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Cleveland Browns Training Camp 2010: Linebacker Preview, where average is celebrated

I've been mostly disappointed with our linebackers for years and years.  In fact, I'd venture to say that we haven't had a single above average linebacker play an entire season with us since 2001.  I suppose you could convince me that Andra Davis was above average for a year or two.  D'Qwell Jackson?  Well, more on him later, but I'm in the camp that he has been declared underrated so much amongst fans and writers that he is actually overrated. 

I don't look for this streak of mediocrity to stop in 2010.  The unit is full of past-their-prime vets that were never all that great to start and marginal young players that NFL teams have often overlooked.  We lack a top tier prospect or a star in his prime and that has frustrated me for years at the LB position (outside of Kamerion Wimbley's first 2 seasons).   Let's see what we got.

1. Starting Inside Linebacker: D'Qwell Jackson

D'Qwell Jackson

#52 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Sep 26, 1983


Experience: 4 seasons

2009: 6 games, 59 tackles, 1 Forced Fumble, hurt for most of the season

That forced fumble is quite notable.  Even though Jackson has been often mentioned as one of the Browns best players the last 3 years and even though he has been our #1 inside linebacker for about 50 games and made over 400 tackles that was his FIRST forced fumble of his ENTIRE career.

That is my critique of Jackson in a nut shell.  He just doesn't make any plays.  He racks up tackles, but that's it.  Only 3 sacks and 4 INTs in his career.  And just one forced fumble.  That simply isn't good enough.  He doesn't make enough plays to be considered anything but average.  And all those tackles (he lead the league in 08)?  Well a lot are assists and most are after a solid gain.  Even when he would hit someone at the line of scrimmage it seemed like the offensive player could push forward for 3 or 4 yards.  

This all might be a bit harsh.  Jackson finds the ball carrier, has good instincts and is still pretty darn young.  Though the shoulder injury is a little concerning and doesn't make me think he is going to start hitting people any harder.

Job Security (as a starter): B

Player Quality: C

Final Roster odds: 99%


2. Starting Linebacker: Scott Fujita

Scott Fujita

#99 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Apr 28, 1979


Experience: 8 seasons

2009: 11 games, 43 tackles, 1 sack, 2 FF

These top 4 or 5 LBs are difficult to rank in any meaningful order.  First, many of them seem interchangeable as far as ILB or OLB, which is odd considering the more defined roles of each position in a 3-4.  Also, none of them are real standouts.  In the case of Scott Fujita, his strengths seem to mirror a lot of what we already had: smartness, toughness, experience, leadership.  Though Fujita may have an edge in the latter two categories as a central figure in the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints defense over the last several seasons. 

I've seen projections for Fujita to play both inside and outside this year.  I see him as making the most sense as an inside player.  I'm not sure how much production we can expect from Fujita next year, but he seemed like a good pickup.  Fujita plays big and is versatile.  He has rushed the passer with some success, has called the defensive plays and knows multiple systems.  Is that enough to compensate for declining athleticism and production?  Probably enough to be a starter as long as he is healthy for the Browns.

Job Security (as a starter):B+

Player Quality: C+

Final Roster odds: 100%



3. Starting Linebacker: David Bowens

David Bowens

#96 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Jul 03, 1977

Western Illinois

Experience: 11 seasons

2009: 16 games, 72 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT Started multiple games inside and outside.

David Bowens was the most surprising and impressive of all Browns defenders last year.  He started the first 6 games as an outside linebacker, showing his ability to blitz and set an edge as a 3-4 OLB.  Then, after injuries to Eric Barton and D'Qwell Jackson, he became a steadying force in the middle of the defense, the unquestioned prideful leader of a front seven that improved as the season went on. 

Bowens is one of the bigger linebackers on the team.  He hasn't missed a game in 6 years and has exhibited the same versatility, savvy and leadership that Mangini seems to demand out of all his linebackers.  All that said, last season was pretty much his ceiling.  So let's not get too carried away. I'm guessing he starts the season outside again.

Job Security (as a starter): B+

Player Quality: C+

Final roster odds: 98%


4. Possible starting or backup inside Linebacker: Eric Barton

Eric Barton

#50 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Sep 29, 1977


Experience: 11 seasons

2009: 8 games, 52 tackles, potentially career-ending injury

Eric Barton may be the key to figuring this linebacker puzzle going in to 2010.  If he is recovered from the neck injury that kept him out of the second half of last season and has limited him in off season drills, he instantly becomes a favorite to start inside, either pushing Jackson to the bench or Fujita to the outside.  On the other hand, if his health is in question or if Barton looks like he's lost a step, he could find himself out of a job completely: thanks to the depth behind him. 

