The Cleveland Browns will enter training camp at the end of July with some roster questions, most notably at linebacker.
The offseason saw the departure of veterans Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey in free agency. Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry filled those vacancies by signing B.J. Goodson in free agency from the Green Bay Packers and selecting LSU’s Jacob Phillips in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Goodson and Phillips join incumbents Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki in a quest to claim a role in defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ defense, which often features just two linebackers on the field in favor of an extra defensive back.
The group is raw — while Goodson has 29 career starts, Wilson, Takitaki and Phillips have combined for just 15 career starts — but linebackers coach Jason Tarver likes the potential he has seen in the group as the Browns have worked through an unusual offseason.
One of the key messages Tarver has shared with the group is to not listen to the doubters, according to clevelandbrowns.com:
“The biggest thing is what I just said to you guys is the start is about us. It matters what we do. It does not matter as much what is said. It all comes down to preparing ourselves so that when we get the attempt at making a big play or whatever it is, that we are in the right spot and we can do it.
“As coaches, we want them to be the best player and best person they can be, and that is that identity piece. We are really focused on that at the moment because that is what we can control. The other stuff is the other stuff. As we get to that and hopefully we are continuing to improve and get better every single week and our production is where it needs to be, that is what we are headed towards.”
While the coaches and players have not been able to be on the field together, Tarver credited the work that everyone has done, especially Wilson and Takitaki, according to the team’s website:
“Our linebacker group attacked the offseason, and that was great to see. They competed, and they worked in many different ways. I think this offseason, we were able to find out and really focus on how guys learn because we were able to do different recorded meetings, meetings like we are doing right now on Zoom where we can be live, really get to know each other and we could give them a lot of feedback.
“Specifically to Mack and Sione, they are very competitive, and they really attack the playbook. They want to be good. Mack was on the field enough to where he knows what he can do and what he needs to work on, and the same with Sione. Sione had the early season injuries, but Sione for example, his field work that he is doing right now — it is really interesting because they are doing so much field work on their own — it is awesome. We are excited to see what they do when we get to practice.”
Finally, like every rookie across the league, Phillips will be facing a tougher road given the lack of a normal offseason program plus the expectation that the NFL will cut the preseason down from four games to two.
But Tarver said Phillips has been making the most of the situation, according to clevelandbrowns.com:
“What we feel fortunate about is Jacob is a very smart, productive young man with high energy. He is a good box player who just got more and more productive as he went through the year on a championship team. He is a winner, and he has good length, top speed and power in his body, which has improved throughout the offseason, which has been great to see. He is very smart, and he wants to know all of the positions.
“He does a heck of a job of knowing what is about to happen to him and really taking notes. Now, is [this offseason] harder? Yeah, it is different because you are not on the field with everybody, but what Zoom does allow you to do is spend some time in different little groups so everybody can get to know everybody and at least have a feel for who they are as people. Jacob has done a good job with it.”
The linebacker group may be mostly unproven, which means everyone has a chance to compete for playing time, an idea that Tarver calls “exciting.”
Hopefully that excitement can carry through to when the Browns actually take the field this fall.