Injuries derailed Christian Kirksey’s 2018 season, but is he rounding back into form and showing the potential to play like his old self?
One of the few positives from the Cleveland Browns loss to Tampa Bay was the reappearance of Christian Kirksey blowing things up in the Tampa Bay backfield. He consistently applied pressure and came away with three tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss. More importantly, the eyeball test says he looked like his old self.
2018 was not a good year for him. The NFL is all about “what have you done for me lately?” and the answer concerning Kirksey is that he did not do much last year. He went on IR after playing only seven games, but even before that was not performing at the same level as previous years. Kirksey, like most players, does not blame his lower performance on an injury, but he probably was nowhere near 100 percent in many of the games that he did play.
As one standard of measure, Pro Football Focus grades NFL players. It is not intended as a measure of ability, but instead evaluates each player on each play, attempting to determine how well he carried out his assignments. Hence the grades depend upon the design of the play, and the opponent’s performance, as well as what the player actually does. Nevertheless, as an inside linebacker in Ray Horton’s 2016 3-4 defense, Kirksey scored a 69, which corresponds to an average starter. In 2017, as a weakside linebacker in Gregg Williams’ 4-3, he slipped a bit to 62, which is a below average starter. But in 2018, Kirksey scored a 46, which is a failing grade.
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All the more concerning is that Kirksey is one of the highest paid Browns, with a cap charge of some $8.2 million in 2019, plus additional guarantees for the out-years. If the Browns were to cut him, it would cost the team $10.6 million in charges versus the 2019 cap. Fans tend to resent it when players are perceived as overpaid. But if there is a person to blame, it should be de-facto general manager Sashi Brown who gave him the contract, not the player who accepted the terms.
That huge salary makes it very hard–though not impossible–to trade him. Although the Browns would be charged for his remaining bonus money, the new team would be on the hook for $7.0 million in 2019 salary, which is a very hefty sum for a linebacker who struggled last season. A trading partner might have to have a similarly perceived overpaid player to unload on the Browns in order to take on that kind of salary for Kirksey. Thus, John Dorsey and the front office would have to pull yet another rabbit out of their hat to make that deal. More likely the option will be to play him and be out $10.6 million. The other option is to not play him and still be out $10.6 million.
It was not just Kirksey who under-performed. The Browns front seven as a group under-performed in 2018, especially against the run, after being one of the most difficult units in the NFL to run against in 2017. The 2018 squad gave up 2,163 yards on the ground, for an average of 4.7 yards per carry. By contrast, the 2017 squad gave up only 1,566 yards on the ground and an average of 3.4 yards per carry. It is almost impossible to believe that a team with Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward and Joe Schobert could perform at such a low-level, but the numbers are jarring. Overall, the defensive lines and linebacking corps were simply not up to the job last year.
But hold on here. What if Kirksey is back to full health and once again plays at a high level? Kirksey might be a very good fit in Steve Wilks’ defense, which often uses extra defensive backs and only two linebackers instead of the normal three. Kirksey is very versatile and while not a premier talent in any one area, he can do everything that linebackers are supposed to do. That includes defending the pass, defending sideline to sideline and getting after the quarterback on the blitz.
In addition, the emergence of young linebackers Genard Avery, Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Willie Harvey as situational linebackers might allow a reduced workload for Kirksey, which might help both the team, and as well as Kirksey in particular. He would probably say that he wants to be on the field 100 percent of the time, but that might not be the best way to use him at this point in his career. In 2016 he was on the field all the time because there was no else who could play, but that might not be the case this year. It is an opportunity for Steve Wilks to choose the opportunities in which each player is most likely to succeed.
Kirksey might never reach the level to fully “earn” his contract. That would require him making the Pro Bowl or something equivalent. That was the situation last year with Jamie Collins, who led the Browns in tackles but did not live up to the expectations attached to his contract, which would have been appropriate only for an All-Pro. In case you are wondering, the Patriots were able to sign him for $3 million dollars this year, and only $250 thousand guaranteed. By contrast the Browns saved $9.25 million by cutting him, but are still charged $2.5 million for his guaranteed bonus money, which they can not get out of (i.e., “dead money”).
But the foibles of the Sashi Brown front office should not be taken out on Christian Kirksey. There has never been a question about Kirksey’s effort or will. He has been a very good Cleveland Brown for all of his career. If he stays with the team, stays healthy and fits the new defensive scheme, he might surprise us with a comeback, and once again be the highly capable player that he was a few years ago.