After covering the outside linebacker, our next training camp preview moves to the inside linebackers. In Part 1, we will cover the players who are in contention for starting roles.
1. KARLOS DANSBY - STARTING INSIDE LINEBACKER
When the Browns released veteran D'Qwell Jackson earlier this offseason, choosing not to pay his bonus, it wasn't because they wanted to get younger at the position. Karlos Dansby is 32 years old, while Jackson is 30 years old. Instead, head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer felt, "if we're going to pay a veteran inside linebacker top dollar, then we're going to make sure it's one of the best veteran inside linebackers out there."
The Browns' inside linebackers were particularly bad in coverage last year as running backs and tight ends were able to shred them apart on catch-and-runs. PFF summarized just how much of a complete and top-tier linebacker Dansby is:
Dansby was our third ranked inside linebacker in coverage (+9.5 grade) allowing just a QB rating of 75.0 with a staggering 10 pass deflections in coverage, the second most at the position in the last six years. Dansby also made plays, grabbing four interceptions and bringing the QB down eight times. ... Dansby was also able to make plays in the run game, recording more stops in 2013 (63) than he did in 2012 (59). He was by no mean greats in that department (+1.6) but, combined with his quality in coverage and efficiency when blitzing, Dansby’s versatility ensured him a top five place in our inside linebacker rankings.
The one concern one would have about Dansby is his age. Some say he had the best season of his career in 2013, but he's now entering the 11th year of his leg -- at some point, his production is going to drop off, turning him from a top-tier linebacker to just an average one. Let's hope the Browns get a few years of mileage out of him before that becomes evident.
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. CRAIG ROBERTSON - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING INSIDE LINEBACKER
When you look at the statistics, Craig Robertson seemed to do pretty well last year: he registered a career-high 89 tackles to go along with three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.
Anyone who reviewed the game film knew he was one of the worst starting inside linebackers in the league, though, primarily due to his pass coverage. Teams clearly gameplanned to take advantage of Robertson's inability to stay with running backs and tight ends, and it cost the Browns' defense dearly.
Robertson will have to really turn things around and have a strong training camp under Mike Pettine is he's going to remain a starter. He doesn't have a ton of competition, but the Browns also aren't financially obligated to him -- he's basically making the same amount of money that an undrafted free agent would be making (and that's how Robertson started off his career). At the very least, Robertson should stick around for depth purposes as inside linebacker remains the weakest starting position on defense.
Job Security: F
Final Roster Odds: 80%
3. CHRIS KIRKSEY - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING INSIDE LINEBACKER
I didn't know a lot about Chris Kirksey when the Browns drafted him, but immediately, I saw that Dane Bruglar of CBS Sports said that he liked him because he "gets physical in coverage and has a motor that is always revving." Our SB Nation affiliate said, "With his speed, he can cover a lot of space in pass coverage."
The fact that the Browns' inside backers were so weak in pass coverage last year and they brought in somebody who excels in pass coverage (Karlos Dansby) and a rookie with a good scouting report in that area (Kirksey) is a pretty damning sign for Craig Robertson. Also, consider the fact that Mike Pettine and Jim O'Neil helped mold a stud inside linebacker in Buffalo last year, Kiko Alonso. Granted, it's not easy to pick those guys and see them succeed at will, but everything seems to be in Kirksey's favor to win the battle over Robertson in camp and become the starter alongside Dansby.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
Next up, we'll take a look at the backup inside linebackers, and one of the players in that group could actually move up the depth chart to be the primary backup ahead of Robertson. Today's poll asks which player you think will start in Week 1 -- Robertson or Kirksey.