UPDATE (4:10 PM): No more than an hour and a half after posting this, the Browns announced a contract extension for Kirksey! Check out that story here, but you can still read below for why an extension was warranted.
The definitive trajectory of Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey's NFL career has yet to be realized. But from what we can glean so far, there are less remaining questions of his competency and more pertaining to just how high he climbs.
Kirkey's role vastly increased in 2016, a season in which the rangy middle linebacker became a staple in the center of a Browns front-seven appearing to improve with personnel yet still remain the embattled core of a generally futile overall defense.
Pro Football Focus recently highlighted Kirksey's emergence despite his unit's struggles, totaling his defensive stops at 63, tops among NFL linebackers for the season.
Browns LB Christian Kirksey led the league's LBs with his 63 defensive stops last season, more than his previous two seasons combined. pic.twitter.com/J5zFnA8P7q— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 29, 2017
His 81.5 grade also helped him finish the year as the advanced stats sites' No. 22 linebacker out of 87 qualifying players, and his 148 total tackles led the Browns.
“Kirko is a rising football player on our football team and within pro football itself,” Hue Jackson said, per WKYC's Matt Florjancic. “He has had a hell of a year, and he needs to keep growing, but I think he gets it. It is about team for him. It has never just been about him, and I appreciate it."
It's worth noting Kirksey's big production spark last season was in concert with an overall snap count increase. After splitting time with Craig Robertson and seeing just 568, or 54.2 percent of his team's defensive snaps in 2015, he finished 2016 with 1112, the highest count by far on the Browns defense and most by an NFL linebacker.
That production boon is great but it alone doesn’t show how his play improved with that increased opportunity. To do that, consider Kirksey played 99.8 percent of his team’s defensive snaps and and recorded a tackle on 13 percent of those plays compared to on just nine percent of snaps in 2015.
For comparison’s sake, in 2016 Seattle standout Bobby Wagner had a 15 percent tackle rate, and former Gregg Williams linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron finished at 12 and 11 percent clips, respectively.
Kirksey, 24, earned a four-year, $3.04 million contract when Cleveland picked him at No. 71 overall in 2014. He's now in the final year of that deal and will make a base salary of $765,000 in 2017.
It's no longer much of a question of if, but when Cleveland will re-sign its budding linebacker. And things do appear to be trending in that direction, sooner rather than later.
It’s more than encouraging that Kirksey was slotted at starting weak-side linebacker in Gregg Williams' initial OTAs defense.
Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer also reported the Browns are "making progress" on an extension and that Kirksey wants to stay in Cleveland.
*NFL snap count data courtesy of Football Outsiders.