The Cleveland Browns caught a lot of people off guard when they selected Chris Kirksey from Iowa with their third round pick. Unfortunately for Kirksey and teammates including C.J. Fiedorowicz (drafted by the Houston Texans), Iowa did not get a ton of attention when it came to television or people looking to watch the Hawkeyes. They have had a rough few years, so it was easy to have players like Kirksey slip through the cracks for the average football consumer. Outside of depth, Kirksey should be the final piece to the front seven for Mike Pettine’s Browns defense; that is the level of talent he brings, the importance of his role, and the mentality Pettine has been preaching since he was hired.
There were plenty of fans that were first surprised the Browns did not take a wide receiver with the pick (myself included), were then annoyed the Browns did not take a receiver, and then were angered that if the Browns were going to take inside linebacker, they should have taken Chris Borland from Wisconsin (this did not include me). Borland was the far more famous and played on a more relevant team in the Badgers, but he also came in and played a big against the Ohio State Buckeyes, which is often the reference point for many Browns fans when it comes to knowing talent in college football.
Borland had more press clippings, but both had the opportunity to play on the same field on the same team at the Reese’s Senior Bowl. Borland had a good week and there were plenty of people that liked what he was able to do there and thought he had showed more in coverage. Kirksey had a great week. There were people that were not real aware of Kirksey yet that were suddenly taking notice. Each day of practice, Kirksey had people coming away impressed and talking about being excited to go back and watch more of him on tape. The tape only confirmed what he was doing in Mobile, but he was doing it against some of the best competition in the country.
In Kirksey, the Browns get a 2-time captain at Iowa that does not turn 22 years old until August. He also helps them attack a number of weaknesses they had in the defense last year. D’Qwell Jackson was the best coverage linebacker the team had and while he is really good in zone, he gives next to nothing in man coverage. Craig Robertson was not just bad in coverage, but in certain games, the opponent just found where Robertson was and threw to his cover.
Kirksey is not just a linebacker that can contribute in zone, but he can play in man as well. He has been used to cover some wide receivers in the slot during his career at Iowa and while he is unlikely to do a ton of that in the NFL, he has the athleticism to give the Browns options. Whether single coverage or in a box type coverage along with Donte Whitner for example, the Browns can use Kirksey to cover opposing tight ends.
Kirksey is active and extremely willing to come downhill and play the run. He is a little undersized to play inside and will need to get to around that 240lb mark. Presumably, Pettine is going to have a similar approach with Kirksey as they have with Barkevious Mingo. They want them to gain weight, but not just for the sake of gaining weight.
Kirksey can shock blockers or take on the blocks fully. He brings a ton of effort and tries to find his way to the ball carrier. There were definitely times in college where he would get knocked back or thrown out of the way, but he just kept fighting. His quickness and speed combined with his ability to diagnose plays early allow him to periodically be in position to stop plays before they start.
Along with Mingo, Kirksey brings an element of speed to the defense. Moving to the inside, he has sideline to sideline range and can fly around and make tackles. He can also be used to help on the blitz and had a good amount of success in his time of Iowa in that area.
It is incredibly difficult to imagine that it is only a matter of time before Kirksey becomes the starter next to Karlos Dansby in the base 3-4. Fortunately for him and unfortunately for the Browns overall depth, his competition right now is Craig Robertson; easily the weakest link in last year’s defense. Certainly, Robertson could get substantially better with an offseason to improve and another training camp, but Kirksey physically just gives the Browns more for what they want to do.
There are plenty of people that are making the comparison to Kiko Alonso, who the Buffalo Bills drafted in the second round and was ultimately the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Alonso was bigger and exceptional in terms of his instincts as a coverage linebacker, but Kirksey might be better as a pure run defender coming into the league. These two players are different, but certainly it seems reasonable that Pettine is hoping that Kirksey can have that type of impact in his defense.
It is not fair to expect Kirksey to come in and automatically expect him to play at the level Alonso did. Everyone is learning a new defensive scheme under Pettine and Jim O’Neil, the defensive coordinator. The good news is at least as far as the front seven is concerned, Kirksey is the only rookie. While the unit as a whole minus Dansby is young, Mingo and Armonty Bryant are the only players in the scheme expected to make a real contribution that are even going to be in their second year.
The rest of the group is comprised of third and fourth year players that are hopefully about to enter their respective primes. Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are entering the fourth year of their contract and Sheard is in a contract year. Billy Winn and John Hughes are both going to be third year players that are coming off of strong sophomore campaigns.
Along with having a veteran in Dansby, Kirksey might be in a fantastic situation to succeed and make an early impact for the Browns. He has the talent to help the Browns in a number of areas and feeds into the mindset that the team is trying to build. Kirksey may look like a fast, finesse linebacker, but he does play with a tough mentality. If he can continue to add strength and get a little bit bigger, more of it will be able to show up on the field in the NFL.
The best case scenario is that Kirksey can step in and start for the Browns defense and play like Alonso did in Buffalo last year. The worst case scenario is that he can at least give the Browns a sub package coverage linebacker. In either case, it provides help at a spot the Browns have been eviscerated the last several seasons and struggling to get off the field on third down last year was a constant problem last season. Kirksey will have his chance to be an impact player for the Browns, but in many ways, Kirksey is everything Pettine says he wants from his defense; fast, smart, tough, and most importantly, hungry.