The Browns will be weighed down with questions when — I’m assuming there will be a season — they report for training camp.
Among the most pressing is who will get the snaps at linebacker, and at which spots.
New coordinator Joe Woods doesn’t have the answer after free agency, the draft and nearly two months of the virtual offseason program.
“That is a good question,” Woods said recently on a Zoom conference call when asked where each linebacker fits in his 4-3 system. “Right now, we are giving them some primary positions to learn, but Coach Tarver and Coach Bloom are really trying to cross-train most of the linebackers.”
Jason Tarver is the linebackers coach and Ben Bloom a senior defensive assistant under first-year coach Kevin Stefanski. Woods spent 2019 as pass game coordinator/defensive backs coach for the 49ers after two years as coordinator for the Broncos.
The defensive staff inherited a reduced roster at linebacker after Christian Kirksey was cut to save money following a run of injuries and Joe Schobert was allowed to leave in free agency. Mack Wilson started 14 games as a rookie on the weak side last year, but Sione Takitaki played only 105 defensive snaps in his first season. Takitaki was a third-round pick and Wilson a fifth-rounder.
First-time general manager Andrew Berry added veteran B.J. Goodson in free agency and drafted LSU’s Jacob Phillips in the third round (No. 97 overall). Wilson seems like the best bet when predicting a starting lineup, but if he’ll stay on the weak side or move to the middle remains uncertain.
“This is going to be a situation where once we get on the field and we start running our defense, it is going to be how well they fit in a specific position,” Woods said. “Are they capable of making plays, based on the scheme? It is going to be something we are going to have to feel out once we get back for training camp.
“I will tell you what, all of those guys in the meetings really have been doing a good job, so I know mentally they can handle it. It is just physically, what are they capable of doing?”
The Browns have pushed through with the offseason program, refusing to use no in-person meetings and practices as an excuse, even with a new coaching staff. But the lack of on-field repetitions for the players and familiarity for the coaches present an obstacle at linebacker. They’ll have about six weeks of training camp to figure out things before the season opener, which is scheduled for Sept. 13 in Baltimore.
If Wilson remains a starter and stays on the field in passing situations, as is my early expectation, that leaves two starting spots open for competition — one of which will head to the sideline in passing situations.
Goodson sounds confident about starting in the middle after signing a one-year, $2.4 million deal. Takitaki was the backup to Schobert in the middle last year but could slide outside. Phillips was a tackling machine at LSU, and Berry projected him on the weak side, but his coordinator in college, Dave Aranda, prefers him in the middle or on the strong side.
The lack of proven NFL talent — Goodson has started 29 games in four years — has left many fans anxious about the second level of the defense and hoping for another veteran to be added by training camp. Berry is open to improving the roster in any way possible, but he and Stefanski seem comfortable with a youth movement at the position.
“The youth is a good thing. It is a hungry group,” Stefanski said during the draft. “We are going to roll a bunch of guys out there and see what we have. The youth doesn’t really bother me so much as just getting our hands on them and starting to develop these guys.”
Prioritizing the defensive line and secondary over linebacker is a sound organizational decision. But it’s foolish to think linebacker doesn’t matter.
The Browns have been awful against the run since returning in 1999, including ranking 30th last year (144.7 per game, 5.0 per rush) with Steve Wilks as coordinator. And even as the NFL leans more and more toward passing, running the ball will never go out of style in the AFC North. A run defense is only as good as its linebackers.
If the Browns contend for the playoffs this year, they will owe former GM John Dorsey a thank you after he orchestrated a roster renovation in his two seasons. That’d be especially true if Wilson and Takitaki become integral parts of the defense.
“They are both athletic. They have cover skills. They have range,” Woods said. “They play with a nasty demeanor. Both of those guys just look like what we want in a linebacker: athletic, play physical and run to the ball. I think they are a natural fit. They are just both young guys who need to keep gaining experience.”
With an abundance of three-receiver sets across the league, the nickel defense — a third cornerback replacing the third linebacker — has become the primary personnel package for many coordinators. Woods wants the nickel and dime — three corners, three safeties, one linebacker — at his disposal.
“I would like to transition into a dime system, but it is going to be something that is going to take time to get into, just because of getting their reps,” he said. “Eventually, I would like to have a nickel package but also, just to create better matchups and be a little bit more diverse in our scheme, I would like to get to a dime package, where we are putting an extra safety on the field.”
That would also lessen the uncertainty and uneasiness about the situation at linebacker.