The Browns have a wish list for 2021. All clubs do.
After last season, that list was quite lengthy: strong safety, free safety, cornerback, a tight end or two, left tackle, right tackle, right guard, swing tackle, fullback, backup quarterback, linebacker, backup defensive tackle, third receiver, punt returner and slot cornerback.
This off-season? Defensive end, third wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, swing tackle and maybe kicker.
And out of these positions, wouldn’t linebacker appear to be on top of the list? On the surface, that appears to be correct. Or is it?
If so, free agency and the college draft are the Band-aids to remedy the team’s ailments.
Free agency kicks off on St. Patrick’s Day March 17th while the draft is April 29-May 1. There are several linebackers on this year’s roster whose contracts expire if Cleveland does not do anything such as B.J. Goodson, Malcolm Smith and Elijah Lee.
The first two rounds of the draft should present to Cleveland a bevy of blue-chip linebacker prospects.
Depends on how the draft unfolds, sitting at the Number 26 slot in the first-round could be Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Notre Dame, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins or Nick Bolton from Missouri. In Round 2, the new addition could be North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt, Cameron McGrone of Michigan or Alabama’s Dylan Moses.
Any of these young men would be merely plug-and-play.
A quick look at Cleveland’s roster will discover that currently the highest paid linebacker is Sione Takitaki at a cap hit of $1.09 million. He is ranked 24th on the payroll. Making more money than the highest paid LB is backup QB Case Keenum, backup DE Adrian Clayborn, fullback Andy Janovich, long snapper Charley Hughlett, backup tackle Chris Hubbard, opt-out DT Andrew Billings, backup TE David Njoku and backup DB M.J. Stewart.
What does that say? It means the club does not place much importance on the linebacker position. They apparently feel they can plug in a cheap free agent or a mid-to-low draft pick to fill the positions.
Which is true.
Takitaki and Jacob Phillips were third-rounders. The fifth-round is where Mack Wilson was selected. Montrel Meander was an undrafted free agent assigned to the practice squad. Smith and Goodson were inked during free agency. Lee was claimed off waivers. So was Tae Davis.
Goodson was signed to a one-year deal for a cap hit of $2.39 million which would list him as the 18th highest paid player. But, his contract is up and there wasn’t any attempt to ink him to an extension or long-term deal. Smith’s cap hit was $750,000 while Lee’s was $485,290.
Currently, does GM Andrew Berry not place any value on the linebacker position? And if that statement is true, one has to wonder why would they spend a valuable first-round draft pick on one.
Historically, what have the Browns done? 2013 was the last time Cleveland took a linebacker in the first-round when they selected Barkevious Mingo of LSU with the sixth overall pick. Before that, it was Craig Powell (1995), Clifford Charlton (1988), Mike Junkin (1987), Chip Banks (1982), Future Hall of Famer Clay Matthews (1978), Robert Jackson (1977), Bob Matheson (1967) and Jim Houston (1960).
To see where the current administration and coaching staff feels about top-notch linebackers, first let’s take a gander at what the Browns did defensively in 2020.
Under DC Joe Woods, the Browns play a 4-3 defense. Or do they?
In looking at this season’s defensive personnel groupings, the 4-3 was utilized only 267 snaps. That correlates to just 24.8% of defensive plays.
What was used most often? The 4-2-5. A whooping 721 snaps for 66.9%. And get this – the remainder of snaps was in a 4-1-6 alignment.
With this in mind, the emphasis is squaring on the pass rush and the defensive backfield.
In the 4-2-5 alignment, the linebackers are used as the Mike (middle) and Sam (strongside) and eliminates the Will (weakside) entirely. The Mike’s duties are to plug the B-gap in running situations or as an occasional blitzer. Typically, the Mike is more of a Sam linebacker plugged into the center of the defense with some quickness and the ability to make adjustments. The other linebacker can be a converted strong safety with some girth and not an actual LB at all. This player will have coverage responsibilities such as the tight end or slot receiver.
With the 4-2-5, on the field personnel requires only one actual linebacker. With this in mind, why would you spend big money on him?
The short answer is: the Browns don’t.
As an example, look at former Browns ILB Joe Schobert. This season in Jacksonville, he was fifth in total tackles in the NFL with 141, just 30 tackles from being the league-leader. Goodson led all Cleveland defenders in total tackles with 91, ranked 57th.
While with the Browns, Schobert, a fourth-round pick of Cleveland in 2016, had 133 tackles in 2019 (ranked 11th), 103 in 2018 (35th), and led the league in 2017 with 144. Yes, he also missed tackles, but yet despite his numbers when his rookie contract was up and he was due a big payday, they allowed him to sign elsewhere in free agency. In short, the cheap productive linebacker suddenly became too expensive to keep.
Not that Cleveland’s defensive schemes doesn’t want linebackers who aren’t good tacklers and develop production. But the numbers indicate the defense needs serviceable LB’s who don’t require a swollen paycheck and can still do the job.
Malcolm Smith is a perfect example. In 2011 he was taken in the seventh-round of the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks and signed a four-year deal worth $2.08 million. He eventually became a starter. In 2015, the Seahawks took Super Bowl XLIX over the Patriots. Smith was named the game’s MVP.
He parlayed that success into a two-year deal with the Oakland Raiders for $7 million and then struck a mega $26.5 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. After landing on IR, then waived, followed by limited action with two other clubs, Smith signed a one year deal with Cleveland for $1.05 million.
Super Bowl Champion. $26.5 million. “Legion of Boom” defense. Super Bowl MVP. Cheap labor.
Based on what Woods employs for his defense, it appears that Berry will continue this trend of spending big money on the defensive line and backfield, and making due at the linebacker position.
And the team’s current makeup seems to imply this. Grant Delpit, last year’s second-round pick, will come into this year’s training camp vying for a starting safety spot. He would also become a prime candidate for one of the linebackers in the 4-2 as he is 6’,2” and a beefy 213 pounds. Ronnie Harrison is 6’, 2” 207 pounds while Karl Joseph is 200 pounds. All three are good hitters and would provide ample snaps in that Sam position which would eliminate the need for another LB.
In the third-round, the Browns own the 89th and 91st picks. Baron Browning of Ohio State and LSU’s Jabril Cox should be available. Browning (6’,3” - 241 pounds) and Cox (6’,3” - 233 pounds) both had impressive showings at the Senior Bowl.
Browning is a physical specimen. He is good in pursuit and can handle the Mike position with ease. His forte is he is an excellent tackler. A three-year starter in a tough conference, Browning had 109 total tackles, seven sacks, two forced fumbles and 19 tackles for loss.
Before the Senior Bowl, Cox was projected as a 4-5 round guy. Now, he has elevated his draft status into the third and quite possibly the second-round. He played only one season at LSU, started all 10 games with 37 tackles, one sack, 6.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, with three interceptions. He was a transfer from North Dakota State where he had 258 tackles, six interceptions, 14 sacks, 18 pass defenses and 32 tackles for loss as a three-year starter.
An exceptional coverage linebacker, is a hard worker, explosive, and runs a 4.6 in the 40. Cox is an exceptional tackler with high instincts.
In the fourth-round, look for Charles Snowden (6’,6” - 232 pounds) of Virginia with Paddy Fisher (6’,4” - 239 pounds) of Northwestern and Auburn’s K.J. Britt (6’,0” - 239 pounds) in Round 7.
But don’t look for the Browns to draft a linebacker in the first two rounds.
What position do you think the Browns will draft in the first-round?
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Disagree - Linebacker
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