The Cleveland Browns defense last season had a linebacker problem: most of them became injured.
It was really weird for one club to have so many guys go down at a singular position, but this was the narrative with Cleveland 2022 edition. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (JOK), Jordan Kunaszyk, Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki and Anthony Walker all saw the training table plus the IR list.
At season’s end, the lineup became a combination of Tony Fields, Tae Davis, Jermaine Carter, and emergency free agent pickup Reggie Ragland as starters to go along with the only healthy backer Deion Jones.
If the heart of the defense is Walker, then JOK is its soul.
JOK a disappointment, or on the cusp of greatness?
The linebacker from Notre Dame was expected to be taken in the bottom half of Round 1 in the 2021 NFL draft. Instead, he was still sitting there when Browns GM Andrew Berry nabbed him with the #52 pick. He had won the Butkus Award for the nation’s best linebacker, was a unanimous All-American, and been selected as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
How could he miss out on being absolutely great?
Owning the 26th pick in Round 1, Berry considered taking JOK but instead selected CB Greg Newsome. Berry did trade up seven spots to take JOK in the second round and considered the move a huge plus to rebuild the defense.
JOK was a bit undersized at 6’-1” and just 221 pounds, but he has been viewed as a playmaker. He was viewed as a good fit for the running style of the defense and was expected to be a force in every game you watch.
So, why did he fall in the draft? Why did 31 other teams pass on him at least once?
JOK is considered a “tweener” as some teams had him more of a safety prospect than actually playing the linebacker position. The questions arose of what to do with the guy if they drafted him into their fold. He was looked at as similar to Isaiah Simmons of Clemson.
What the Browns did was simply draft him as an excellent defender and then figured out where he fit best. And since coming to Cleveland, that fit has been at his natural position of linebacker.
Since donning an orange helmet, he has done some amazing things when he is on the field. The issue has been, however, that part of being on the field.
As a rookie, a pedal ankle sprain Grade 3 sidelined him in mid-October which placed him on IR. Once activated, he went back to IR after suffering a foot injury in the Week 14 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Last year again in October, he had a Grade 1 knee strain which he rested for two weeks. Towards the end of the season, JOK suffered a foot injury which again landed him on IR.
As far as durability issues in his past, he broke a foot in his sophomore year at Notre Dame, but that injury doesn’t scream “injury prone” whatsoever. Now entering his third season, he has already missed nine games. That is almost one full college season.
JOK’s numbers have only been average since coming into the league. He had 76 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, four batted passes, two forced fumbles plus three tackles for loss in his rookie campaign. Last season that production was similar with 70 total tackles, four batted passes, two forced fumbles plus seven tackles for loss. Only the sack numbers differed as he did not register any in 2022.
Both of these seasons do not reflect the nation’s best linebacker. Does it?
The big question remains: what could JOK become if he was able to sustain a complete season?
Perhaps the issue is......?
Strength. Or overall lack of.
At the conclusion of minicamp, linebacker coach Jason Tarver made a special note to help improve JOK’s production. The simple task is keeping him on the field for 17 games.
Tarver stated to the Akron Beacon Journal:
“Jeremiah had two very similar years, made some plays, and then went on (injured reserve) towards the end of the year. Ended up playing about the same amount of snaps.”
The key analysis is that because JOK has a lean frame, he needs to bulk up more to take on blockers who can systemically push him out of harm’s way. The explosion needed to drive through a blocker or maneuver around him must come from his ability to not be manhandled so much.
At the college level, JOK was able to rely on his speed to gain those first steps which provided an angle that the blocker was having to lean into instead of taking on the defender square. JOK was able to continue on his path and eventually get beyond the lean and break free with his quickness.
That technique doesn’t work well in the NFL because the guys JOK is depending on to force a lean aren’t offering the space and have already set up. They are just too good at this level.
The stronger a player is, the more he is able to use it.
Tarver has his own assessment regarding JOK:
“So it’s be as big as you can and as fast as you can. So he just needs to get really strong so he can explode through blockers and those things that he does really well because he will hit you. But it’s the strength to be able to do it play in and play out.”
JOK needs bulk. Yes, it is that simple.
“Stronger, just stronger, just continuous progression,” Tarver said.
JOK lives in a world where 300-pound offensive linemen are headed his way continually. It used to be only the guards would pull during games, but now all five along the O-Line have pulling duties. That means, a 221-pound guy versus a dude weighing 320 has 100 pounds on him. It’s like a rhinoceros trying to get around an elephant. Yes, the rhino is fierce, but guess who wins?
The subject of JOK’s injury issues could be directly attached to his lack of overall girth. It has not been his upper body that has been hurt, but his lower extremities. Basically, knees, ankles and feet will give out when he is engaged with a much larger man who has latched onto him.
“Where does he need to go? He needs to continue to develop his body, especially in this little off time. He’s got a nice window right now that if he takes care of business, he can get his body to play game zero, the extra preseason game, then however many of those we get it, then 17-plus because that’s the goal. So that’s his challenge now is to be able to be a productive pro and know the scheme so well that he gets to stay on the field.”
Currently, JOK is completely healthy and ready to hit the field. He has untapped potential but needs the ability to be more durable. He is good at finding the ball with the speed to close ground. He has all the tools to dominate his man in situations, especially with tight ends.
Where does he need to improve? It begins with getting bigger.