Browns re-sign Christian Kirksey, turn corner on talent retention

It wasn’t long ago that you could count on the Cleveland Browns to not only draft poorly, but also wave goodbye to players who proved to be NFL starters. That’s what happens when front offices change with frequency of Cleveland weather. Players with executive-level front office champions on old regimes watch new regimes come in thinking they need to turn over the roster and add “their guys.” It’s one thing to miss on first round picks, but the lifeblood of any football team is keeping those middle-class NFL starters.

The Browns have been better at keeping their own guys recently, and they took another step in the right direction when they came to agreement with 24-year-old linebacker Christian Kirksey this week, ahead of his free agency.

For Kirksey it’s a four-year extension worth a maximum of $38 million with $20 million in guarantees, according to reports. For the Browns it should lock up the most productive years of a solid-but-not-star player, who is still improving. It makes Kirksey the fifth-highest-paid player at his position. It’s a win-win-win on so many levels for the Browns and their fans. For the Browns and Kirksey it’s a really positive message that should help them continue to build their culture.

“I am glad to be here and to be a Brown for a long time,” Kirksey said. “This is my home. This is where I want to be. I love my teammates and we are ready to get this thing rolling. I am excited for the future.” It would be easy to discount the quality of a player on a team that could only win one game in the prior season, but the Browns didn’t scapegoat the young players they left exposed this past season.

“He’s another example of a young talented football player that we want to be part of our organization for the long-term,” Sashi Brown said. “Chris reflects the hard work and commitment we want in our locker room. He has done everything asked of him since he was drafted and has developed into an impact starter. We are very pleased to get a new deal with him in place. We look forward to watching him continue to emerge as a leader of our team and establish a culture of winning here in Cleveland.”

It’s not that Christian Kirksey is the next coming of Mike Singletary. It’s about continuity and rewarding guys who earned their second contract. That’s how you build a culture in a team. So many times over the past 20 years the Browns have rebooted their organization and tried to import culture. Eric Mangini practically imported the Jets. Mike Pettine ripped off catch phrases when he laughably started saying “play like a Brown” to a fan base that wanted the team to do anything but that. What we do want is for a team to play like Joel Bitonio. We want them to play like Christian Kirksey. Although the Browns haven’t figured out the right compensation on a longer-term deal yet, we want guys to play like Isaiah Crowell as well.

Who knows how much different the Browns would be if they hadn’t lost all those middle-class NFL starters over the years? T.J. Ward is still out there playing at a starter level from the 2010 draft. Jabaal Sheard and Buster Skrine are still out there from 2011. Mitchell Schwartz, Tashaun Gipson, and Travis Benjamin could have helped from 2012 to the present. Barkevious Mingo was a bust, but even Ray Farmer’s disastrous 2014 with Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel yielded the Browns both Kirksey and Bitonio while Crowell was an undrafted rookie. Good on Sashi Brown and this latest iteration of the Browns’ front office for not throwing those guys out for the promise of “their guys” someday in the future.

Too often as Browns fans we become prisoners of the moment. Over the years, I’ve heard some Browns fans argue that Joe Thomas might not be important because he hasn’t been a part of a winning team other than that one year with Derek Anderson. Team building is far more complex than that, and key guys don’t become key guys on a winning NFL football team until the overall talent and chemistry reaches critical mass. We end up looking at quarterbacks and superstars that shine brightest on the biggest stages, but for every one of them, there’s an under-the-radar starter doing their job well consistently that you don’t even notice. The Browns have not only missed on superstars at the top of the draft, but they’ve thrown out those “do-your-job” types as well. With the recent signings — including a very nice deal for Christian Kirksey — the Cleveland Browns appear to be turning a corner on talent retention.