The Browns have invested in their linebacking corps in the past few off-seasons since Andrew Berry, Kevin Stefanski and company have taken over. But, do they have enough to man the middle in a Super Bowl-caliber defense?
Cost of Browns Linebackers
- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – 2nd Round Pick (2021)
- Sione Takitaki – 3rd Round Pick (2019)
- Jacob Phillips – 3rd Round Pick (2020)
- Tony Fields II – 5th Round Pick (2021)
Via Free Agency
DC Joe Woods’ Scheme
Joe Woods loves a “Big Nickel” set, which prioritizes defensive backs. Oftentimes, that means two cornerbacks and three safeties, one of which plays in the box in a nickel corner/linebacker hybrid. This, also known as a 4-2-5 scheme, means that there are only two linebackers on the field.
In 2021, the two main Browns linebackers were Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. They were one and two on the Browns’ top tacklers list with 117 and 76, respectively. Malcolm Smith, who is still a free agent, and Takitaki were the first two off the bench.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Current Browns Linebackers
Walker, the captain of the defense, is the one that’s been on the field the most in his time in Cleveland. He’s a green sticker guy, meaning he calls the plays for the defensive side of the ball much like the quarterback on the offensive side. Walker is a very smart player and can read an offense very well. He’s also a strong tackler, as evidenced by his consistently high tackling numbers. Walker led the Browns in his first season in the brown and orange, while also posting two other 100-tackle seasons in Indianapolis.
Walker isn’t the most athletic, but that hasn’t hindered the Browns too much. With athletic freak Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah lining up next to him and an extra safety in the box, Walker is able to fill his role perfectly in the middle of the defense and anchor the Browns linebackers.
JOK is one of the most athletic players on the Browns defense, and that’s saying something. He has the speed and size to cover wide receivers in the slot and tight ends. I don’t think it’s too much to say that JOK is a future NFL star at the linebacker position. He was second on the team in tackles and covered well all season. There were some massive games, such as against the Chicago Bears where he posted 3 pass breakups, or against the Ravens where he notched 9 tackles. Overall, he posted a solid 76.5 PFF rating in his rookie season. I’d expect Owusu-Koramoah to be on the field more than any other Browns linebacker this season, as he’s a true three-down player.
On the flip side, Owusu-Koramoah is still a little raw. He struggled at times last season, as anyone should expect with a rookie. This is particularly true with his tackling, as he missed 17.4% of his tackle attempts in 2021. With some more seasoning, he can truly blossom into one of the top defenders on a strong-looking Cleveland Browns defense.
Takitaki, a holdover from the John Dorsey era, is the longest-tenured member of the Browns’ linebacking corps. When Woods sends out three linebackers, expect Takitaki to take the field. He’s a superb run stopper and posted a career-high 5 tackles for loss. He’s also a sure tackler, only missing 4.3% of his tackle attempts.
Takitaki has a lot of room to grow in the passing game, though. The past two seasons, he’s allowed 72 and 73.7% completions to players he’s covered. Quarterbacks have posted a 80.2 QBR while targeting him in coverage last season. When it’s a passing down, he’s a liability. The Browns know that, though, and he’s a good rotational piece on Woods’s defense.
Phillips missed last season with a torn bicep, making it easy to forget that he’s a solid contributor for the Browns. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Phillips take a much larger role in the Browns defense this season. Yes, he only played 123 snaps in 2021, but in that time he out-performed budding star Owusu-Koramoah. Phillips had a higher pressure rate, similar run stop rate and better coverage stats than JOK.
There are two downsides to Phillips, though: health and tackling. Health is an easy one to look at, he needs to recover from a torn bicep. That’s a particularly hard injury for someone in such a physical position, but it’s been nearly a year since Phillips tore it. He should be healthy and ready to go for 2022. Tackling, though, is problematic. He missed 10.4% of his tackles in 2021, but it was a small sample. His full rookie season in 2020 had him only missing 3.8% of his tackles. If he can regain that form, a breakout could be on its way.
Tony Fields II
Fields is a relative unknown on the Browns defense. He appeared in 10 games, mostly on special teams. He’s a high effort player, which translates well to the special teams role that he’s in. He’s also long, and had good run stopping numbers at West Virginia.
Fields isn’t the most fluid of the Browns linebackers, though. He’s slow off the ball and often slow to react to plays. This dated back to his days at West Virginia, so it’s fair to say that this won’t be fixed at the NFL level. I think Fields can stay on as a special teamer, but I don’t know if he’s going to see many snaps at the linebacker position.
Harvey, like Fields, was only seen on special teams, and even there, sparingly. He’s a practice squad guy and probably will stay there for this season.
Harvey’s undersized, not very athletic and didn’t have great tape at Iowa State. He’s a developmental guy at best, but he struggled to make the roster last season. Harvey could be a cut this season, but would likely land on a practice squad.
How should the Browns proceed at linebacker?
The Browns linebackers have a solid foundation, but the team’s young. Guys like Owusu-Koramoah and Phillips need time to develop. Players like Walker and Takitaki know their roles, and perform well in those roles. With another season under their belts, the linebacking corps should take a step forward.
As for the Draft, I could see the Browns adding a linebacker. Don’t expect one too early, but there are some solid options in the draft, like Montana State’s Troy Andersen, Alabama’s Christian Harris and Oklahoma’s Brian Asamoah. If the Browns think Phillips is poised for a big step in 2022, they probably pass on the position in this year’s draft.