The Cleveland Browns lost both Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert to free agency this offseason. @JoeytheToothIDP helps us sort out the Browns linebacker depth chart.
The Browns were probably the biggest disappointment of the 2019 NFL season. Things have not gotten a whole lot easier for them either. The team decided to reboot its linebacker corps and let both Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert move on from the team in free agency. The move left the Browns uncertain and rather thin at the position. I will do my best at shaking down the position and provide some insight into how the Cleveland Browns linebacker depth chart plays out this season.
Age: 22 years old
Weight: 240 lbs
2019 Stats: 82 tackles (57 solo), 4 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 7 passes defended, 1 interception and a forced fumble
Mack Wilson, at only 22 years old, is the most decorated linebacker on the roster. Wilson was not even the first linebacker drafted by the Browns in 2019, but was the first one called upon when Christian Kirksey went on IR last season. He responded well, starting the final 14 games of the season and proved top be a solid asset in coverage in 2019 coming up with 7 passes defended and an interception.
Early in the pre-draft process Wilson was considered a day one or day two talent. As the draft neared closer his stock seemed to drop as some keyed on his deficiencies and thought they were too much to overcome and he ended up dropping all the way to the 5th round. I had him graded as a 3rd round talent before the draft and considered round 5 to be a steal. The Browns went so far as to reach for a linebacker in the 3rd and draft Sione Takitaki, who I had graded as a 6th round talent. When Kirksey went down, Wilson showed much more than Takitaki, as I expected, and slid into a starting role making plays like this in the preseason:
— Jake Burns (@jake_burns18) August 21, 2019
Wilson is smooth in coverage and is terrific in zone coverage. He does a great job at reading the quarterbacks eyes and fills throwing lanes accordingly. Here is a great example of that in his first preseason on his second interception of the game:
Mack Wilson with his second interception of the game for the Browns 💪
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 9, 2019
He has had a mixed bag of tackling in college, though he looked like he improved on this in the NFL. He plays with a great motor and physicality and does a great job at shedding blockers. Wilson has the potential to have a breakout this season and should be the best Cleveland Browns linebacker.
Age: 25 years old
Weight: 238 lbs
2019 Stats: 21 tackles (14 solo)
Sione Takitaki was the linebacker drafted before Mack Wilson, which I thought to be a huge reach. He was an older rookie being 24 years old when he was drafted. Takitaki is virtually the opposite of Mack Wilson. He has no place in coverage, he stands far too upright which limits his hip movement and has poor route anticipation. What Takitaki does do well is tackle in run support. This bodes well for his standing going into 2020. The Cleveland Browns had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last year giving up a 3rd worst 144.7 rushing yards per game. He does a great job shedding blocks and is a very good downhill defender. Here is a group of clips that showcase his block shedding and run defense in limited snaps in 2019:
Read all about Sione Takitaki's 2019 defensive snaps and how he potentially fits into the 2020 LB equation @TheOBR.
— OBR Film Breakdown (@TheOBRFilmBDN) May 28, 2020
Takitaki made little impact in 2019, playing in 15 games making one start. What he does have to his advantage, over some of the other linebackers on the team, is a knowledge of the system and a year playing with teammate Mack Wilson as well as 3rd round draft capital. He has a leg up to be the next starting Cleveland Browns linebacker.
Age: 27 years old
Weight: 241 lbs
2019 Stats: 37 tackles (23 solo)
Some have slated B.J. Goodson as a starter for 2020, but I for one am definitely not sold. Goodson does have the most experience of any Cleveland Browns linebacker, but that does not mean it has been great experience. B.J. Goodson has been a part of some of the weakest linebacker groups over his four year NFL career, yet he has still not been able to make a significant impact. He was with the New York Giants from 2016-2018 where he was only able to manage starting 20 of a possible 37 games. Even in 2018 when he started 13 of the 15 games he played in, he only managed 61 total tackles, though he did come up with two interceptions. Goodson is is also a run thumper, something the Browns need desperately. Here you can see his block shedding ability, though he has been inconsistent:
#Packers BJ Goodson doesn't get much playing time in Pettine's sub-heavy personnel groups… But he might be on the field a lot this week vs CAR
Goodson is a physical downhill run plugger and that's what this defense needs right now.
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) November 6, 2019
In 2019 he played for the Green Bay Packers who, outside of Blake Martinez, had literally nobody for competition for the other middle linebacker role. Goodson still only managed to start 9 of the 15 games he played for the Packers and came up with a mere 37 tackles with no other stats. It is very possible that Goodson becomes a depth piece for the Browns. He faces some stiff competition with the youngsters.
Age: 21 years old
Weight: 229 lbs
2019 Stats (LSU): 113 tackles (56 solo), 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 1 pass defended and a forced fumble
Jacob Phillips was one of the most underrated linebackers of the 2020 draft class. His teammate Patrick Queen was the more coveted of the two and landed himself a 1st round selection with the Ravens while Phillips landed in the 3rd with the Browns. If you look back at the collegiate career of the two you will be surprised though. Queen played a total of 41 games at LSU and only made 16 career starts. Queen could not even win the starting job next to Phillips to start 2019 and played his way into the starting lineup after a few games off the bench. He finished his career with 131 tackles, 17.5 for a loss, 4 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 interception and a fumble recovery.
Phillips played 39 games during his career at LSU but started 26 games to Queen’s 16. Phillips almost surpassed Queen’s career tackle total in 2019 alone with 113 tackles, leading the SEC in that category. For his LSU career he finished with 218 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, 2 sacks, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and a touchdown. Queen was the flashier player at LSU but Phillips was the more reliable player.
