The Cleveland Browns start training camp in little over a week. They have had a big offseason full of big-name additions and huge stories. One of the positions that the Browns addressed during the offseason once again was linebacker. The weakest part of this group last season was the inside linebackers. So, the Browns knew they had to upgrade these two spots on the team. The first move was the release of D’Qwell Jackson. At the start of free agency, the Browns signed veteran Karlos Dansby to fill the vacant inside linebacker. They also signed Zac Diles in free agency and finished working on the position with the drafting of Christian Kirksey.
The Browns will also look for improvements from the players already on the team to help make this position stronger. Lets take a look at the linebacker depth chart for the 2014-15 NFL season.
Projected Linebacker Depth Chart
Left Outside Linebacker
Paul Kruger was the Browns’ big addition last offseason. He had an up and down 2013 season with games where he disappeared and others where he was very good. Last season, he started all sixteen games posting 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five passes defended, and two forced fumbles. He is entering his sixth season in the NFL and played his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. He was part of the Ravens Super Bowl Winning team in 2012.
Kruger is an outside linebacker with very good pass-rushing skills. He is a solid athlete with good strength to push offensive linemen. He has multiple pass rush moves to get to the backfield and get the sack. He is a versatile player because he can also go back into coverage as he possesses the ability to stay with tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. He is very good at getting his hands up in the passing lanes to knock down passes. He is a quality rush defender because of his ability to play sideline to sideline, but Kruger is known for his pass rushing skills first and foremost.
Kruger needs to be a constant nuisance in the backfield and get more sacks this coming season. The Browns, while defending Kruger in the wake of low sack totals, are looking for a much bigger year this season. He will be the starting left inside linebacker and will be looked upon as a leader of the front seven. If he can regain his success from his final year with the Ravens, then the Browns will be very happy.
Eric Martin is a second-year outside linebacker from Nebraska. The New Orleans Saints signed him as an undrafted free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft. He was waived before the season and picked up by the Browns on waivers. Last season for the Browns he had eight tackles and one fumble recovery. He is a very athletic linebacker and ran a 4.53 second 40-yard dash at his college pro day. He is a 6-foot-2-inch, 250-pound special team player for the Browns. He played most of the time on special teams coverage. He could develop into a contributor in the linebacker rotation because of his very good athleticism, but look for his continued use on special teams. He will battle with Magee for a spot on the team.
Brandon Magee is entering his second year from Arizona State. The Dallas Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft. The Browns signed him after he was released at the end of training camp. In eight games last season with the Browns, he had five tackles. His only action for the most part was on special teams. He is only 5-feet-11-inches and 235-pounds, but he is very athletic, running a 4.56 second 40-yard dash at his college pro day. He will compete with Martin for a spot as the backup left outside linebacker. The winner of the job will most likely be whoever plays the best on special teams.
Left Inside Linebacker
Craig Robertsonpar year last season. Entering his fourth season in the NFL from the University of North Texas, he was a 2011 undrafted free agent who went unsigned until the Browns signed him late in the 2011 season. In 2013, he played in fourteen games and started in every one of the games at inside linebacker. He posted 85 tackles, three sacks, three passes defended, one interception, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. In two seasons with the team, he has 178 tackles, four sacks, six passes defended, three interceptions, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
Last season was his first full season as starter and with that title he struggled to match the previous season’s early success, as he was abused in the passing game. Robertson, in 2013, allowed 86.2 percent of his targets to be caught, allowing an average of 11.1 yards. ProFootballFocus rated Robertson as the worst coverage inside linebacker in the NFL.
Robertson is a smaller linebacker at 6-feet-1-inches and 234-pounds. Robertson is an athletic player who was asked to cover slot receivers and backs out of the backfield. He did well at this task in his rookie season, but struggled in coverage most of last season. He had a lot of tackles, but was not much of a run defender at the line of scrimmage because of his smaller frame. He has pretty good ability to blitz the quarterback because of his speed. He will be battling for the starting left inside linebacker spot with rookie Chris Kirksey. He may have the disadvantage because of Kirksey’s coverage skills and link to the current coaching staff.
