While the Browns spared few expenses to upgrade their offense this offseason, they spent more cautiously to help their defense. Case in point: They deemed both Jack Conklin and Austin Hooper worth more guaranteed money than their six defensive free agent additions combined.
No position group suffered a more significant loss than the Cleveland linebackers. After letting Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey — the two longest-tenured Browns defenders — walk in free agency, the Browns signed B.J. Goodson to a one-year veteran’s minimum contract and drafted Jacob Phillips in the third round of last month’s NFL Draft.
Phillips and Goodson join second-year players Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki as linebackers likely to compete for defensive snaps. Wilson and Takitaki have started 15 combined NFL games.
The Browns will need competent linebacker play in Lamar Jackson’s AFC North. In addition to catalyzing the Ravens’ top-ranked rushing attack (206 yards per game), Jackson threw to his tight ends more often (41 percent of the time according to sharpfootballstats.com) than any other NFL quarterback.
So what can we expect from the Browns’ new linebacking core? Here’s a breakdown of each player’s path to productivity.
1. Mack Wilson
Wison started 14 games at right outside linebacker last season and played 89 percent of the Browns defensive snaps overall. Wilson managed 82 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble from that position.
He’ll have to learn new terminology under new defensive coordinator Joe Woods, but he might return to his college position. Wilson started 14 games at middle linebacker during his last season at Alabama, and ESPN projects him to reprise that role in Cleveland this season.
Is he ready to fill the void left by Schobert? That’s a big ask for a second-year player who hasn’t played MLB in the pros yet, but Wilson has shown more on-field promise than any other linebacker on the Browns roster. He’s the most likely Schobert replacement.
2. B.J. Goodson
Entering his fifth NFL season, Goodson is the most experienced player in this group. Goodson has never played more than half of his team’s defensive snaps in one season, but the Browns need somebody to lead this position group, and Goodson’s experience gives him the best chance.
Whether he leads on the practice field or on Sundays is the more interesting question. Goodson said last week that he sees himself as a middle linebacker, but ESPN’s Browns depth chart lists Goodson as a weak-side starter alongside Wilson in the middle.
Kevin Stefanski coached against Goodson twice last season when Stefanski was the Vikings offensive coordinator and Goodson played for the Packers. The fact that the Browns signed Goodson with Stefanski’s input on personnel move suggests Stefanski believes in Goodson. Regardless of Goodson’s on-field role, however, his value this season depends on his ability to help his teammates grow.
3. Sione Takitaki
Takitaki played double the amount of special teams snaps (245) compared to defensive snaps (105). He accrued 21 tackles, one quarterback hurry and allowed two complete passes during those snaps, but it’s hard to draw conclusions about his future from such a limited sample size.
During his college career at BYU, Takitaki played inside and outside linebacker. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler praised Takitaki’s pursuit speed and aggression before the 2019 NFL Draft, but Brugler ultimately graded Takitaki as a sixth-round prospect because of his “tweener” body type.
Takitaki’s best path forward seems to be as a tough guy who outperforms his physical traits. He’s got the chance to prove himself this season.
4. Jacob Phillips
The Browns drafted Phillips in the third round, which was a bit higher than experts projected him. In four seasons at LSU, he tallied 218 tackles (13.5 of which went for losses), one interception (Phillips returned it for a touchdown) and a forced fumble.
Brugler graded Phillips as the 17th-best linebacker in this year’s draft. Despite Phillips’ impressive college production, Brugler noted that Phillips was too often taken off the field on passing downs at LSU. That combined with Phillips’ “average play strength” inspired Brugler to assign Phillips a fifth-round grade and project him as a special-teams player.
In short, Phillips is probably a depth piece in 2019. But his knack for making plays could be useful to the Browns down the line.
Source: Forbes Business