In a defense that is going to feature two linebackers, the Cleveland Browns have to determine who will play both spots. The coaching staff has said that the position is open and they have a number of young players vying for the job.
The reason that this position isn't higher on the list is pretty simple. The floor is one of the lowest on the team. In other words, the players that win these jobs may not be good and may not be the answer. There is definitely upside, but the most proven entity in the group is B.J. Goodson.
Goodson was brought in first and foremost for being a professional and someone that the Browns believe can be a positive presence in the linebacker room. He also can contribute on special teams. Goodson is a solid run defender that has been a liability in the passing game thus far in his career. A role player with a heart of gold.
The next most experienced option is Mack Wilson, who was dreadful for the Browns as a rookie. As a fifth round pick who came out a year earlier than he should have from Alabama due to financial hardship, he was forced into the starting lineup when Chris Kirksey suffered a season-ending injury. Wilson looked like a player that came out a year too early and would've benefited from another year of college football.
Wilson, when he knows the pass is coming, is effective. He's got a good first step, takes appropriate angles and can play the ball. In the preseason, he showed that when he intercepted a pair of passes, leading many to believe he was going to be great.
The problem for Wilson is he doesn't know what he's looking at when it comes to reading the offense and processing information on the fly. Alabama often hid that by simply blitzing him, eliminating the need to read anything. He'd make highlight plays going full bore down hill as part of the scheme. When he was asked to read and react, he often struggled.
It was bad enough that Joe Schobert would get blamed by fans for plays that Wilson was responsible to make, because he was so woefully out of position. That's the area he must improve or Wilson will be a role player on obvious pass situations, maybe, and largely help on special teams, where he does provide a meaningful benefit.
There's a lot to like with Sione Takitaki, between his overwhelming physicality and his athleticism. A hamstring injury caused him to miss several weeks and multiple preseason games, which was a major setback.
Takitaki did get some reps and in a tiny sample size, was great attacking the line of scrimmage. And based on what he did in college and the way he's built, that should be a strength for him. A former edge rusher, Takitaki thrives playing through contact, operating downhill, finding the ball.
His experience in pass coverage at BYU was almost non-existent. That's been a major focus for him this offseason. He has been mentioned as a weak side linebacker, but he really seems built to be play in the middle. Jason Tarver, the team's linebackers coach, insists the positions are the same, save for where they line up on the field. If the weak side linebacker is going to stay in the box most of the time, then it really doesn't matter all that much.
The Browns added Jacob Phillips in the draft in the third round out of LSU. The team loves his intelligence and on film, it's easy to see how quickly he processes information and reacts accordingly. He plays fast and is able to make plays because he doesn't hesitate and beats opponents to the spot.
Physicality when he takes on contact can be inconsistent and while Phillips thrives playing forward, he does not look comfortable when his back is to the ball. His experience there is limited and seemingly with good reason. Phillips is only 21 years old so the physicality may take care of itself with time. The rest requires reps and experience.
The intelligence may be what gives him a chance to win one of these jobs. He played weak side linebacker for LSU, leading the team in tackles. They didn't ask him to play out of the box too often, which could be the same situation with the Browns. If the speed of the game doesn't negate how quickly he plays, that could be enticing for the Browns to put him in there and let him grow.
One player that might be worth keeping an eye on is Willie Harvey. Harvey was an undrafted free agent last year and while he wasn't overwhelming physically, he kept making tackles in preseason games. Given the way the Browns defense seems likely to work, if he improved his athleticism and strength in the offseason, he might be able to impress the coaches.
The best case scenario is whoever wins the job, they show enough where the Browns don't feel they need to take them out depending on the situation. If the positions are reduced to roles, it might be the best for the defense overall, but it wouldn't suggest that anyone has impressed enough to truly grab hold of one of the jobs.
It's important to note that this group is incredibly young. Wilson is only 22 with Phillips only 21. Takitaki is a sneaky 25, which is all the more reason he needs to get it going quickly. The Browns don't want to make a big investment in terms of draft capital or salary cap at the linebacker position, save for perhaps a finishing piece that they believe can get them to a Super Bowl.
So while the Browns linebackers are young and they can grow, the front office likely isn't too attached to any of them. They will just keep adding cheap free agents and mid to late round draft picks until hit on guys that can do enough while the defensive line and secondary do the heavy lifting on defense.
Linebacker may be the most highlighted battle of training camp, but unless someone proves a revelation, it may not be terribly significant who wins the two jobs. The question is less who will win these jobs as much as it is whether any of them are good enough to make a meaningful difference this year.