It’s time to start previewing the Cleveland Browns’ linebackers heading into training camp! We’ll start with outside linebacker and the top two players at the position for Part 1. In Part 2, we’ll look at the other three outside linebacker candidates before quickly moving on to the inside linebacker candidates.
1. Jamie Collins Sr. - Starting Outside Linebacker
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 250 lbs | Age: 27
Experience: 5 years | College: Southern Mississippi
Cleveland made a bold move during the 2016 season by trading a 3rd round compensatory pick to the New England Patriots for Collins. The issue with the trade wasn’t the player, as Collins, a former Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro, is considered one of the better outside linebackers in the NFL. It was also a position that Cleveland was in desperate need of help at after the likes of Paul Kruger and Nate Orchard didn’t pay immediate dividends.
The risk involved in the whole situation was that Collins was in the final year of his contract. In a worst-case scenario, the Browns could have traded a third round pick during a winless season in exchange for a meaningless rental. They definitely had the intention of extending Collins’ contract, but would Collins really want to do that for a team that had been as bad as the Browns?
Players differ when it comes to how choosy they are for the team they play for. I think Collins loves to be a freelancer on defense, and while that may have worked for a certain stretch of time in New England, Bill Belichick had enough of it and felt they could still win a Super Bowl without him (and of course, being as loaded and well-coached as the Patriots are, they did).
Collins showed his gratitude to the Browns welcoming him and treating him like a top-tier player by agreeing to a 4-year, $50 million deal with $26.4 million guaranteed before the start of free agency. That was great news because last year, there were a couple of games in which Collins single-handedly turned the Browns into a respectable defense for at least a half. That sounds like an awful low bar, but let’s be real -- with how bad the Browns were, I can’t believe just one player can change the entire defensive production for every quarter of every game. But he certainly did help.
There were two concerns with Collins. First, there were a couple of plays in which I thought he eased up instead of attempting to go all out. For example -- Odell Beckham probably scores on this play regardless, but if Collins had decided to pursue him, maybe something happens to prevent him from going all the way?
Not one to usually judge or call out effort, but hard to think Jamie Collins was in any rush to chase down Odell Beckham pic.twitter.com/680gyy9O3y— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) November 28, 2016
I’d like to think that was a circumstance of feeling defeated — it’s not a good excuse, but it doesn’t mean it’ll be a long-term trend if Gregg Williams sets him straight and Cleveland is playing competitive football. Another thing Collins needs to sort out this year is his work in coverage. That was actually a strong suit of his in New England, but with the Browns, PFF says he allowed 27 catches on 30 targets for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns "without getting his hand on a single pass." That could be a byproduct of being tossed into a new defensive system and being forced to play every snap on the fly with minimal preparation. Once again, I’ll lean on history here and expect Collins to be a Pro Bowl caliber player for Cleveland.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. Christian Kirksey - Starting Outside Linebacker
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 235 lbs | Age: 24
Experience: 4 years | College: Iowa
Kirksey got progressively better in each of his three seasons as an inside linebacker with the Browns, as Pro Football Focus demonstrates in the following infographic:
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
It wasn’t just the stats that worked in Kirksey’s favor — he passed the eye test too. As PFF also noted, Kirksey recorded more defensive stops than any other linebacker in 2016. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, we knew Cleveland’s front office had made it a priority to extend him to a long-term deal. At the end of May, they did just that, signing him to a 4-year, $38 million contract extension that’ll keep him with the Browns through 2021.
Kirksey also proved he could be a workhorse, playing nearly every snap of the 2016 season. Besides being good against the run, Kirksey also demonstrated a pretty effective pass rush in 2016. Earlier this offseason, Kirksey acknowledged that he would be moving to outside linebacker this year, but stressed that a “linebacker is a linebacker” and that he is comfortable with the new way that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will utilize him.
In reality, it won’t be too much different from what Kirksey was familiar with in the second half of 2016, when the team stopped playing Demario Davis (who is now with the Jets again) and played a lot more nickel defense with only two linebackers — Collins and Kirksey.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
Here is your poll question for Part 1:
Do you see Jamie Collins and/or Christian Kirksey making the Pro Bowl in 2017?
This poll is closed
Only Jamie Collins makes it
Only Christian Kirksey makes it
Both Kirksey and Collins make it
Neither Kirksey nor Collins make it