The Browns selected Chris Kirksey in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He played four years at the University of Iowa and earned a starting spot in sophomore season. In his senior season last season, he had 104 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one pass defended, and one interception. In his career, he has 315 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, six passes defended, four interceptions, and two touchdowns. He was a very productive player in college and a team captain for the Hawkeyes.
Kirksey is an excellent cover linebacker because of his athleticism. He is a 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound linebacker, who ran a 4.58 second 40-yard dash at his college pro day. He can cover small slot receivers and running backs out of the backfield. He plays from sideline to sideline and can help out in run defense, too. He uses his quick feet to get past blockers and make plays in the backfield. His biggest question mark is his size and strength. He must add bulk and strength in order to play close to the line and be effective in run stopping. He could get stuck behind blocks because of his lack of strength. Kirksey will compete against Robertson for the left inside linebacker starting spot. He will immediately help out on special teams, but could very well win the starting job at left inside linebacker.
Darius Eubanks is 2013 undrafted free agent from Georgia Southern University. He was originally signed by Minnesota Vikings, but was waived before the season. The Browns signed him to their practice squad and then promoted him to the active squad to for the last nine games of last season. He posted 12 tackles last season and had one start. He is a lean player at 6-feet-2-inches, 222-pounds, but is very athletic. He ran an outstanding 4.48 second 40-yard dash at his college pro day. He played both linebacker and safety in his career at Georgia Southern. He will battle with Zac Diles and Tank Carder for one of the last spots on the inside linebacker depth chart. He could make it because of versatility to play special teams and his excellent athleticism.
Right Inside Linebacker
The Browns first addition in free agency was the signing of ten-year veteran Karlos Dansby. Last season, he played for the Arizona Cardinals. In the 2013 season, he posted 122 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 19 passes defended, four interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and two touchdowns. He had a great season, earning second-team All-Pro honors. ProFootballFocus graded Dansby as the fourth-best inside linebacker in pass coverage in 2013 (and fifth-best overall), serving as a big upgrade over the departed D’Qwell Jackson.
Dansby is one of the most versatile linebackers in the NFL. He is very good at both run and pass defense. He is a big linebacker at 6-feet-3-inches, 251-pounds with very good athleticism to make plays from sideline to sideline. He can guard big tight ends and quick slot receivers because of his combination of size and speed. He has long arms to knock passes at the line of scrimmage and in coverage. He is also very good at filling the gaps and making plays in the run game. He can disengage from blocks because of his size. He has the ability to get to the quarterback because of his athleticism. He is very smart at reading the play and making the right move to stop it. He will immediately be a leader on the defense and he has been very durable throughout his career. Dansby gives the Browns someone who can make plays and be a playmaker.
Dansby’s only question mark is his age. He is 32-year old veteran of the NFL, so he may see some decline in his play over the next few seasons. But for right now, he is a huge upgrade for this already talented defense. He is slated to start at right inside linebacker and be a team leader on the defense. His addition could make the Browns an even more complete defense then they were last season.
Tank Carder is entering his third season in the NFL from Texas Christian University. He was drafted in fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. He was waived before the season and later claimed by the Browns. He has played in fifteen games in each of his first two seasons with the Browns. Last season, he posted fifteen tackles and had one start. He is an athletic linebacker, who plays well in zone coverage and in space. He struggles covering quick players and is not a man-to-man cover linebacker. He can make plays in the backfield and from sideline to sideline. He struggles to breakaway from blocks, so he is not great at the line of scrimmage. He will compete with Zac Diles and Darius Eubanks for a spot in the linebacker depth chart. He could stick because of his special teams ability.
Zac Diles is a seven-year veteran in the NFL from Kansas State. He has played for four teams in career and last season was with the Tennessee Titans. He only played two games last season and notched one tackle. In his career, he has 238 tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception, and three passes defended. He will battle with Eubanks and Carder for one of last spots in the linebacker depth chart. He might have a hard time making the team.
