With the amount of hype around Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a player that would've been hailed a success had the Cleveland Browns taken him in the first round, there's plenty of reason to be excited about how he can make an impact on the Browns defense while having reasonable expectations for his rookie year.
Without setting a cap on what Owusu-Koramoah can do, there are a few reasons why he may not start for this team while making sizable contributions. The fact that he can operate in multiple roles, which makes him valuable to this defense, is one reason he may not be a starter for this defense.
One school of thought is to have a player focus entirely on one position and master it before trying to expand. The other is to find specific roles where a player can thrive, regardless of where that puts them on the field.
Given the fact that Owusu-Koramoah may be playing his rookie year struggling to be around 220 pounds, focusing on him in roles as opposed to positions might be the best way to ensure his success.
His size isn't as big of a liability when the opponent can't regularly count on where he's going to be. For example, the Baltimore Ravens selected an undersized linebacker in Patrick Queen with their first round pick in 2020. He started out of the gate at middle linebacker with the hope he would grow into it over the course of the year. Queen started every game, but struggled and teams were able to run at him and throw at him. He may take a massive step forward in year two as he's able to fill out his frame, but Queen was a liability as a rookie.
The other issue that stands in the way of Owusu-Koramoah starting at weak side linebacker is Jacob Phillips, one of the team's third round pick in 2020. He dealt with a pair of knee injuries which limited his ability to contribute as a rookie, allowing plenty to discount him as a factor for this year.
The limited exposure for Phillips didn't prevent him from impressing in both training camp as well as in the opportunities he did have to play during the regular season. He could be between 10 and 20 pounds heavier than Owusu-Koramoah, having had an offseason to focus on improving his strength, which was one of the issues Phillips had coming out of college.
Phillips is smart, processes information quickly and plays fast. He also plays under more control than Owusu-Koramoah has to this point in their respective careers. He's a surer tackler, even if he's not an impact hitter.
It's not to say Owusu-Koramoah won't compete and try to prove he's the best option but it provides the Browns a base of which to operate. Phillips is a will linebacker. That's all he is. He does nothing else and has a year of experience with this coaching staff.
Meanwhile, Owusu-Koramoah could operate from the slot. Troy Hill may be the base to operate from for that position, but there could be situations where Owusu-Koramoah is the better option. Teams that might play bigger for example, utilizing more tight ends. And while Owusu-Koramoah is undersized as a linebacker, he's got terrific size as a slot defender.
He's not someone that should be playing too much man coverage against receivers, which is what Troy Hill can do at a high level. But when teams want to go bigger there, Owusu-Koramoah can be a specialist.
It seems more likely that Owusu-Koramoah will come in for Anthony Walker, the projected starting middle linebacker, as teams are put in more obvious passing situations, improving the team's options and speed in coverage. And whether it's an opponent or a particular game plan or just a package, he will likely have opportunities to contribute from the slot.
Owusu-Koramoah appears to be a bigger threat when he's an accent piece or a defensive weapon at least initially for defensive coordinator Joe Woods. If he proves to be so overwhelming that he necessitates being on the field every play, the coaching staff can adjust their approach.
In many ways, Owusu-Koramoah might be the embodiment of what the Browns wants to be defensively. Able to shape itself and adapt to different opponents. Not only does it allow the Browns to match up with a range of different offenses, but it also gives the Browns the ability to attack and potentially dictate what offenses can do.
The fact that the Browns could function largely without Owusu-Koramoah should allow him the freedom to be a specialist. One of the areas where the Browns excelled in the first year under Kevin Stefanski as head coach was how they could put rookies into positions where they were going to succeed.
For much of the of the 2020 season, rookies like Donovan Peoples-Jones, Harrison Bryant and Jordan Elliott were placed in positions could succeed, limiting their potential exposure. It can help breed confidence, giving them the sense that they belong in the NFL.
It would make for the Browns to take the same approach with Owusu-Koramoah. If he proves he can do more, they can expand his responsibilities. Unlike players added in previous drafts, Owusu-Koramoah can have an incredibly successful season and never be a starter or even have a defined position. Some of that is a reflection of the overall talent the Browns now have at their disposal, but it's also in part due to how the Browns intend to operate their defense.