One of the more understated position battles looming before Cleveland Browns training camp 2017 is centered on the team’s “part-time” middle linebacker position.
We’ve all seen the NFL’s gradual shift towards smaller defensive lineups that highlight rangy safety-type players to fill roles normally filled by bulkier linebackers. This shift to Nickel-dominant packages has happened quickly, and it’s a copycat league, so it has happened with a fury.
But we should be cautious to assume the trend is indefinite, and also that the middle linebacker position will become completely obsolete. After all, teams have been bulking up their offense with multiple tight ends to counter these faster defenses. And there are still going to be regular situations where the Browns will require bulk and strength behind their interior linemen.
So let’s take a look at the Browns’ best options to fill those still important snaps.
Tank Carder is a special teams veteran who has stuck with Browns for five seasons, probably thanks to special teams coordinator Chris Tabor’s advocacy. His value in that role has helped him stay on the roster, but he hasn’t shown much in terms of development into a serviceable defensive player.
Carder has started just two games in those five seasons and logged just 155 defensive snaps over the last three seasons. He played over 80 percent of special teams plays during that span.
But new linebackers coach Blake Williams — defensive coordinate Gregg Williams’ son — sees some value in having Carder on the field.
“Plus, he is just a savvy vet who has been around the league a long time and knows things – knows things about the offense, knows things about defense and can kind of drive the ship out there and is doing a good job at that,” Williams said during a media availability following the team’s June minicamp. “Nothing is by any means set, and that is real talk.”
The Browns have options, though, so they won’t be forced to trot Carder onto the field each week if they don’t see him producing at a high enough level.
“You see (LB) Joe Schobert out there doing a lot of good things out there, as well, too. (LB) Dominique Alexander, another young guy doing a lot of good things out there. Nothing is set in stone,” Williams said.
Speaking more on Schobert, Williams assured us that although he was brought up as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he thinks the second-year player is an asset and an ideal fit as a linebacker in the new Browns defense:
“I do not know how much you guys know about Joe, but as a former all-state basketball player, a former good basketball player in high school, kind of came into college as a wide receiver and got moved to outside linebacker, he is not really a 3-4 outside linebacker. He can do that and do that well and he has that athleticism, but body type, he is more of a 4-3 off the ball linebacker – MIKE, WILL or SAM. I think he has the ability to do all that type of stuff, but he is an extremely bright, extremely bright guy and so, the ability to process what everybody is doing and all of the sudden see something and turn around and tell a safety what they are supposed to be doing... he possesses some of those coach-like qualities that has allowed him to step in there as the spring has progressed and get a chance to do that.”
Then there’s Alexander, who Williams mentioned but didn’t speak more on. He went undrafted after being pegged as too small to play inside linebacker in the NFL, but ended up making the Browns final roster last season. Alexander made the roster by shining during training camp and providing a handful of impact plays during preseason games.
Concerns about his size, at least in a 3-4 defense with another insider backer working alongside him, seem to have been overblown. But the Browns have switched schemes since, so it’s too soon to say whether he can shake his pre-draft criticisms to be productive in that role in the NFL. It’s possible the new Browns staff agrees with those critiques and moves him to a depth position behind Chris Kirksey and Jamie Collins.
If none of the three we’ve discussed end up securing the role, Gregg Williams does have the option of getting creative like he did in moving Rams safety Mark Barron to outside linebacker last season.
Could newly acquired safety Calvin Pryor or versatile rookie defender Jabrill Peppers be ready for that role once Week 1 rolls around? There’s a good chance that’s his plan, and if not, a good chance the idea could quickly win him over once he gets a better grasp of what his players can do in pads and in game-type situations during preseason games.
Putting the best players possible on the field — sometimes agnostic of player position — has proved to be a focus of Gregg Williams in the past. Let’s see who he pegs as those players once training camp gives him a chance to weed through his options.