The Cleveland Browns are less than a week away from taking the field for their first preseason game of 2018. The New York Giants await the Browns for preseason game No. 1. But before we get there, I continue my position preview to get fans ready for the season. Today, the preview series takes us to the linebacker corps. This position is an interesting unit to watch this preseason given all the talent in the group. Let’s take a look at the Browns linebacker unit going into the 2018 NFL season.
Major Additions: Mychal Kendricks and Genard Avery
Major Subtractions: Tank Carder
Talent alone, the Browns linebacker corps is loaded and may be one of the best in the entire league. The Browns bring back their three starters from last season, Christian Kirksey, Jamie Collins and Joe Schobert. Cleveland added another talented linebacker to this unit by signing Mychal Kendricks late in the offseason. The Browns also bring back James Burgess, who started nine games last season. The final big addition for the linebacker unit was Genard Avery, who the Browns selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Kirksey is the heart and sole of the linebacker unit.1 Last season, he had a down year compared to his previous couple seasons. His coverage ability was not good. He made plays in the run game, but not to the extent he had been throughout his career. He played every snap for the Browns defense last season. Kirksey is an athletic linebacker, who can fly around a defense, making plays in the backfield. He came out of college as a smaller coverage linebacker, but we have not seen that strong coverage ability in a couple years now. Kirksey is slated to play the weakside linebacker spot.
Schobert had a breakout season last year as the Browns middle linebacker. He was named to the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter. Like Kirksey, Schobert played every snap for the Browns defense. He excelled in run defense, showing off his ability to track the ball and chase it down for a tackle. He struggled in pass coverage, but some of that was due to the poor position he was placed in by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Schobert will man the middle of the field once again for the Browns this coming season.
Collins has been a big disappointment for the Browns over the course of his two seasons with the team. He has not been able to consistently show the production he had as a New England Patriot. This past season, he played in just six games, suffering a season-ending injury midway through the season. Nevertheless, Collins is a physical freak who is versatile enough to rush the passer, defend against the run and go back in coverage. He is best suited as a strongside linebacker, but he could also be used as a pass rusher given how deep the linebacker position is for the Browns.
Kendricks was a late pickup for the Browns this offseason. He adds even more talented depth to a position already filled with talent. Kendricks is another physical freak who adds versatility. He is strongest in run defense, but he also adds a unique ability to rush the passer that most linebackers do not possess. His position is sort of up in the air right now. He will likely go between all three linebacker spots. Kendricks also might be used as a pass rusher given his success in that area.
Avery was the Browns fifth-round pick. He was such a value pick for the Browns, adding yet another versatility player to the rich linebacker corps. Avery is an explosive athlete. His best ability, in my opinion, is getting after the quarterback. He also goes full effort, meaning he should be a key special teams player for the Browns. Playing time will be tough to get with how deep the linebacker unit is, but Avery could get on the field in pass rush situations when the Browns need an extra rusher.
Burgess stepped in for Collins last season when Collins went down with an injury. Burgess showed spurts of good play but was inconsistent in his overall play. His status on the team will be shaky given how much depth the unit has.
Versatility and depth is the key to this unit. Gregg Williams will likely move these players around the defense, using their versatility to play multiple positions on the defense. The linebackers may even be moved to rushing the passer to add talent to that part of the defense. The group has so much talent, but the unit played pretty bad last season for the amount of talent it possesses. Some of this was due to the players and some was due to the scheme. The corps can be the best in the league, but will they reach that height?
Biggest Strength: Depth and Versatility
As I noted above, this group is so deep with talent. The Browns have four quality starting linebackers. But, it also has two players in Avery and Burgess, who can be situational linebackers for the defense. Along with the depth, the Browns linebackers are versatile, especially Collins, Kendricks, and Avery. Those three add pass rushing ability to the team, which is not often seen in a linebacker. Collins and Kendricks can pretty much perform any task a linebacker is asked to do. Versatility allows Gregg Williams to move the linebackers around to different positions.
Biggest Question Mark: Gregg Williams
I think the biggest question mark for the linebacker unit is Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The linebacker corps is loaded with talent and has the talent to be really good. But, they had a lot of this talent last season and the group overall did not play well. I believe a large part of that was because of Williams. Williams blitzed all the time and put the linebackers in some vulnerable situations. The blitzes were easily seen, so the surprise was not there. Williams also put the linebackers in bad positioning, especially Schobert. For a lot of the season, Schobert could be seen playing ten yards off the line of scrimmage, making the linebacker have to cover more ground to make a play on the ball. Williams has to be better at putting these guys in the best position to be successful.
Key Player: Jamie Collins
Collins is probably the most talented linebacker on the team. He is able to play in coverage, defend the run and rush the passer. There is not much he cannot do. But, we have not seen him play to the level he was playing at in New England. If the Collins can return to that level, the Browns have a playmaker in the linebacker unit. He also gives Williams someone who can move around the defense to perform multiple roles. Collins can be a difference maker for the Browns defense.
Top Training Camp Battle: Christian Kirksey vs Jamie Collins vs Joe Schobert vs Mychal Kendricks
This battle is more of a competition for playing time rather than a starting spot. I think Kirksey, Collins, Schobert, and Kendricks will all see the field a lot this season. But in training camp, the Browns quartet of linebackers will be fighting to see who will see the most time on the field. Whether it’s at middle, strongside or weakside linebacker, these three spots are not really settled. There is not really a set rotation as of yet, so any of these guys can perform well this preseason to earn more playing time.
This linebacker unit is loaded. I mean loaded. It is four deep in starting quality players and has two linebackers who can play in situational situations. Collins needs to have a big year this season, or he could end up being the odd man out as the season wears on. I think Kendricks will end up being a big pickup this offseason. He gives the unit so much versatility. Schobert should see an improvement in his second full season as a big contributor. And Kirksey will remain as the heart and soul of the unit and the overall defense. I think the versatility of the group will leak over to other positions and help aid other spots on the defense, like a pass rush. But, with all of that, I am still nervous about the position.
I am nervous because of Gregg Williams. Williams needs to put these guys in the best position to succeed. Last year, he did not do that. He actually hampered them by putting them in tough situations. I just don’t know if I can trust Williams to be able to do the right thing. Stop with the constant blitzing and playing of the middle linebacker ten yards downfield. Trust the talent. Let the talent speak for themselves. This position is a boom or bust group because of Williams. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.
Joe Schobert will lead the defense in tackles for the second straight season.
- Editor’s note: and possibly the entire team. [↩]