The front seven of the Browns defense should be significantly improved this year because of the additions to the defensive line and outside linebacker positions. There are some questions with the inside linebacker position, however, both on how they are going to be used and who is going to start. D’Qwell Jackson is going to be the weak inside linebut the strong inside linebacker is a big question mark. While Jackson will be a good player, there are some legitimate questions to be asked on how he will be maximized in this scheme. James-Michael Johnson is the only player who stands out as a fit for the other linebacker spot with any kind of long term ability but reports earlier in the offseason, perhaps prematurely, seemed to be writing him off as possibility. As a result, the inside linebacker position is the only unit in the front seven that could be an early target in the NFL Draft this coming year.
Jackson has been a good linebacker since he was drafted but he was clearly a better player in the 4-3 than he has been in the 3-4. The 4-3 allowed him to fly around and make plays while the 3-4 has routinely asked him to take on blocks, which is an area he has not been great. Before he was slowed down by some injuries that nagged him until the bye week, Jackson was not just good but dominant. He was the best player on the field for the Browns on defense and he made an impact as a run defender, coverage linebacker, and had a few sacks as well.
Jackson will be an effective cog in the defense because he is just a good player but the challenge for the Browns defense is to protect him so he can be the player that he was last year, which was the best inside linebacker in the division. If they can do that, the middle of the defense becomes significantly better. People might look at Ray Horton’s past and see that Daryl Richardson was a huge playmaker for the Cardinals, assuming that Jackson will be used in the same manner. It is possible he could do a lot of the same things but some of the reason that Richardson was sent after the quarterback so much was because their outside linebackers were mediocre pass rushers, so they needed him to fill that role; the Browns have players who can do that more effectively. Jackson will have opportunities to get after the quarterback but just not as often.
When the announcement of the move to more of a 3-4 look was announced, the guy who stood out on the roster to slide over to the strong inside linebacker was James-Michael Johnson. Johnson missed some time due to injury last year but he played well in limited opportunities as a strong side linebacker. He was not always right in terms of assignments but he did it at full speed and would make plays even when he was not necessarily doing his prescribed job, because he played hard and was an active player. Johnson has the ability to take on blocks and good range to make plays, so he is a great fit in theory for the spot next to Jackson. The fact that the Browns did not address the position in free agency or the draft only seemed to confirm this reality as they have not give themselves any other realistic option to this point.
The question with Johnson was raised earlier in the offseason when a report came out that Johnson might not make the team because he was struggling to pick up the defense. The idea that he would be cut never made sense because the Browns simply do not have the talent to warrant getting rid of him, but if there is any truth to the idea that he is struggling to pick it up, it could pose a problem. That seems unlikely and premature based on the timing of the report, but Johnson did see it and made note of it on social media. If he uses it to further motivate him to prove people wrong, he could be a nice surprise in camp. The problem with writing Johnson off is the nature of the position he would be playing. It requires the person playing there to do a lot of dirty work and take on and shed blocks. Johnson has shown talent in that area and something to build on, especially as a strong side linebacker which is more demanding than the position he is competing to play. The other problem is that no one else on the roster appears better suited for the role. It might be cautious optimism, but Johnson should be able to take the position in camp. If he cannot, the Browns have a hole there and are likely looking to address this issue in the draft the next year.
The next best option to take the spot next to Jackson might be L.J. Fort. While Johnson was a fourth round pick, Fort was a pleasant surprise in training camp from the undrafted ranks. When Jackson was resting to get healthy in preparation for the season last year, Fort made the most of his opportunities as an inside linebacker and looked good in practice and preseason. Fort is undersized for the position but plays tough and has a knack for putting himself in position to make good things happen. His size and strength could pose a significant problem trying to play as a strong inside backer and might ultimately require the Browns to redefine the position, adjusting to what he can do.
Craig Robertson would be another competitor for the spot but suffers from the same issue as Fort; he is undersized. Robertson has more range than Fort and had a lot of reps as the weak side linebacker in the 4-3 last year, but he was not the answer there. He could make big strides this year but he was on the ground far too much and would get run over by opponents. That poses a significant problem when he is playing inside and could be taking on a guard in the hole. Robertson’s best contribution could be as a nickel cover linebacker that can come in and help with coverage, but he really seems out of place in this defensive scheme and might be the guy of this group who is on the thinnest ice to make the roster. It just seems like a square peg in a round hole, much like Kaluka Maiava, now an Oakland Raider, was in a 3-4 scheme.
The Browns have some other competitors who will be looking to earn a spot on the final roster including Adrien Moten, Tank Carder, and Tommy Smith but it is unlikely that any of these guys are more than special teams contributor in the new scheme. If Johnson cannot prove himself in camp and take the job, the answer may simply not be on the roster at this point, which would require a move in free agency or more likely, the NFL Draft for next year.
There are a few intriguing options in the draft year that could conceivably address the issue of a strong, inside linebacker in this defensive scheme. The best of the bunch for the role could be Shayne Skov from Stanford but Andrew Jackson of Western Kentucky and Chris Borland from Wisconsin would be good fits too. If the Browns were to want another player like Jackson, they could opt for C.J. Mosley out of Alabama. Those are just some of the names that could be worth taking a look at for the upcoming season if the draft is where they need to grab another linebacker or two.
The other aspect of this position is the fact that because it is not an overwhelming strength, it could be a spot that gets some spill over from the outside linebacker position. It should not come as a huge surprise to see Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger, or Jabaal Sheard end up there in certain looks for the simple fact that they may legitimately be better options than what is there in addition to having the ability to rush the passer. It may not happen an overwhelming amount but it would not be a shock to see it happen. Mingo could be put there, especially if the Browns ever face a team with a quarterback they feel is worth spying. Against read option and quarterbacks who can pick up plays with their legs, Mingo is more athletic than any of them and mirror them and take that option away.
While the inside linebacker unit has one of the most stable and reliable players on the entire team in Jackson, the shift back to the 3-4 could compromise his ability slightly. The other inside linebacker spot is still up in the air at this point and may be a position that requires adding a player that is not currently on the roster. Even if Johnson does prove he can handle the starting job, the Browns could use some depth at that position with another linebacker or two behind them, perhaps a specialist that can really be effective in coverage. That might be the role that Fort ultimately takes but this does stand out as an area that should be drafted this coming season. The inside linebacker position appears to be the weakest link in the front seven, but considering that unit has Jackson on it says quite a bit about how much talent there is on the rest of the unit and should represent a big step forward for the team.