Right Outside Linebacker
Jabaal Sheard is arguably the Browns’ best pass rusher. He is entering his fourth season with the Browns after they drafted him in the second round in the 2011 NFL Draft from the University of Pittsburgh. Last season for the Browns, he had 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks, four passes defended, one forced, and one fumble recovery, finishing in the top 10 for all outside linebackers per ProFootballFocus despite only playing and started in thirteen games because of injuries. He converted to linebacker after previously playing defensive end in his first two seasons.
Sheard is a skilled pass rusher with multiple moves to get to the quarterback. He is 6-feet-3-inches and 264 pounds, but has a very good first step off the line. He can use finesse moves like swim moves and also can use strong moves like bull rushes. He is very agile and athletic for a player his size, so he can get around the edge very well. His hands and arm length are a great asset, which helps him get away from blockers. Sheard has long arms to disrupt the passing lanes and knock passes down. He is a solid run defender because of his athleticism and size for the outside linebacker position. He is versatile enough to play standing up or with his hands in the dirt.
Sheard is a bigger outside linebacker, so he can get beat by quick backs in coverage and the run game. That is not a huge problem because he is not asked to do much coverage assignments. He is a very good pass rusher and one who can disrupt the passing game. He is set to be the starter at the right outside linebacker spot. He will be looked upon as a player who will be a major factor in the pass rush.
Barkevious Mingo is a super athletic linebacker who needs to improve from his average rookie season. The Browns drafted him in first round of the 2013 NFL Draft from Louisiana State University. In his first season in the NFL, he played in fifteen games posting 42 tackles, five sacks, and four passes defended. He had an up and down season last year, but still has a lot of talent to become a very good outside linebacker.
Mingo is a lean player at 6-feet-4-inches, 240-pounds, but has excellent athleticism. At the 2013 NFL Combine, he ran a 4.58 second 40-yard dash, jumped 37-inches in the vertical jump, and jumped 128-inches in broad jump. He has the ability to get to the quarterback because of his speed and athleticism. He has the makings of a good cover linebacker because of his ability to stay with quicker players, but has plenty of work to do as he finished dead last in 2013 as ranked by ProFootballFocus.
His biggest question marks are strength and football IQ. He is very thin and lacks strength to play at the line of scrimmage. He can get stuck in blocks because of inability to rip away from the blocker. This hurts him in pass and rush defense. He is also very raw on his technique and awareness. He does not have much pass rushing moves besides a spin move and speed rush. He also does not know how to play in coverage and how to diagnose plays well enough yet to be effective. He must improve in the classroom so that he can be a better linebacker. This is a big year for Mingo. He could make a huge step this year and make the Browns even more lethal on defense.
Justin Staples is a second year player from the University of Illinois. He went undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft and played for the Browns in the preseason last year. He was cut before the regular season, but went on and off the Browns’ practice squad throughout the season. He did not play in games during the 2013 season. He is a local product from St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. He is a long shot to make the roster, but could be an option for the practice squad.
The Cleveland Browns have very good outside linebackers and added a very good inside linebacker. The biggest question mark of the linebackers will be the left inside linebacker position. The battle between Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey will be a big one to watch. Robertson had a bad season last year, which caused a vulnerable area in the defense. The Browns will need an upgrade at this spot. Kirksey could end up being the answer because of his ability to cover. If this position can be shored up, the linebacker group could be a strength of the defense.
Karlos Dansby gives the Browns a big upgrade at the right inside linebacker. D’Qwell Jackson was a solid player, but Dansby was one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL last season. Dansby upgrades the pass defense and gives the team a leader in the front seven. The outside linebackers are very good, too. Paul Kruger had an average year last season, but he could see an improvement because of Mike Pettine’s aggressive defense. Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger should team up to give the Browns a pass rush that could be hard to block. If Barkevious Mingo can improve and show off his talents, then the Browns will have a lot of success getting after the quarterback. The linebackers should be one of the better position groups on the defense.
(Photo by: AP Photo/Gail Burton)