In addition to the injury issues that forced the Browns secondary to play short handed for the entirety of 2020, the Cleveland linebacking core left a lot to be desired las season. Andrew Berry and company could not fix every aspect of the team that needing attention in his first offseason as general manager, but that certainly changed in his second offseason as general manager as Berry has overhauled the defense; linebackers included. The Browns base defense will most likely run with two linebackers on the field at once, giving Cleveland the opportunity to play another defensive back.
Berry’s first addition to the linebacking core was veteran free agent Anthony Walker. Walker last played for the Colts and was a significant force in the run game for one of the league’s premier defenses last season. When Walker signed his one year deal with Cleveland, his former teammate, all pro linebacker Darius Leonard sent out a series of tweets thanking Walker and crediting him for being a major reason for his own personal success as a pro. The Browns have their own young linebacker that Walker could take under his wing similarly to Leonard in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
The man known as JOK was Berry’s second major addition to the linebacker room, drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Browns in this year’s draft. The former Notre Dame product has elite speed at the position. While he did not run the 40 yard dash at his pro day, he did a 4.15 in the pro shuttle drill, a drill that measures a player’s ability to change direction and accelerate out of a cut. Owusu-Koramoah’s 4.15 was good enough for first out of all linebackers in the class by a wide margin. Being able to accelerate out of a cut is a crucial aspect of his position, as he will be forced to play both the run and pass with his supreme versatility. While Owusu-Koramoah has yet to be named a starter, he would add a tremendous skill set to Cleveland’s defense if the coaching staff deems he is ready for that role.
Sione Takitaki may have seemed like a bit of a reach when former general manager John Dorsey selected him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, but the former BYU Cougar has made a few big plays in key moments to ensure Browns victories. Last season, Takitaki intercepted a Carson Wentz pass and returned it for a touchdown en route to a Cleveland 22-17 victory. In the Browns playoff win in Pittsburgh, Takitaki made the game winning play, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger with 3:16 left in regulation to ensure the game in Cleveland’s favor. While Takitaki may not be the most physically imposing linebacker, his knack for making timely plays could see him in the linebacking rotation.
Jacob Phillips was selected by Cleveland in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The former LSU Tiger only played sparingly due to injury, by showed flashes of being a solid run stopping contributor. Phillips shined in Cleveland’s regular season finale versus Pittsburgh, recording ten total tackles, eight of which were solo. While the Browns will most likely be counting on Anthony Walker to play the role in the middle of the defense, a healthy Phillips would be a valuable rotational piece for the Cleveland defense.
To round out the anticipated contributors in Cleveland’s linebacker room is veteran Malcom Smith. The now 32 year old is most known for his Super Bowl MVP award he earned with the Seattle Seahawks. Smith is entering his second season with the Browns, and continue to mentor the younger players at his position through showing them what it takes to be the consummate professional. While Smith’s role might be smaller in terms of on field production, he will know how to stay ready when called upon from his nine years of service in the NFL.