Injuries are a part of life in the NFL, but the Cleveland Browns saw that reality reach an absurd level in 2022 when it came to their group of linebackers.
The madness began when the team lost linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. for the season with a torn quad tendon in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before the year was over, Walker was joined on the injured list by fellow linebackers Jacob Phillips (torn biceps tendon), Sione Takitaki (torn ACL) and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (injured foot).
Injuries certainly did not help, but things were not always going along smoothly even when the unit was healthy, as linebacker Reggie Ragland (who was signed in early December) finished as the group’s top run defender and top linebacker overall by Pro Football Focus.
Losing so many players at the position, along with the overall poor play on a weekly basis, helped to highlight the need for general manager Andrew Berry to take a hard look at adding some new faces at linebacker this offseason.
With that in mind, here are three linebackers that the Browns should consider if they hit the free-agent market when it opens on March 15.
Tremaine Edmunds - Buffalo Bills
6’-5”, 250 pounds
NFL draft: 2018 Round 1, pick No. 16 (Bills)
Career Pro Bowls: 2
40 time: 4.54
2022 season: 13 starts, 102 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 3 QB hits, 1 interception
Thomas Moore: Tremaine Edmunds brings size and experience (he has started 74 games and played more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps in all five seasons with the Buffalo Bills) to free agency. He has also tallied more than 100 tackles in each of his five seasons, for those keeping score at home.
Perhaps more importantly, at least in the eyes of the Browns, Edmunds has improved his coverage skills each year and allowed a QB rating of 69.9 when targeted this past season. Going a bit deeper, Edmunds’ earned a coverage grade of 86.9 from Pro Football Focus in 2022, making him the third-best among off-ball linebackers. He also missed just 6.5 percent of his tackles, according to PFF, which was the lowest rate of his career.
The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia summed it up well in reviewing Buffalo’s linebackers:
The word “potential” has been associated with Edmunds for a long time, sometimes unfairly, because of how it’s belittled his impact on the defense. To Edmunds’ credit, he was a good defender in the Bills’ scheme for several seasons, but in 2022, he put everything together for his best year yet. His tackling and block shedding improved, his instincts were still on a similar plane to previous years, he made more impact plays against the run and his length and speed in coverage were a constant nuisance to quarterbacks. Edmunds found himself around the ball constantly, which helped get the Bills’ defense off the field. Above all else, it was noticeable whenever Edmunds was not in the lineup.
For a defense that struggled to tackle and cover in the middle of the field, Edmunds looks like an attractive option in free agency if the Bills allow him to hit the open market.
Contract Projection: Three years, $45.75 million ($15.25M per year); $28.5 million total guaranteed
David Long, Jr. – Tennessee Titans
5’-11”, 227 pounds
NFL draft: 2019 Round 6, pick No. 188 (Titans)
Career Pro Bowls: 0
40 time: 4.45
2022 season: 12 starts, 86 tackles, 3 QB hits, 0 sacks, 6 pressures, 3 hurries, 3 knockdowns, 7 tackles for loss, 0 forced fumbles, 10 missed tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass defenses
Barry Shuck: Long has something that no other free agent linebacker has: Cleveland’s DC Jim Schwartz knows him intensely. Coming from a stint with Tennessee, Long was one of Schwartz’s projects, and did this guy come through.
A linebacker that can do everything no matter where he lines up, he set a career-high in total tackles last year. Not a great pass rusher and was not called upon to be in the offensive backfield much as he blitzed just 26 times all season. This is great because Schwartz wants his linebackers in coverage or in a position to stop the run anyways.
Long is exceptional in pass coverage and arguably the best linebacker available in free agency this year. Plus, he is just 26 years old. He is a three-down LB with exceptional 4.45 speed in order to go sidelines-to-sidelines.
Contract Projection: Four years, $55 million ($13.75M per year); $33 million total guaranteed
Bobby Okereke – Indianapolis Colts
6’-1”, 235 pounds
NFL draft: 2019 Round 3, pick No. 89 (Colts)
Career Pro Bowls: 0
40 time: 4.58
2022 season: 16 starts, 151 tackles, 0 QB hits, 0 sacks, 1 pressure, 1 hurries, 0 knockdowns, 6 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 11 missed tackles, 5 pass defenses
Barry Shuck: Cleveland’s defense needs a guy like Okereke. He is not a pass rusher, but a run-stopping machine. Did you notice the total tackles for 2023? 151. That is not a misprint. In 2021 he had 132 total tackles so his expertise in stopping the run is not a one-hit-wonder. DC Schwartz does not blitz a lot so this plays right into Okereke’s wheelhouse perfectly. Let him sit back, scan the play, and allow him to do what he does best.
Wasn’t stopping the run an issue with the 2022 Browns? This one signing would solve this for good. In addition, Okereke is very good in coverage. These two facts make him the most attractive prospect at linebacker in free agency. And he is still a young man at just 26 years old.
Contract Projection: Three years, $25.5 million ($8.5M per year); $15.75 million total guaranteed
Put on your GM hat. Which of these players profiled would you sign?
This poll is closed