Over the next couple weeks on WFNY, I will be breaking down the film on all seven draft picks of the Cleveland Browns. As fans, we often rely on mainstream draft analysts to give us certain traits and characteristics that we use to form our opinions. Rather than simply tell you positives and negatives, the goal of this series is to better inform you by showing evidence, in GIF form, of the skills each prospect possess and areas they each must improve upon. Past film rooms: Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Joel Bitonio
Having watched film of all six members of the Cleveland Browns’ 2014 NFL Draft class, a clear theme is apparent. Each draftee possesses a very particular set of skills that perfectly fit into what Mike Pettine desires to do with his defense or how Kyle Shannahan plans to run his offense. The selection of Christian Kirksey continues to push this message as he provides the Browns with his elite coverage abilities, of which the Browns desperately needed last season, and fits the mold of an incredibly versatile linebacker.
Kirksey is blessed with a tall, lanky body to which he will be able to add muscle at the NFL level. However, because of his body, Kirksey may not be the savior from Craig Robinson as an every down inside linebacker that Cleveland fans had hoped. Last season, as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, Mike Pettine started Kiko Alonso and Arthur Moats as inside linebackers. Alonso, the strongside inside linebacker weighted in at 238 pounds and stood 6-foot-3. Karlos Dansby will likely play his role. Arthur Moats, the weakside inside linebacker weighed in at 250 pounds, standing 6-foot-2. At 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds, Kirksey plays much better in space, away from offensive linemen.
Despite his lack of size at the linebacker position, Kirksey has managed to turn this into a positive. Instead of spending all his time in the box, the Iowa defense often used him as a nickel linebacker, covering wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. This versatility will be a blessing for Mike Pettine who can use him in many different roles in his complex defense.
Great in Coverage:
When watching Christian Kirksey play linebacker, you immediately notice how Iowa puts him in the best position to succeed on both runs and passes. Playing strong-side linebacker, Kirksey is often lined up on the outside of the tight end or even lined up over a slot receiver. Iowa’s scheme is designed to use Kirksey as a backside run defender as well as a nickel linebacker who can cover any tight end, receiver, or back out of the backfield. He is well above-average while playing man or zone coverage and is very fluid in his hips and intelligent in his coverage.
Against Michigan, Kirksey spent most of the game outside the box, lined up against the slot receiver. In this formation, he was playing one-on-one man coverage on the receiver who ran inside. The receiver on the line took off for a seam route and Kirksey, in perfect position, got his hands on him for a jam, re-routing him inside. Even though he is covering a wide receiver, he is able to run stride-for-stride, in perfect coverage, with one safety over top. Because of the blitz, Iowa is running cover one and Kirksey must lock down a wide receiver with extremely limited help.
On third-and-ten, Kirksey is once again in man coverage against a wide receiver. Due to the blitz by a linebacker and a safety, the defense is left in cover one and Kirksey must lock down the smaller, faster wide receiver. Although Kirksey is a small linebacker, he is much larger than most slot receivers. Thus, he is again able to play press defense, pushing the receiver further inside than he wanted to go. Then, he is able to run on the back hips, stride-for-stride, playing perfect coverage. Because of the successful press at the beginning, the receiver Kirksey is covering nearly runs straight into his teammate.
Explosive at Point of Attack, Physical:
One of my favorite parts of Christian Kirksey’s game is his seeming intent to do bodily harm to everyone he plays against. This comes in many forms. Since he often lined up outside, Kirksey would react to screens or outside runs on his side by attempting to hit the wide receiver he lined up over into the backfield. When taking on lead blocks, he would contain the outside (his job almost on every play) and try and hit the blocker into the backfield. Watching Kirksey try to de-cleat wide receivers will never get old and I expect him to bring this physicality to the NFL, as it helps make up for his lack of size and strength.
On this swing pass to the running back, Kirksey has a simple job: Keep outside contain. Immediatly when he reads swing pass, Kirksey hits the receiver who tried to block him back in the backfield. This re-routes the ball as Kirksey now has outside contain and the running back must cut the ball upfield into the area in which the defense has been designed to flow. The success of defense was entirely due to Kirksey dominating the wide receiver and forcing the swing pass to go inside rather than go to the sideline, as the play is designed to do.
Against LSU, Kirksey mainly lined up on the line of scrimmage, outside the tight end, and played more of a traditional outside linebacker role. On this play, Kirksey’s main job is to take on the lead blocker, an offensive tackle and force the running back inside of him, into the teeth of the defense. He does a great job, surprising the lineman and driving him five yards into the backfield on contact. This forces the running back to immediately cut the ball up-field, rather than bounce it outside, forcing him to run straight into linebacker and linemen.
Sideline-to-Sideline, Great in Pursuit:
The single most exciting part of watching Christian Kirksey play is seeing him go sideline-to-sideline to make plays, never taking a second off to rest. Kirksey accounted for 103 tackles his senior season, but if they counted the amount of times he jumped on to a pile because he ran across the field to be part of the tackle, he would have to be pushing 200. When watching Kirksey, I never felt like he had great instincts against the run, but it often didn’t matter because he would hustle to the ball on every play.
On this play, Kirksey is lined up over the slot receiver on the left side of the field. When the ball is pitched to the running back, Kirksey ensures it is not a play action, then sprints across the entire field to jump on the pile. This play is so impressive because it is simply not normal. His combination of speed and effort to make a play are astounding. He out-hustled multiple fellow Hawkeyes to the ball.
On this play, Kirksey (No. 20) must not get reached by the tight end and attempt to push this play as far outside as possible, limiting the cut-back lanes. He does a great job keeping his head across the face of the tight end. Once he completely beats the reach, Kirksey is free to pursue the ball and beats his fellow linebackers to the sideline and the ball. He does a fantastic job pursuing the ball in all areas of the field and uses his exceptional speed to make plays all over the field.
Does his Job, Makes Winning Plays, Smart:
One of my favorite parts about Kirksey’s style of play is his insistence to do his job and play smart. He never leaves his duty to try to play “hero ball.” Whether Iowa needs someone to take on a lead block, keep contain on a play, or watch the cut-back lanes, Kirksey does his job to perfection. His willingness to do what is asked and his versatility in this aspect will allow Mike Pettine to move him all over the field. In fact, Kirksey’s best plays came from doing the dirty work and being in the right place at the right time.
On this play, Kirksey is tasked with keeping backside contain and preventing a play action rollout pass. Often, this results in Kirksey just following the running back from the backside to try and jump on a pile from behind. However, LSU attempts to do a naked bootleg against Kirksey and he is, as normal, in perfect position to prevent this. When Kirksey recognizes play action, his acceleration to the quarterback is extremely impressive. This is an instance of the dirty work finally paying off as single-handedly forces a throw-away pass on second down.