In the 2019 NFL Draft, Cleveland selected two linebackers. Sione Takitaki in the third round, and Mack Wilson in the fifth. Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey were entrenched as starters, and since defensive coordinator Steve Wilks liked to play nickel (five defensive backs and two linebackers) as his base defense, the thought was that the rookies would only have to contribute on special teams. Schobert was one of the league’s elite coverage linebackers, and the quarterback of the Cleveland defense. Kirksey had suffered through injuries in previous seasons, but was a very solid player when healthy.
That plan changed in Week 2 when Kirksey suffered a torn pectoral which landed him on injured reserve. Wilson was forced to start for the remainder of the campaign, and he played like a fifth-round rookie forced into significant playing time before he was ready. He was one of the NFL’s worst LBs, but he shouldn’t be written off; he was in a bad situation. Wilson can certainly improve, but he shouldn’t be counted on to play at a high level in 2020. If he does, fantastic.
Cleveland also drafted LSU’s Jacob Phillips in the third round of the 2020 draft, selecting him over Appalachian State’s Akeem Davis-Gaither and Ohio State’s Malik Harrison. Phillips is extremely explosive and was the best tackler in college football last season, but he also makes very little impact in the passing game.
So the Browns LB group looks like this: Mack Wilson, Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki, Tae Davis, Trevon Young, B.J. Goodson, Willie Harvey, and Jermaine Grace. There are likely only five or six spots up for grabs, which makes it a very competitive group. We can also get some insight into how the team views the position based on the two main acquisitions they have made in Goodson and Phillips.
Neither cost the Browns very much; Phillips was a late third-round selection acquired via the Duke Johnson trade with the Houston Texans last year. Cleveland had a higher third-rounder, which they traded down and turned into an extra third in 2021. Goodson is tied for 73rd in salary out of all linebackers. The Browns spend the third-least cap space ($7.5 million) on the position out of all teams. Goodson has a specific skillset – he plugs holes and he fills run fits. Phillips does the same, and both tackle well. It seems the Browns want their mike linebacker to sniff out the run first, which is counterintuitive to today’s prototype linebacker, who is athletic, fast, and can cover well. Yet, Bobby Wagners and Luke Kuechlys don’t exactly grow on trees.
Playing with five defensive backs and just two LBs will likely be Cleveland’s base defense. New defensive coordinator Joe Woods has even spoken about wanting to run dime (six DBs and one LB) as his base unit. It remains to be seen if this will happen, but the logic is sound. Stopping the pass has to be the priority, and it’s easier to do that with more DBs rather than LBs. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has also struggled when facing high numbers of DBs, so that will be a very interesting situation to monitor.