Barton is another guy with a versatile background, having some success in different cities for different coaches and in different systems.  And while he was solid for the first half of last year, he had a lot of the same problems as D'Qwell Jackson: not making enough impact plays.  And when both of your ILBs have that lack in play-making production, well,  you get a bad team.  The only reason he is "ranked" this high is because 1.) he is a Mangini guy and 2.) he has some pretty darn good seasons in his 11 year career.  But in the NFL, reputation can only get you so far. 

Job Security (as a starter): D+

Player Quality: C

Final roster odds: 60%


Starting or backup outside linebacker: Matt Roth

Matt Roth

#53 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Oct 14, 1982


Experience: 5 seasons

2009: Started season with Miami as backup, finished season with Browns as #1 pass rusher (4 sacks in 6 games).

Guess what?  Matt Roth is a solid veteran with some flashes of success, but is not and likely will never be a star in the NFL.  It does seam clear, however, that if Matt Roth is on the field, he will have a defined a clear role: get to the QB.  He seems to have a knack for rushing the passer, racking up 4 sacks in the last few weeks of the season last year.  In 2008, Roth got consistent playing time and had 5 sacks.But he couldn't find the field too often in Miami last year and the Browns took advantage.

Roth gets off the ball very quickly, seemingly knowing the snap count on numerous plays.  He doesn't have the speed to get to the edge most of the time, but he is big enough and a good enough overall athlete that once he has that step,  he can get through a LT.  I don't remember him much against the run and perhaps that is what has limited his playing time in the past.  That is something to watch for in camp.  I'd guess he comes off the bench as a common 3rd down rusher, but it is possible he wins a job in camp.

Job Security (as a regular contributor on D): B-

Player Quality: C+

Final roster odds: 85%


6. Potential starting Outside linebacker: Chris Gocong

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Experience: 3 seasons

2009: 15 games, 35 tackles, 1 sack

I know almost nothing about Gocong.  Apparently,  he was drafted as an OLB with big time pass rush potential.  But in three seasons with the Eagles, he has had just 4 sacks and seemingly less and less impact every year.  Tom Heckert obviously is familiar with him, drafting the Cal Poly product in the early 3rd round in 2007.  This is another guy (along with Bowens, Fujita, and Trusnik) that is projected as both an inside and outside guy.  He is big at 265 and apparently has improved against the run.  Reports are that he shined in off season workouts and drills. 

Job Security (as a defensive contributor): C+

Player Quality: C-

Final roster odds: 60%


7. Depth linebacker/special teams: Jason Trusnik

Jason Trusnik

#93 / Linebacker / Cleveland Browns



Jun 06, 1984

Ohio Northern

Experience: 3 seasons

2009: Came over mid season from Jets, started for first time in his career

Trusnik has made the most out of his big frame and hustle, earning roster spots and special teams praise out of Ohio Northern for 2.5 years in New York.  Then he was traded to the Browns, where he became a starting linebacker, playing both inside and out and managed not to embarass himself.  In fact, he could find himself into the rotation again, if there are injuries or disappointments in front of him.  At worst, he is a good special teams player.

Job Security (as defensive contributor): D

Player Quality: D+

Final roster odds: 60%


8. Linebacker depth/Special teams: Kaluka Maiava

Data for this widget is not currently available

Experience: 1 season

2009: Mostly special teams, 16 games, 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks

Maiava is a legit prospect with something of a higher ceiling than maybe any of the guys in front of him.  As a rookie, he took advantage of injuries in front of him to earn playing time and show flashes of why the Browns drafted him despite not starting for his college team.  At under 230 lbs, Maiava is small, but he has good instincts and plays fast.  I rank him this low, only because he has very little chance of starting.  But I am all but certain that he makes the team and contributes because of his high ceiling.

Job Security (as defensive contributor): B+

Player Quality: C

Final roster odds: 80%


The Rest:

David Veikune- I guess he's looked good in off season drills and workouts.  Making the rare college DE to pro ILB transition.  If he couldn't find the field last year, I don't know how he does this year with a deeper LB unit and (hopefully) better luck with injuries.

Blake Costanzo- Another special teams ace.  He could make the team just for that, but will have to earn it with so much more versatile talent in front of him.

Marcus Benard- He had almost as good a late season run as a pass rusher as Matt Roth.  He had 3.5 sacks during those last few weeks.  He will compete for a roster spot, but he will have to show he can be at least competent in rush defense or dropping into coverage.

Titus Brown- I got nothin.