Phillips has great straight line speed and is a downhill force in run defense. Watch this clip here where he fills the gap and makes the stop:
I'm all aboard the Jacob Phillips (6) train.
6'4 linebacker with length, instincts, speed, and stopping power.
Look for him to have a huge year in Devin White's role. pic.twitter.com/RGK6Wvwu1V
— Jonah Tuls (@JonahTulsNFL) August 18, 2019
Phillips is a solid tackler with good tackling chops and rarely misses tackles. He squares up well and finishes strong. His instincts in coverage need work and has limited lateral agility for a man of his physical profile. He is best used in zone drops instead of man coverage but has room to work. Especially with the 3rd round draft capital, Phillips is a dark horse Cleveland Browns linebacker to win a starter job.
Age: 24 years old
Weight 224 lbs
2019 Stats: 12 tackles (7 solo)
Unfortunately for Tae Davis, he is likely to be doing a lot more of what his picture above shows, riding the bench. He has been underwhelming his first two seasons in the league, playing 27 games and making only five starts. During those games he has averaged barely two tackles per game while bringing virtually nothing else to the table. I am sorry Tae Davis, but you are likely a bench piece or cut candidate. He is not a Cleveland Browns linebacker I have much faith in.
Age: 22 years old
Weight: 222 lbs
2019 Stats (Liberty): 92 tackles (47 solo), 5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and a fumble recovery
Solomon Ajayi was supposed to be one of the Liberty players that caught scouts’ eyes during the Liberty pro day. Unfortunately for him, the pro day was cancelled due to the Covid-19 virus. Ajayi was supposed to put up eye popping athletic and agility numbers, but they remained unseen. The Browns took a chance on Ajayi signing him as an undrafted rookie to add to their depleted linebacker depth. Ajayi is the brother of once NFL star Jay Ajayi who had injuries derail his career.
Ajayi is very athletic but pretty raw. He has shown flashes of play diagnosing like seen here where he breaks off coverage when he realizes the play is run and makes the stop:
Here's Solomon Ajayi coming off the back peddle, recognizing it's a run and exploding to the ball-carrier to save a first-down gain. Just another example of what this linebacker brings to the table athletically. pic.twitter.com/joNlWrVs4g
— JAKE OLIVER ELLENBOGEN (@JKBogenDTSN) March 30, 2020
Ajayi likely will not make a push for playing time as a Cleveland Browns linebacker in 2020 but he has the opportunity to be a quality special teams player.
Age: 27 years old
Weight: 200 lbs
2019 Stats: 49 tackles (38 solo), 4 tackles for a loss, 3 passes defended, 1 interception and a fumble recovery
Wait Karl Joseph is not a linebacker. I know this, but hear me out please. As you have read in this article, the Browns are very thin at the linebacker. What they do have is a solid trio of safeties and Joseph could find himself in a sub-package linebacker or box safety role. The Browns selected Sheldrick Redwine in the 4th round last season and he ended the season as a starter and performed rather well. Then they went and signed Karl Joseph via free agency this off-season. The Browns also selected Grant Delpit in the second round in the 2020 draft. Delpit is a super versatile safety who may even play nickel corner for the Browns.
With the Browns being so thin at linebacker you may see the team run more three safety sets much like the Texans did in 2018 when they employed Kareem Jackson, Tyrann Mathieu and Justin Reid. Karl Joseph is a hard hitter and does a great job in run support as you see here:
Karl Joseph, coming down from the 2-high alignment with a head of steam is a thing of beauty. pic.twitter.com/raVv3f91IM
— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) August 13, 2017
Joseph was in the dog house early in 2019 but played his way back on to the field starting the final 9 games of the season. His physicality and ability, though slightly limited, in coverage could have him lining up in the box on passing downs and could end up being a productive role for Joseph.
Other Players On The Roster But Not Likely to Make Any Noise: Jermaine Grace, Montrel Meander and Willie Harvey
My View of the Final Depth Chart
Strong Side Linebacker
1st Team – Sione Takitaki
2nd Team – B.J. Goodson
3rd Team – Solomon Ajayi
1st Team – Mack Wilson
2nd Team – B.J. Goodson
3rd Team – Tae Davis
1st Team – Jacob Phillips
2nd Team – B.J. Goodson
3rd Team/Subpackage – Karl Joseph
Going into the 2020 NFL season I think the Browns move forward with their top youngsters to start. Mack Wilson will be the general of the bunch running the defense as the most decorated and versatile player of the group. Rookie Jacob Phillips will come in and play the weakside position using his athleticism and height to cover tight ends and sure-tackling in the run game. Sione Takitaki brings his aggressiveness to the strong-side position where he will work at attacking the backfield and the quarterback with reckless abandonment. B.J. Goodson is by far the next best linebacker and will be the direct back-up to all three linebacker positions.
In sub packages Phillips is likely to leave the field and Takitaki will slide over and man the middle with Mack Wilson. Karl Joseph either moves up or is subbed in (depending on if he starts or not) to play the third linebacker/extra safety in the box for run support and to cover tight ends and running backs. This will likely be the Browns most talented group, lets just see if they have the gall to use this more often than not.
Follow me on Twitter @JoeyTheToothIDP and check out all of my written content at idpguys.org and dynastyfootballdigest.com. Be sure to also order our rookie draft guides from each website. For the IDP rookie guide click here. For the Dynasty rookie draft guide click here.