Cleveland Browns Training Camp 2012: LB Preview (Simply Stable)

Scott Fujita will miss the first three games of the season due to a suspension.

It's time for us to begin Part 4 of our training camp preview series. The theme for Part 4 is "Hard Hitting and Klutch Kicks," as we take a look at our linebacker and special teams units. The Browns have 12 linebackers on the team, and today we'll cover six of those players.

When you look at the team's three starters at linebacker, this is the most experienced unit on the team. Jackson, Gocong, and Fujita have 25 years of experience between them. Although D'Qwell Jackson had a career year in 2011, it is probably best to describe the team's linebacker situation as "stable" at best. Chris Gocong will have a couple of nice plays per game and Scott Fujita still offers some veteran leadership, but neither one is a dynamic pass rusher or a guy who is going to have superb coverage up and down the field. Let's get to the preview of the starters and the primary backups behind them.

1. D'QWELL JACKSON - STARTING MIDDLE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumD'Qwell Jackson (#52)
Height:
6-0
Weight: 240
Age: 28
Experience: 7 years
College: Maryland
Note: Signed a 5-year deal in offseason...158 tackles in 2011...best linebacker.

Jackson had 158 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for a loss last season. One of Jackson's former criticisms was that he never had many game-changing plays. In 2011, he had one interception, one forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries. He was always around the ball and undoubtedly had more success than expected after he basically missed two years of action with a pectoral injury.

During the offseason, the Browns re-committed to Jackson by giving him a five-year, $42.5 million deal. If he can deliver the same type of effort as last year over the next five seasons, the Browns won't have to worry about getting younger at this position: they can comfortably stay with Jackson.

Player Quality: A-
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%



2. CHRIS GOCONG - STARTING WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumChris Gocong (#51)
Height:
6-2
Weight: 263
Age: 28
Experience: 7 years
College: Cal Poly
Note: Stretches of awesomeness in 2011... favored by Heckert.

Gocong is another linebacker who the Browns have somewhat committed to. At the beginning of last season, Gocong signed a three-year extension worth $16.8 million. That certainly isn't as lucrative of a contract as Jackson received, but it also explains why the front office has not drafted a linebacker with a high draft pick over the past few seasons: it'll be the last piece they add to the puzzle.

Gocong did pretty well last season, finishing third on the team in tackles with 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery. He was most known for a couple of amazing stretches, like when he almost single-handedly stuffed the Steelers at the goal line over a stretch of a few plays. He also had a superb game in coverage against the Rams. The issue is that while those "spurts" are nice for Gocong, he's not a game-changer from start to finish. In my mind, he's still a very solid backup who is playing in a starting role. I thought he actually played better when he moved over to Fujita's position last year, but I think the coaching staff will put him back on the other side in 2012.

Player Quality: C
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%



3. SCOTT FUJITA - STARTING/SUSPENDED STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumScott Fujita (#99)
Height:
6-5
Weight: 250
Age: 33
Experience: 11 years
College: California
Note: Will miss first 3 games of season...might be better off as a backup this year.

Entering his 11th season, the Browns can not count on Fujita to be a full-time starter, and it would be nice if they can work toward transitioning him to a backup role in 2012.

Over his past three seasons, Fujita has only played in 30 out of 48 possible games (62.5%). He has finished the past two years on injured reserve, and he's already set to miss the first three games of this season due to the bountygate suspension.

Fujita is good to have around for his veteran leadership, but he doesn't create many turnovers and we saw him have difficulty covering a few tight ends last year. I almost wonder if the coaching staff will leave Fujita on the bench when Week 4 comes. A good indicator might be what unit Fujita practices with in training camp. Fujita is entering the final year of his contract.

Player Quality: C
Job Security: C+
Final Roster Odds: 95%



4. KALUKA MAIAVA - IMMEDIATE FILL-IN FOR OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumKaluka Maiava (#56)
Height:
6-0
Weight: 229
Age: 25
Experience: 4 years
College: USC
Note: Likely fill-in for Fujita...has an aggressive streak...special teams asset.

Maiava is also entering the final year of his rookie contract. He is the only backup linebacker on the team with experience and is projected to begin the year as the fill-in for Fujita at strongside linebacker.

Maiava started six games in 2011, finishing the year with 24 combined tackles on defense and 8 tackles on special teams. He seems to have the right level of aggression to play the position, but he needs to play a complete game. To close out last season, I thought he started penetrating into the opposing teams' backfields by cutting out blockers low, making him less of a liability against the run. More of that early in the 2012 season would be nice.

Player Quality: C
Final Roster Odds: 95%



5. JAMES-MICHAEL JOHNSON - BACKUP MIDDLE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumJames-Michael Johnson (#50)
Height:
6-1
Weight: 241
Age: 22
Experience: Rookie
College: Nevada
Note: Expected to contribute in the middle and on the outside.

As the team's fourth-round draft pick, JMJ is expected to be the team's primary backup at middle linebacker and outside linebacker for the first three games. When Fujita returns, Johnson still gives Cleveland better depth than they had all of last season, when they basically relied on just four guys.

Johnson is expected to play an immediate role on special teams too. Don't look for Johnson to be a playmaker -- instead, think of "stability." He will make the sure tackles and should not be a huge liability against the run or the pass. He will try to challenge Maiava for Fujita's starting role over the first three games. Considering Maiava is entering the final year of his contract, if the coaching staff feels Johnson can play at a similar level, it might be good to let him get the experience early on.

Final Roster Odds: 100%



6. EMMANUEL ACHO - BACKUP OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

8276_mediumEmmanuel Acho (#59)
Height:
6-2
Weight: 238
Age: 21
Experience: Rookie
College: Texas
Note: Brother of LB Sam Acho...good instincts...not as physical.

He is the brother of Arizona Cardinals linebacker Sam Acho. A sixth-round draft choice, Acho is expected to stay on the outside and is currently slated behind Maiava and Johnson (although he also has experience at middle linebacker). The Browns do have a couple of other linebackers returning from 2011 (like Ben Jacobs and Quinton Spears), so a roster spot is not guaranteed for him.

The scouting report on Acho says that he has good instincts to be in the right position, but that he has trouble being physical with blockers and is not the greatest in pass coverage. He's a very humble guy and one who fans could really end up rooting for in a reserve role.

Final Roster Odds: 80%
Practice Squad Odds: 95% (if he doesn't make the team)



That wraps up part one of our linebacker preview. Later, we'll investigate the other six linebackers on the team. The poll that follows asks who the team's starting strongside linebacker will be after Week 3.

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