The Cleveland Browns don’t need linebackers; they need defensive backs

Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chad Henne (4) runs the ball for first down against Cleveland Browns cornerback M.J. Stewart (36) during the second half in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 17, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Chad Henne (4) runs the ball for first down against Cleveland Browns cornerback M.J. Stewart (36) during the second half in the AFC Divisional Round playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports /

Linebacker is far from a big need for the Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns 2020 season ended with Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne (at 35 years old and with 130 career rushing yards) scrambling to turn a 3rd-and-14 into a 4th-and-1. The biggest issue with the Cleveland defense all season finally came back to bite the team; a lack of speed. The Browns have one of the NFL’s cheapest linebacker corps, and while many fans are clamoring to sign Lavonte Davis or Jayon Browns, adding better LBs isn’t going to fix the defense.

The Browns let Joe Schobert walk and cut Christian Kirksey last offseason, signaling a new direction at linebacker. B.J. Goodson was signed to a cheap one-year deal, Jacob Phillips was drafted in the late third round after a trade down, and Malcolm Smith was brought in after a training camp injury to Mack Wilson.

That group, along with Sione Takitaki, worked through injuries to have a not-terrible campaign. The defense was bad as a whole, and while the LBs cannot be classified as “good”, they were not the biggest problem. That was the secondary, lacking starting-caliber players outside of Denzel Ward and Ronnie Harrison, both of whom missed time.

Each linebacker had a designated role. Takitaki stopped the run on the edge of the line of scrimmage. Goodson called the signals and directed traffic from the middle. Smith was the primary coverage back. Phillips and Wilson provided some speed and fresh legs off the bench from series to season. But each player also has major flaws.

Takitaki struggles to maintain his gaps when playing off-ball and consistently gets picked on in coverage.

Goodson displays practically zero run fit instincts, racking up tackles that occurred six-plus yards downfield. He also lacks the sideline-to-sideline speed required to truly make an impact, as was evident on the Henne scramble.

Smith’s tackling was poor and at times he seemed downright uninterested. He may have been the best coverage LB on the team, but very few players at that position are actually good in coverage, and Smith is not one of those hallowed few.

Wilson may very well not make the team next season, and while Phillips is clearly the best athlete in the LB room, his feel for zone coverage leaves much to be desired.

Goodson and Smith could potentially be re-signed, but if they would be making anything more than their 2020 salaries, it would be best to move on. Phillips played MIKE at LSU and called plays while Goodson was out with an injury. His ceiling is far higher than Goodson’s, and even if he’ll make more mistakes, his speed and instincts make that a positive tradeoff.

Phillips and Takitaki as the only two LBs who get meaningful snaps in 2021 is perfectly fine. The Browns can even take a good athlete on Day 3 if they want to, provided they’ve filled their other needs prior.

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods wants to eventually run a base dime defense, which features just one LB on the field. That won’t happen this coming season, because Cleveland doesn’t have the personnel in the secondary just yet. But playing full-time nickel is entirely possible, and is in fact necessary to contend with Kansas City, Buffalo, and the other elite offenses in today’s league.

Take the Browns’ last-second loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday Night Football. Lamar Jackson did not have a good game throwing the ball, but he torched the Cleveland defense with his legs. Why? The Browns were simply too slow to contain him. Adding more linebackers, who are slower than defensive backs, doesn’t help. The solution is to play as many DBs as possible, and keep a few in the box. Cleveland needs to find players who can fill the ROVER or JOKER role; fast, capable of providing support in the run game, but first and foremost solid in coverage. Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is that type of player, and while he’s typically labeled a linebacker, that is doing a disservice to his skillset. Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen and USC’s Talanoa Hufanga are two other big nickels who could fill that role well.

Jackson’s kryptonite thus far in his career has been facing high numbers of DBs. He’s now wilted in three playoff games when the defense runs nickel and dime on the majority of plays. When he can’t run at will, he’s a poor passer. Until that changes, the Ravens won’t be able to beat the best teams. And no, playing nickel and dime doesn’t mean giving up trying to stop the run; besides, teams won’t be able to afford running the ball consistently against a revamped Browns offense that can score points at will.

Last offseason the Browns prioritized protecting Baker Mayfield and determining whether he was the team’s franchise quarterback (mission accomplished). In 2021, the focus will be taking one of the league’s worst (and slowest) defenses and giving it an extreme makeover, molding it to the modern game. That means the linebacker position will continue to be marginalized in favor of faster, more versatile defensive backs.

Opponents will point to the Tampa Bay Buccanneers’ dominant victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, in particular Devin White’s solid performance,  as the reason why the Browns should invest in the LB position. There are just a few issues with that argument; White has played very poorly outside of the Super Bowl. The Bucs’ defensive line is excellent (now there’s something to emulate), and not every team gets to play the Chiefs when they are missing four backup offensive lineman and Patrick Mahomes is hobbled.

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The bottom line is that the Browns need more speed on defense. Adding more linebackers doesn’t help with that. Drafting and signing more cornerbacks and safeties does, and that’s exactly what general manager Andrew Berry will do this offseason.