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Malcolm Smith Must Retain Starting MIKE Linebacker Job

Since Anthony Walker has been out with an injury he suffered week one of the season, Malcolm Smith has filled in as the starting middle linebacker and there's little reason to go back to Walker at least for the moment.

While Anthony Walker returns from Injured Reserve, the Cleveland Browns must stick with the hot hand at the second level and keep Malcolm Smith atop the depth chart. 

The rise in dime personnel has certainly mitigated the lack of depth and talent at the second level in Cleveland. However, the play of Smith has also allowed for defensive coordinator Joe Woods and the fans alike to heavily exhale about concerns at the linebacker position.

Since Walker went out with an injury, Smith has taken over in the middle of the Cleveland defense, and has done so with great (and surprising) success. Now at the age of 32, not many would have expected this level of play from the former Super Bowl MVP in his 10th season in the league.

Getting the start in Week 2, Smith played 95 percent of the defensive snaps for the Browns against the Houston Texans. He followed that up with a snap count of 67 percent of the snaps against the Chicago Bears, and 76 percent against the Minnesota Vikings. 

On the season, Smith has a PFF grade of 74.5. Over the past two weeks, Smith's run defense grade has hit 68.1 and 64.4 respectively. In coverage, however, Smith has hit high marks each week that Walker has been out. Against the Texans, Smith had a coverage grade of 91.3, followed by coverage grades of 76.9 and 72.5 respectively. 

As Walker is set to return to the Browns, there is a path to get him back on the field. However, giving him the starting job over Smith would be a mistake the Browns cannot make. He's remaining disciplined to his run fits, playing gaps over chasing the football (which is a rare sight for these Browns' linebackers historically. He is playing well in coverage and forcing receivers to re-route while helping his defensive backs leverage.

A week ago, the now released linebacker Elijah Lee found a decent sized role against the Vikings despite Smith's success. This is where the Browns can look to fit Walker back on the field. 

In dime packages, Lee replaced Smith in the middle of the defense. He also stepped in on a rotational basis in some nickel packages as well based on down-and-distance. Given it looked like the Browns took Smith off the field in obvious passing situations, Walker could see those snaps this week against the Los Angeles Chargers.

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The difference is, however, Walker has never seen much success as a coverage linebacker throughout his career. After four years with the Indianapolis Colts, there is a pretty glaring reason he was allowed to walk and only ushered a one-year deal worth just $3 million and $1.75 million in guaranteed money. 

During his four years with the Colts, Walker never saw a PFF grade higher than 65.2, and even that came during his rookie season. In fact, his last year in Indianapolis he tallied just a grade of 45.5; he had a run defense grade of just 41.5 and a coverage grade of 52.2.

Although it was only one game as he went on Injured Reserve after the season-opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, Walker tallied just a 59.6 grade on the day. He had a coverage grade of 61.1 and a run defense grade of 53.6.

The easy, but difficult-to-swallow answer to the Walker conundrum is really that he is not good enough to accommodate the way teams would normally do for starters. Smith is playing at a far higher level than could have been anticipated for a guy who was picked up as an emergency depth piece a year ago.

It is never a fun situation when a player is replaced due to injury, but that is where the Browns currently sit with their MIKE linebacker situation. Work Walker in with a rotational role as he returns from an injury, but there is nothing that insists he would even be the better linebacker in passing situations. 

As the lethal aerial attack of the Los Angeles Chargers come to town, the Browns will more than likely face another heavy dose of nickel and dime packages as they look to match personnel. Not only is Smith the best option in base packages, but is the better linebacker overall for this week's matchup and into the future. Ride the hot hand and keep Smith on the field.

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