The Cleveland Browns had yet another underwhelming, lost season as they went 6-10. The season led to massive changes within the organization including at head coach and general manager. The Browns addressed their coaching position with the hiring of Kevin Stefanski and their general manager position with Andrew Berry, but there are a lot of things left to do this offseason. I have examined each of the team’s offensive position’s to-do list this offseason. We continue on the defensive side of the ball in this series to look at the linebacker position.
The linebackers unit was a one-man show and overall it struggled to perform at a passing level. Joe Schobert was the only slight positive at the position. He played pretty well, especially in coverage for the defense. However, his consistency at times was not at the level the Browns need from the player in the middle of the defense. That said, he was far from the problem. The Browns lost Christian Kirksey in the second game of the season, losing their emotional leader for the majority of the season for a second consecutive year. With the injury to Kirksey, the pressure was put on a pair of rookies, Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Wilson earned the majority of the snap load as the starter, but he struggled to handle the workload in his rookie season. Takitaki showed glimpses of positive play, but he could not get on the field on a consistent basis. Adarius Taylor was seen as a nice pickup this past offseason, but he played poorly as a linebacker and was not used particularly much on defense. Overall, the linebacker position was a mess with so many moving and disjointed parts.
1. Re-sign Joe Schobert at a reasonable price
Joe Schobert has been productive and one of the only productive players in the middle of the Browns defense over the past couple of years. When he has help up front, he has shown the ability to be a strong piece in the middle of the defense. He is seen as the leader and mind of the defense. However, he does not deserve top of the market money and so my first priority comes with a restriction. I would like the Browns to re-sign their young linebacker, but they shouldn’t overpay him. A contract at $10-12 million a year with $20-25 million guaranteed would be my contract guideline for Schobert. If he gets an exorbitant contract offer, then the Browns need to let him go. But, Cleveland should try their best to re-sign their starting linebacker in order to not create another hole on their defense.
2. Release Christian Kirksey and Adarius Taylor
I really love Christian Kirksey and what he has done for the Browns and the city. He has been a true leader for Cleveland over the past several seasons. But, the time has likely run out for Kirksey staying with the Browns. His larger contract is not worth it given his injury history the past couple years and his below-average play when he has been healthy enough to play. Releasing Kirksey will also save the Browns some money and cap space. The Browns just cannot rely on the veteran linebacker anymore, especially with the contract Kirksey currently has. Adarius Taylor is also a player the Browns should most likely release. It will be cap savings and Taylor simply did not produce enough last season to earn another season in Cleveland.
3. Find at least one starting-level linebacker
The Browns must add another starting-level linebacker, even if they re-sign Schobert. If they do not re-sign Schobert, Cleveland should be looking for two. The linebacker unit has been an underperforming position over the last few seasons. The Browns need to heavily invest in the unit and get two linebackers who are reliable starters. Schobert would be one of them if they elect to re-sign him. The Browns can find a starting linebacker in free agency. Cory Littleton is the top linebacker on the market and should come at a high price, while Blake Martinez would be a cheaper option. The team could also look to the trade market to find a linebacker to insert into their starting lineup. I would not try to the draft to address this need. They already have two young linebackers on the roster, so they need a player who can step in right away.
4. Keep developing the young linebackers, but limit their workload
Cleveland should not rely on Mack Wilson or Sione Takitaki to start this coming season. Wilson struggled with consistency in Year 1, while Takitaki just could not earn his way onto the field on a consistent basis. But, that does not mean the Browns should just forget about them. These two have the talent to be the future of the position. But, they need coaching, development and time. So, this season the Browns should play both of them, but on a situational basis. This allows them to improve and learn their job. With these two on the roster, the Browns could go with a higher-priced, but a shorter-term contract for a starting-level linebacker, knowing that they could have one or both of these guys ready to start in a year or two.
5. Preach run fits
The Browns linebacker position has been horrendous over the past couple of seasons in defending the run. Their inability to correctly perform run fits. This means filling the right gaps that they were supposed to fill in order to stop the run. The Browns must harp on this area and teach the group to perform this at a higher level. The Browns linebacker unit must get better at this in a big way.