Despite being eligible to play against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, the Cleveland Browns chose not to lift veteran linebacker Scott Fujita's roster exemption because he had not been able to practice all week and was still dealing with a couple of injuries from the preseason. The Browns have since added Fujita back to the 53-man roster, as he basically ended up swapping places with cornerback Joe Haden, who is serving a four-game suspension.
Fujita practiced every day this week, but you still have to wonder how much he will end up playing against the Bengals. There are two reasons why you could argue he shouldn't start:
- There is a chance that his suspension could end up kicking in again at any time.
- It would disrupt something intriguing the Browns had going for them in Week 1.
The Browns' defense had fans jumping out of their seats against the Eagles, and a lot of that had to do with the linebackers. They tackled well, showed good speed, and were very opportunistic. They pulled the hat trick in terms of interceptions, as D'Qwell Jackson, L.J. Fort, and Craig Robertson each came away with picks. Off the top of my head, I recall one other game over the past decade+ in which the Browns had three interceptions by their linebackers. That came in 2010 in a stunning win over the New Orleans Saints, when Scott Fujita had one interception and David Bowens piled on two more.
Sunday's game was more reminiscent of Week 1 of the 2003 season, though, when the Browns opened the season at home against the Indianapolis Colts. The Browns had cleaned house of their veteran linebackers from 2002, and second-year linebackers Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley each picked off Peyton Manning. The Browns held the Colts to just nine points, but unfortunately, Cleveland could only muster two field goals in a 9-6 loss. Maybe young linebackers getting picks for the Browns is bad voodoo or something, eh?
With how well Fort and Robertson played in their first NFL games, are they better options than Fujita at this point? Fujita is supposed to be the savvy veteran, but he does not have the greatest speed and has been very injury-prone over the past few years.
At the very least, head coach Pat Shurmur confirmed that Fujita will play in this week's game against the Bengals, but he has not confirmed whether the veteran will start. "He had a good week of practice," said Shurmur. "Barring anything happening here in the next couple of days, he’ll play." Fujita is currently listed as the starter on the team's depth chart.
In his weekly news conference on Thursday, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron talked about the team's situation at outside linebacker and distributing reps between Fujita, Fort, and Robertson.
(On how well his young linebackers played last week and if he envisions using more of a rotation with Scott Fujita being back)- "We’ll see how it works throughout the week, how Scott feels as the week goes on and how he holds up because he hasn’t obviously practiced much or played in a while. The young guys played well and they played like we would hope they would play. They played hard and fast and they had fun. We made enough errors to lose, but they really played hard and performed and were productive, they were very productive for us."
(On what attributes L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson have)- "The first two things I would think of would be, number one, toughness. They’re both tough guys. Very competitive, very physical and they’re fast. They both can run, they’re athletic guys and we really like that about them. Obviously those are two qualities that you’re looking for in football players for sure and to this point they’ve been great teammates so they fit right in with us. Hopefully, they’ll just continue to improve and get better. If they’re not starters on the field, they’re they kind of guys that can be quality performers on special teams so they really do a nice job for your entire football team."
(On if young linebacker’s speed shows up more in the run defense or the pass defense)- "I would say over time it would be both. They’re quick and fast. In the run game, they can get to people and overcome some things that maybe obviously that a slower player could. They can get to more players clearly so I would say in both areas they should help us."
Things will only get more complicated with James-Michael Johnson returns from injury. Even though he was a fourth-round pick, I thought Fort and Robertson were more intriguing in camp. Prior to Fujita's suspension being lifted and Johnson's injury, JMJ was slated to start in place of Fujita.
Who do you think should start at outside linebacker this week?
Editor's note: I don't want to seem like I'm neglecting Kaluka Maiava, so this is his obligatory "mention" as being a part of the team's linebacking crew as well.