We continue our training camp preview on the Cleveland Browns by looking at the middle linebackers. In Part 1, we’ll look at the guys with the most “experience,” which is very little, if any, when you look at the actual snap counts. Spoiler alert: this won’t really be a “starting role” in Gregg Williams’ defense.
1. Tank Carder - Competing at Middle Linebacker
Height: 6-2 | Weight: 235 lbs | Age: 28
Experience: 6 years | College: TCU
When the Browns shipped Demario Davis to the Jets a month ago, Christian Kirksey had already announced that he was moving to outside linebacker this offseason. The writing couldn’t be more on the wall: the team is eliminating the thought of having a player with the title “middle linebacker” play a big role in their defense. We’ll see a lot of 4-2-5 defensive alignments, which is four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. One of those defensive backs could be Jabrill Peppers playing in the box.
There will still be some times where a third linebacker is needed, and it might just be the type of playing time that a guy like Carder is suited for. Despite entering the league in 2012, he has the fourth-longest tenure on the Browns, only behind Joe Thomas, Joe Haden, and John Greco. All five years he's been with the club, Carder has been viewed as a special teams captain, where he's had 1,703 snaps. On defense, the action has been far less — he’s had 260 defensive snaps in 5 years, which is 52 snaps per season. Putting that into perspective, that’s about the equivalent of playing 5% of the team’s defensive snaps.
Still, with all the years Carder has spent with Cleveland, he is the team’s most experienced middle linebacker (not including Kirksey). He’ll begin training camp as the leading candidate to take the role, but it wouldn’t take much for a guy like Dominique Alexander or Joe Schobert to move ahead of him on the depth chart.
I think back to the past two seasons — in 2015, Jim O’Neil bragged about how much Carder would be used as an effective blitzer, and in 2016, Ray Horton indicated Carder could contribute at outside linebacker. Neither coordinator actually followed through with those plans. Perhaps this season’s hype will be the same -- the early talk is of Carder at MLB, but then nothing really comes of it. Despite that, Carder’s roster spot remains somewhat secure due to his special teams play.
Final Roster Odds: 80%
2. Joe Schobert - Competing at Middle Linebacker
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 245 lbs | Age: 23
Experience: 2 years | College: Wisconsin
Schobert is a player I look at and wonder if he’ll be lost-in-the-mix for the Browns this year. The Browns spent a fourth round pick on him in 2016, and PFF had graded him well out of college with the third-highest grade among edge players. Playing in coverage was also a strength of his. Due to his size, though, questions came up as to whether he’d be an outside linebacker or inside linebacker at the NFL level.
The feeling was that he’d compete to be a backup inside linebacker last year. Instead, the team stuck him almost exclusively at outside linebacker. Early in the season, Schobert had a fairly big role on defense, playing in about 40% of the team's snaps for the first 6 games. Around the time that Jamie Collins arrived, though, Schobert's playing time on defense was erased. In fact, there was a 6-game stretch toward the end of the season in which he played 0, 2, 0, 0, 12, and 2 snaps.
By the end of the season, Schobert finished with 16 tackles, 0.5 sack, and 3 quarterback hits. Like Carl Nassib, I felt like the team wasn’t getting anywhere with Schobert, so the decrease in playing time didn’t bother me. It is worth noting that for the first 5 weeks of the season, PFF had Schobert with the best pass-rushing productivity mark among all rookie 3-4 outside linebackers.
If you haven’t already, go back and read Mike Hoag’s recap on the Browns’ middle linebacker position from the end of June. It talks about all three guys in today’s preview, and also relays these quotes from linebackers coach Blake Williams about Schobert:
“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.”
Final Roster Odds: 80%
3. Dominique Alexander - Competing at Middle Linebacker
Height: 6-0 | Weight: 235 lbs | Age: 22
Experience: 2 years | College: Oklahoma
Last year, Alexander was an undrafted free agent with the Browns who a lot of fans were intrigued by because he had a 4th/5th round grade on him and had led Oklahoma in tackles for two straight years. Pro Football Focus had praised his one-on-one run defense abilities, saying that Alexander "held opponents to 2.69 yards per run on plays where he was the primary tackler, 8th-best in his LB class."
As a rookie, Alexander looked good in the preseason, racking up 11 tackles, good for second-best on the team. He made the team out of camp and ended up sticking around over the player the team had drafted, Scooby Wright. Cleveland only gave Alexander one defensive snap all season, though, and instead primarily had him on special teams, where he had 7 tackles and 1 fumble recovery.
With lesser depth in front of him and being in his second year of the NFL, Alexander is a sleeper player to watch this camp. He could rise to the occasion and take on a niche role in Gregg Williams’ defense.
Final Roster Odds: 55%
Here is your poll question for Part 1:
If the Browns end up having something close to being labeled a "starting" middle linebacker, who would it be among these three?
This poll is closed