The Cleveland Browns defense in 2023 was at the top of almost every defensive category for most of the season. DC Jim Schwartz came in and made a ragtag defensive group into one of the league’s best.
During last year’s off-season, Browns GM Andrew Berry, a former cornerback, took a look at the franchise’s defense and decided to shake things up. He brought in several new guys for the defensive line, and also the defensive secondary.
But the linebacker room pretty much remained the same.
Already under contract were Jacob Phillips, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Sione Takitaki, and Tony Fields. Contracts that expired after the 2022 season included Jermaine Carter, Anthony Walker, Jordan Kunaszyk, Tae Davis, Deion Jones, Reggie Ragland, and Storey Jackson who was on the practice squad.
In the free agency period, Berry signed Takitaki to a one-year extension, inked Cam Bright, then re-signed Walker and Kunaszyk to one-year deals, and brought in rookie free agents Mohamoud Diabate and Charlie Thomas.
During training camp, Phillips was placed on season-ending IR. Bright and Thomas were a final cutdown transaction, and Diabate became a Cleveland Brown. Thomas was then added to the practice squad. Kunaszyk appeared in 15 games with two starts with the Browns in 2022 and led the team with 11 special teams tackles, but suffered a knee injury during the final preseason game and found IR his new home.
On opening day against the Cincinnati Bengals, the starting linebacker unit was Walker, Takitaki, and JOK.
Coming to Cleveland
Walker’s career with Cleveland had been a roller coaster so far. He was a celebrated free agent signee after the 2020 season in which he had 321 total tackles in his last three seasons while with the Indianapolis Colts. That franchise wanted to keep his services but was in salary cap hell so concessions on several players were made.
The Browns were looking to add a smart, tough, and accountable player to a defense looking to take another step forward in 2021. Luckily for the Browns, he signed with them on a one-year deal for $3 million. He was seen as a quarterback for the defense.
At the time, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski was quoted regarding the Walker signing:
“We are adding another smart, tough football player to the fold. This is a guy that plays hard, plays fast, plays nasty. He can be a quarterback for the defense out there. Really intelligent, heady player.”
Walker proved his worth right out of the gate with 113 tackles and two tackles for loss. While with Indy, he had been relatively healthy as his only injuries included a hamstring pull and a groin injury early on. With Cleveland in 2021, was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury on September 17 and later activated on October 9 for Week 5.
During the off-season, Berry signed Walker to another one-year deal for 2022 for $4.25 million after leading the Browns in tackles. He had 10 games in which he had eight or more tackles including a high of 14 in the 41-16 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 9.
Stefanski offered this about bringing back his top tackler:
“Last year when we brought in A-Walk, we knew we were getting a smart and productive linebacker. He proved us right in those areas. He also possesses those leadership qualities that you can’t have enough of on your team and we are thrilled to have him back.”
Starting at middle linebacker again for DC Joe Woods’ defense along with JOK and Takitaki, Walker had six tackles and one tackle for loss in the Week 3 contest versus the Pittsburgh Steelers when he suffered a torn quadriceps tendon sustained early in the third quarter. On the play, Walker lay motionless and was face down for several minutes.
It appeared Walker had gotten his foot caught in the turf, and while he was in the act of stopping, Steelers OT Chukwuma Okorafor knocked him backward with two hands to his head area. With this contact, Walker’s left leg got bent backward awkwardly. Walker was then lying on the ground face down not moving or demonstrating any attempt to get up when Okorafor, who stands 6’-6” and weighs a meaty 320 pounds, leaped on top of him. The act of jumping on Walker in real time looked pretty violent.
A short time after the medical crew came out, the cart was summoned. Walker was eventually carted off the field. Okorafor did get a penalty on the play but it was for being an ineligible player downfield before the pass was thrown and not an unsportsmanlike penalty.
The injury ended Walker’s season.
Ironically in the same game, JOK and DT Tavan Bryan left the game with groin and hamstring issues, respectively. Walker’s injury required surgery and his new home became IR.
Other defenders were injured as the schedule rolled along such as S Ronnie Harrison, but the loss of Walker became the longest-term hit to the Browns’ defense. You just don’t take your leading tackler, your defensive leader, and the soul of the defense completely out and expect this unit to perform at its normal production.
In addition to his production, Walker wore the green dot meaning he received the radio communications from DC Woods. He was also a defensive captain elected by his teammates and his leadership role was unquestioned.
What this meant, was that Walker’s tenure with the Browns involved missing four games in 2021 and 14 in 2022.
Berry once again inked Walker to a one-year deal just days after he had a visit with the Washington Commanders. The terms were a base salary of $1.08 million with a prorated bonus of $152,500 and a cap hit of $1.233 million.
Heading into the 2023 training camp at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, Walker participated in some individual drills but not team practices.
Walker told The News-Herald:
“Making great progression. I think every day has been better for me out there on the field. You can’t recreate football by doing rehab or by doing just training on the side. So, I think for me, the last bit is actually getting out there and doing individual drills and then progressing to 7-on-7, then progressing to team period. I think I’m taking steps in the right direction. Still got weeks away till we play a game, a regular-season game, but just making good progression and moving at the pace that the trainers want me to move.”
This time around there was a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz. What he appreciated in Walker was his leadership.
Along with being a good tackler, for a defensive unit, intangibles are difficult to describe such as leadership, being in the weight room, and being a key voice in meeting rooms.
This season he was injured after starting 12 games and was placed on IR once again when he tweaked his knee during a practice. At the time, he had 44 tackles, four pass defenses, and a forced fumble. Walker had a procedure done pretty quickly and was evaluated weekly as to whether he would be able to come back later on the schedule as the 9-5-0 Browns had three regular-season games remaining.
The Browns had been decimated by injuries with Walker the 13th player on injured reserve, including nine who had significant roles since Week 1.
What should the Browns do with Walker this off-season? After all, he is once again a free agent.
Another one-year deal? Maybe a multi-year contract? Allow him to test the free agent market?
Before not re-signing him, a glance at the roster reveals his replacement would be either Phillips, Takitaki, or the undrafted rookie Diabate. Phillips is hurt every year. Takitaki is a good option but he is best at being slotted at the Will linebacker slot where his speed is an asset. And Diabate played sparingly in 2023 which means he is untested.
The fact that Walker has been injured himself and has missed his share of games is certainly something to consider. But when he is on the field, he plays at a high level. He’s a pros pro, and provides great leadership on and off the field.
Walker is the Browns 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. The seven-year veteran has served as the “Stay In The Game! Attendance Network Ambassador”, making him the face of Browns Foundation’s main philanthropic program.
And what Walker proved was not only a good player for the defense, but he has proven to be a tremendous teammate throughout his career. Not only an elected team captain, but he handled the defense’s play calls for a defense that was ranked as one of the top defensive units all year.
Walker is also a fan favorite in Cleveland. Over his three seasons with the Browns this far, the 28-year-old has totaled 170 tackles including seven for a loss.
And now that the off-season has officially begun for the Browns, has Berry been in contact with Walker about staying with the Browns? It just seems silly for the team to keep him on a one-year deal. What is it going to take for them to pony up a multi-year contract like they did with Ethan Pocic last year?
Coach Schwartz was a huge difference-maker for this defense. He requires great linebacker play to make his scheme work more dramatically than all the other defensive coordinators.
Rehab is not easy. The good news is that Walker’s recent injury was not severe. If re-signed, he would be ready for training camp.
If Myles Garrett is the heart of the Browns’ defense, is it possible Walker is its soul?
Should the Browns bring back Walker next year?