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PFF paints grim picture of Browns linebackers

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Unproven group checks in at No. 31 in PFF’s rankings and will enter the season with a lot to prove.

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Cleveland Browns OTA

Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry rolled up his sleeves and went to work on the team’s group of linebackers following the 2019 season.

Out went a pair of veterans: Joe Schobert, a three-year starter and former Pro Bowler who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent, and Christian Kirksey, a talented player who struggle to stay healthy the past two seasons and who signed with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent.

In their place are second-year players Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, who have 15 combined NFL starts; veteran B.J. Goodson, signed as a free agent from the Green Bay Packers after playing just 24.4 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps last season; and Jacob Phillips, the club’s third-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft out of LSU.

There are a handful of other players at the position currently on the roster, but Wilson, Takitaki, Goodson and Phillips are likely going to be the primary guys, which gives the Browns a group that is extremely unproven.

Given that the Browns don’t really know what they will get out of the group this season, it is not a surprise that Cleveland’s linebackers check in at No. 31 on Pro Football Focus’ rankings of the league linebacker units:

With Joe Schobert moving on to the Jaguars, the Browns lose a valuable piece of their back seven and will trot out one of the younger linebacking units in the league. In 2019, the Browns drafted Sione Takitaki in the third round and Mack Wilson in the fifth, but it was Wilson who played 942 snaps on his way to a 41.7 overall grade that ranked eighth-worst in the NFL. Takitaki played just 105 snaps, showing well against the run with a 75.1 grade.

In this year’s draft, the Browns added Jacob Phillips, another run-first player who struggled to a 52.2 coverage grade last year at LSU. The Browns will heavily count on all three players in 2020. Cleveland also signed B.J. Goodson to a one-year deal, and he should provide early-down value — he’s graded at 67-plus against the run in two of his three full seasons.

Trevon Young and Jermaine Grace round out the depth chart with their 18 career snaps. The Browns had one of the NFL’s worst linebacking units a year ago, and they enter 2020 with plenty of question marks among their young players.

No matter how the group shakes out during training camp, linebackers coach Jason Tarver vowed that the linebackers will be focused on knowing their roles, according to clevelandbrowns.com:

“That is the No. 1 thing, and doing our job. One out of 11. That is what we have to do. We have to do our job. The more you do your job and you are closer in coverage and do your run fit exactly right, the better chance you have of you or somebody else making a big play. Most big plays come when you are just busting your tail and then there is the ball. We are going to be very ball aware. The big play ratio is going to come from that. Are we running? Are we doing things right? The more that we do that and are ball aware, then that is where they are going to be developed. This system is awesome for that with (defensive coordinator Joe) Woods. We are excited about it.”

PFF paints a rough picture of Cleveland’s linebackers, which are a mostly unproven group and currently the weakest part of the defense.

But if the team can find a rotation that can at least stabilize the position, the rankings may look very different by the end of the season.