Justin Tuggle was signed this offseason in free agency after playing his first three seasons in Houston. In 11 games last season, he posted 18 tackles. Tank Carder, entering his fifth season with the Browns, played in 16 games last season, notching 16 tackles. Joe Schobert is the Browns 2016 fourth round pick from Wisconsin. In 13 games as a senior last season, he notched 79 tackles, 9.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and one interception. Scooby Wright is the Browns 2016 seventh-round pick. In only three games last season, he posted 23 tackles and two sacks.
Tuggle may have the inside track to the most playing time of the backup inside linebackers. He is an experienced backup who has started in multiple games during his career. He is another athletic linebacker in the Browns inside linebacker unit. Tank Carder is a player who has received playing time mostly due to injuries. He is a solid player who is more valuable on special teams. He is most likely playing only when the team is faced with multiple injuries.
Schobert could be the most interesting player of the backup inside linebackers. The Wisconsin Badger is versatile enough to play both outside and inside, but in my opinion he is best suited as an inside linebacker. He has the skillset that fits an inside linebacker, able to move in space, cover and avoid blocks. If he receives time inside, he could be a player who breaks out and becomes a big time contributor for the defense. Wright is going to have a little harder time getting playing time. He must show that his athleticism is able to survive in the NFL. He has the mental and instinctual part of the game, but his physical traits are questionable.
The Browns possible contributors behind the starting duo are a group with a lot of question marks and uncertainty. If an injury happens to the starters, the Browns could struggle to find starter quality options with these players. Development and coaching will be key to being able to rely on these players in extended playing time.
The Browns defense will be a young and super athletic group. The elder statesman of the unit is Demario Davis, entering his fifth season in the NFL at just 27 years old. This shows that the group is full of young linebackers with a lot of potential. Along with the youth, the inside linebackers unit is filled with athleticism and speed. This gives the coaches a lot of versatility to mix and match players at the position. Especially with the likes of Kirksey and Davis, the Browns will have inside backers who can fly around the field and make plays. It also can help in coverage, which is very important in the pass happy NFL. Athleticism and youth is a good thing for a unit to have, but the key will be coaching and getting the linebackers to fully utilize their athleticism on the field.
With the youth of the inside linebacker unit comes inexperience. Davis and Kirksey are the only two players in the entire group to have consistent playing experience in multiple seasons of their career. There could be a lot of growing pains with this group because of the lack of experience the unit has as a whole. Development and coaching will be key to overcoming the inexperience. Along with inexperience, the inside linebacker group is not a deep unit at this time. The main backups consist of two part time players and two rookie players. If there is an injury to one of the starting linebackers, the group could have a hard time filling that role with one of the backups. The backup group does not really have a starting quality player who could fill in as a full time starter. So, the development of the backups will be key in improving the lack of depth at the position.
Demario Davis was probably the biggest free agent addition besides Robert Griffin III. Davis will be asked to lead the inside linebackers and most likely the entire defense. He is thrown into the middle of the defense, expected to be a playmaker and someone the rest of the inside linebackers can look up to and follow. He has the athleticism and leadership quality to be this, but he just has not been in this position before. The success of the unit will be greatly impacted by Davis and whether he can be the star of the center of the defense. He is replacing the talented Karlos Dansby both in position and as leader of the defense. He can make a great athletic duo with Kirksey, forming a starting unit who will look to change the fortune of the Browns struggling defense of last season. Davis is the key player to the inside linebackers unit and quite possibly the entire defense.
I like the position in some aspects, but I am also concerned about others. I like the starting duo of Davis and Kirksey. Both offer the Browns young, athletic linebackers who can play sideline to sideline. They also have the leadership and emotional qualities I like to see inside. It will be fun to watch these two fly around the field and make plays. Both players have just enough experience to go along with possible room for improvement that gives the starting duo a high upside trajectory.
But beyond these two, the position scares me with uncertainty. The backups are veteran backups with little playing time or rookies with zero experience. There are just a lot of unknowns with this group. If an injury happens to one or both of the starters, the Browns could be in trouble finding a replacement. It puts a lot of pressure and playing time on the starters. Coaching and development will be key to this position’s success. The unit could develop into a good group or be average with no real playmakers. It is one of the positions to watch in the preseason.