One thing that has been a hallmark for defenses under Mike Pettine has been inside linebacker. When he was with Rex Ryan in Baltimore, that meant Ray Lewis. When he and Ryan went to the Jets, Pettine is reportedly the man who wanted Bart Scott—badly. Also, it wasn’t until the Bills’ third pick last year, but it was the second round when they found it a priority to go get Oregon’s Kiko Alonso.1 With Mike Pettine coming to Cleveland, it’s safe to assume that the Browns will address the center of their defense.
D’Qwell Jackson, the team’s current middle linebacker and captain, is owed a lot of money this year. If they cut him, it will add about $4.2 million in dead money to the books, but if they keep him, it will cost them over $8 million. Maybe there’s a middle ground and a forthcoming re-negotiation that works for both parties. Craig Robertson had a year. That’s about the best I can say for him. It wasn’t the worst year ever, but it wasn’t the kind of year that will keep anyone thinking he’s much more than a backup.
Between the draft and free agency, I expect that to be a place the Browns make some moves.
In the 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers need to work together, make reads and play instinctive football. With three defensive linemen in front of them, they have a good opportunity to read the gaps. The nose tackle works on the center and hopefully demands a double team. So the linebackers need to watch and see which guard goes to double team. They’re also looking at fullbacks if they’re in the formation. Ultimately they need to figure out what they’re doing by reading the guards, but if they’re not on the same page, it creates holes in the center of the defense. Other than quarterback, the Browns’ lack of a true playmaker at linebacker has been one of the most notable absences since 1999.
Assuming the Browns address the spot, they can do so either through free agency or the draft. I haven’t done any kind of exhaustive research, but here are some names.
I assume, based on past experience, that anyone with an age starting with the number three is likely not a candidate for the Browns. Also, I have no idea if Brandon Spikes will be considered as he’s had some high profile run-ins with the snow in New England. (Seriously though, he was reportedly nearly released by Belichick and company. I always assume information on a player like that will have an easy time finding its way straight to Michael Lombardi.) I’ve watched Pat Angerer play a good amount. His biggest issue is that he’s played in only 11 games in each of the past two seasons. In 2013 he was dealing with an undisclosed knee injury that he decided to play through until he couldn’t anymore and was placed on the IR in December.
For the Buckeyes fans, Ryan Shazier is considered a 4-3 OLB at Walter Football. He’s projected with a 1-2 round grade. I’m unsure what Pettine and the Browns’ thoughts are on players and how they project to their scheme in the NFL. Guys like UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack are big time prospects with huge draft possibilities as well depending on how the Browns place them on their board.
We will see how the Browns address it this off-season. I expect them to be even more aggressive this year than last. We know they’ll have to be more aggressive in the draft with the number of picks they loaded up by trading picks last year. I expect the same thing in free agency because they can’t afford to leave the tiniest inkling that they haven’t supported their second first-time head coach in two years.