With our defensive line previews complete, it is time to turn our attention to the linebacker position. This will be broken down into two parts, starting with the four players most likely to win one of the three starting linebacker jobs.
1. Mack Wilson - Competing for Starting LB
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 233 lbs | Age: 22
Experience: 2 years | College: Alabama
It’s no secret that linebacker is the Browns’ weakest link heading into the season, and a couple of days ago, Pro Football Focus graded them the No. 31-ranked group in the NFL. The team opted not to re-sign Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey this offseason. Cleveland went with two linebackers for most of last season: Schobert was the reliable veteran, and then rookie Mack Wilson was thrown into everydown duty to learn on the fly at the other spot.
Wilson had a really impressive training camp and preseason as a rookie, and it would’ve been nice for him to be a role player to start his career. Instead, he played 958 snaps, which amounted to 88% of the team’s defensive snaps on the season. He finished his rookie season with 77 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception. Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson graded out to a 42.9, with individual grades of 41.7 against the run and 46.2 in coverage. He also missed 13 tackles on the year.
Wilson is a case where I gave him a significant benefit of the doubt last year, since he was a 5th round pick thrown into a starting job (although some graded him as high as a second-round pick). I am high on Mack’s potential, but it is concerning that we’re hoping he takes a big step forward in 2020 coupled with the fact that he is the best Cleveland has to offer at the position.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. B.J. Goodson - Veteran Middle Linebacker
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 242 lbs | Age: 27
Experience: 5 years | College: Clemson
B.J. Goodson was signed this offseason and becomes the most experienced linebacker on the team. He was a 4th round pick in 2016 by the New York Giants, starting 20 games for the team from 2017-2018. In 15 games with the Green Bay Packers in 2019, Goodson started 9 games, registering 37 tackles.
Pro Football Focus believes Goodson provides good early-down value against the run, an area he has graded 67.0 or better in for two of his past three seasons (although not this past season). Goodson has been a good tackler in his career, and says that one of his motivations for coming to Cleveland was the opportunity he saw for more snaps and to prove himself. It’ll be a big step for him, trying to take on the leadership role as the team’s middle linebacker.
#Browns linebackers coach Jason Tarver said B.J. Goodson came to Cleveland as free agent with mentality of logging more snaps than he had previously in his career, so he'll receive as much playing time as he earns— Nate Ulrich (@ByNateUlrich) June 24, 2020
Browns linebackers coach Jason Tarver had this to say about Goodson’s ability:
“We liked B.J.‘s length and his ability to use his hands, and he’s a run-and-tackle player who has shown the ability to do that. His number of snaps will be what he earns. He knows that, and we brought him here with that mentality which has been great. ‘I’m going to earn it, and I want the opportunity that there may be more playing time here.’”
Goodson seems like a sure bet to win a starting job by default, but the jury is out on how productive he’ll be.
Final Roster Odds: 95%
3. Sione Takitaki - Competing for Starting LB
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 238 lbs | Age: 25
Experience: 2 years | College: BYU
Fans were eager to see the physical Sione Takitaki in action last year, but the 3rd round pick from 2019 was seldom given an opportunity to play on defense. In 15 games, he played 107 snaps, or 10% of the team’s defensive snaps. More of his work came on special teams. I thought the team would utilize Takitaki around the goal line or short yardage situations to defend the run, but it didn’t work out that way. For the season, Takitaki finished with 19 tackles.
Despite Takitaki’s limited playing time last year, he was the Browns’ highest-graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus, scoring particularly well with his run defense (75.1). Tarver sees that same element of power in Takitaki:
“Just how he’s moving and how powerful he is. He’s really competing in the workouts to cover the most ground, to break on throws and to control his body and space would be a few of the things he is doing well.
Final Roster Odds: 95%
4. Jacob Phillips - Rookie LB
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 229 lbs | Age: 21
Experience: Rookie | College: LSU
Jacob Phillips was a 3rd round pick by the Browns this year, and considered a little bit of a reach for where he was taken. The general assessment is that he was a solid tackler in LSU’s defense as an inside linebacker, but it’s not certain whether his physical skills will translate high enough to the NFL level, especially when it comes to change of direction as he excels more in straight-line movement.
Phillips’ coverage ability was also not his strong suit in college, although Browns GM Andrew Berry said they like him in pass coverage. Here is a scouting report from Dane Brugler, who projected Phillips to be a 5th-round pick and the 17th-best linebacker on his board.
A two-year starter at LSU, Phillips was an inside linebacker in former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 scheme. He wasn’t a high-profile name on the Tigers’ defense, but he padded the stat sheet as a junior, finishing as the top tackler for the national champions.
Phillips is consistently around the football with his reliable reaction to movement, beating blockers to the spot and mirroring ball carriers. While a steady tackler (you can count his 2019 missed tackles on one hand), his body stiffness and questionable play strength won’t be as easy to mask at the next level. Overall, Phillips has limitations that lowers his NFL ceiling, but teams will be comfortable taking a chance on a player with his production, nose for the ball and straight-line speed – traits that project well to special teams.
Tarver was complimentary of Phillips too, saying he has just as good of a chance as the other three guys to win a starting job:
“We wanted football intelligence. We wanted length and speed. He has those. What I mean by length is how well you’re able to separate from blockers and things like that, which he’s done. He did that pretty well at LSU.‘’
Final Roster Odds: 100%
The Browns will regularly have 2 or 3 linebackers on the field in Joe Woods’ defense. By midseason, which 2 linebackers do you think will be seeing the most playing time?
This poll is closed
Mack Wilson, B.J. Goodson
Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki
Mack Wilson, Jacob Phillips
B.J. Goodson, Sione Takitaki
B.J. Goodson, Jacob Phillips
Sione Takitaki, Jacob Phillips