The Cleveland Browns linebacker room is the most enigmatic position group on the roster. Since Joe Woods joined the franchise as the defensive coordinator the linebacker has been in limbo. There is an obvious disconnect between media outlets evaluation of the position group and the organizations overall evaluation of the players on the roster. Yet without a doubt anyone with an opinion of the Cleveland Browns defense understood there was room for improvement this offseason.
Andrew Berry addressed the position group this offseason and added players through free agency and the draft. With the departure of 2020 free agent signee B.J. Goodson, the Browns added the likes of LB Anthony Walker and resigned Malcolm Smith to a one-year deal. Smith was a solid contributor last season playing the second most snaps behind B.J. Goodson. The addition of a young veteran in Anthony Walker from the Indianapolis Colts was a savvy value to signing to fill the void left by Goodson. These two players are the most experienced linebackers the Browns currently have on the roster.
The factor that makes the Browns linebacker room an enigma is the young players that fill out the room. Since 2019, the Browns have drafted five linebackers to help improve the second level of their defense. Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson were drafted in 2019 by John Dorsey in his final season as general manager. The following year Andrew Berry drafted Jacob Phillips out of LSU in the third round. Berry then double dipped at linebacker this year drafting Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields. For a position group that the Browns “de-emphasize” that is a significant amount resources used on the position.
Malcolm Smith – 6’ 225 lbs. | 31 Yrs, 10th Season
Anthony Walker – 6’ 1” 235 lbs. | 25 Yrs, 5th Season
Sione Takitaki – 6’ 1” 238 lbs. | 25 Yrs, 3rd Season
Tackles: 67 (2020) – 559 snaps
Tackles: 80 (2020)
Tackles: 19 (2019); 65 (2020) – 434 snaps
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – 6’1” 215 lbs | 21 Yrs, Rookie – Notre Dame
Jacob Phillips – 6’ 3” 229 lbs. | 22 Yrs, 2nd Season – LSU
Mack Wilson – 6’ 1” 233 lbs. | 23 Yrs, 3rd Season
Drafted in 2nd Round (2021)
Tackles: 22 (2020 – 9 Games) – 169 snaps
Tackles: 77 (2019); 36 (2020) – 372 snaps
Tony Fields – 6’ 1” 220 lbs. | N/A, Rookie – West Virginia
Elijah Lee – 6’ 3” 230 lbs. | 25 Yrs, 5th Season
Drafted in 5th Round (2021)
Montrel Meander – 6’ 2” 215 lbs. | 26 Yrs, 1st Season – Grambling St.
Special Teams/Bubble Player
Now there is a baseline understanding that the Joe Woods preferential defensive scheme 4-2-5, which only utilizes two linebackers. Traditionally base defenses with an even front would include three linebackers but as NFL offensives continue to evolve the use of defensive back increase. According to Football Outsiders, the usage of Nickel packages outweigh base defense by 29% and the use of Dime packages have increased. This statistic supports the argument of having more defensive backs on the field than traditional linebackers. Pay attention to the term “traditional” because defenses are beginning to evolve as undersized linebackers that can play space are becoming more valuable.
This is evident with the draft selections of linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tony Fields. JOK is a player that played linebacker in college but also consistently covered players in the slot. He is smaller than a traditional linebacker and is closer to the mold of a safety. While on the other hand Tony Fields athletic traits are more reminiscent of a linebacker than a defensive back. Yet, the pre-training camp expectation is that Fields will be groomed in a similar role as Owusu-Koramoah. Both of these players provide different playstyles to previous draft picks in Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki, and Mack Wilson.
Jacob Phillips may arguably be the biggest X-Factor in the linebacker group because of his limited play time as a rookie. Phillips was limited to nine games last season and dealt with a nagging knee injury throughout the year. An optimistic evaluation based on his draft stock is that he can grow into a three down player for the Browns defense. Coming out of LSU he showed traits of a player that can run sideline to sideline and was best attacking downhill in run support. One area of his game that needs more seasoning was his play in coverage due to his limited experience in college. If Phillips can develop in coverage he could become a vital cog in the Browns defense. The only issue is you don’t know exactly what you have in him as player as he enters his second season.
Speaking of sophomore seasons the players drafted in 2019 had very different trajectories last season. Mack Wilson entered 2020 having started fourteen games his rookie season and received valuable experience as a rookie. While Sione Takitaki played majority of his rookie year snaps contributing on special teams. Last season, the Browns saw Mack Wilson experience a sophomore slump as his play time decreased and his missed tackle rate increase. Yet, Takitaki showcased major improvement with more snaps defense and was the second highest graded run defending linebacker (89.3) in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
With the newly added talent to the linebacker group these draft mates are likely competing for the same roster spot. Wilson is player that played well in coverage during his time at Alabama but has suffered from inconsistent play in the NFL. Takitaki has to improve in coverage as well to earn more snaps but his production in the run game carves out a nice role on early downs. Also, there competition for a roster spot comes down to how many linebackers Andrew Berry intends to keep on the final 53-man roster. That is a question that will be answered following training camp as he could retain as little as five or on the higher end with six linebackers.
Projecting the final roster for week one is even more difficult as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah receives a concrete role in the defense. Will he be a linebacker as the coaching staff insisted on day two of the draft or will he fit more with the safety room as analysts predict?
During a draft weekend press conference Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta discussed how the team views their linebackers and hinted at the draft analysis for selecting one. He stated, "We are looking for pretty similar traits, whether they're playing on the strong side or weak side or even playing mike." He also noted, "We want guys who are very rangy, we want guys who can stay on the field, and can play against the run or the pass."
Based on DePodesta's comments it make sense how the young players added over the last two drafts are somewhat in a similar molds. Phillips, JOK and Fields are all rangy defenders and don't fit into an exact playstyle. That alone makes it difficult to project exactly where they would fit in a base 4-3 defense.
From the outside looking in, the description of a linebacker in the Browns defense is slightly convoluted as each of them brings something different to the table. Now that is not directly a negative as it can be valuable for Woods’ decision on how he chooses to deploy them. Malcolm Smith and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are expected to be heavily used in coverage in passing situations based on their skillsets. Anthony Walker and Sione Takitaki are thumpers and provide strong run support at the line of scrimmage.
Players that will need to carve out a role for themselves and provide value on special teams likely come down to Mack Wilson, Tony Fields, Elijah Lee and Montrel Meander. Bubble roster players typically find their way on a gameday roster based on the performance on special teams. Being a depth option is defense is always valuable but don’t be surprised if the final input on player is based on special teams coordinator Mike Priefer evaluation.
Listen to the BrownsDigest Podcast reviewing the Cleveland Browns 2021 NFL Draft picks.