Spotlighting the Cleveland Browns' LB Position Heading into the 2012 Season
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The Cleveland Browns' linebacking corps was auspiciously awful last season, which is one reason why the team gave up so many rushing yards per game to their opponents—nearly 150 per game.
This year, the Browns hope that their collection of linebackers will be more productive and more adept at tackling. While familiar faces will likely make up the starting lineup this year, two newly drafted rookies could get their fair share of playing time when the situation warrants it.
Let's take a closer look at the nine linebackers currently on the Browns' roster and try to project just what their contributions may be this season.
Easily, D'Qwell Jackson had the best 2011 season of any of the Browns' linebackers. After missing most of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons with two separate pectoral tears, Jackson came back healthy in 2011 and was extremely impressive, with 158 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one interception, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
Jackson was rewarded with a five-year, $42.5 million contract in the offseason. As long as he can stay healthy for a second consecutive season, the middle linebacker should have yet another strong showing. He's in no danger of losing his job to anyone.
Yet again, Scott Fujita ended his season on injured reserve, and he won't likely play a full season in 2012, with a three-game suspension looming for his participation in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
At 33 years old, this may be Fujita's last season. He's certainly not the player he once was, and with injuries piling up and his effectiveness dropping as a result, he doesn't appear to have much time left in the league.
Before heading to IR in late November, Fujita had 50 tackles and an interception to his name. He was replaced at strong-side backer by weak-side starter Chris Gocong for the rest of the year—something that may happen again while Fujita serves his suspension, unless a rookie steps up and takes the job.
Chris Gocong started last season as the weak-side linebacker, shifting to the strong side when Fujita was placed on injured reserve. Gocong's strength is in the pass rush and north-south pursuit—lateral athleticism isn't his biggest asset.
Last season, Gocong had 70 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He signed a three-year extension last September, indicating he's in the Browns' long-term plans for the time being.
Gocong may shift back to strong-side backer while Fujita serves his suspension, much as he did last year. But once Fujita returns, he'll go back to the weak side, where he's proven most effective.
When Gocong moved over into Fujita's spot last year, Kaluka Maiava, backup weak-side backer, took over Gocong's job. Though this may repeat while Fujita serves his suspension, that's likely the only real starting action Maiava will see this season.
In his limited role, Maiava had 34 tackles and one forced fumble. If the linebacking corps struggles to stop the run in the season, Maiava could re-take the field in a stopgap attempt. Otherwise, he'll remain a backup who sees a bit of situational play.
James-Michael Johnson was drafted by the Browns in the fourth round this year, to ultimately provide a better backup option than the aforementioned Maiava and potentially be Fujita's replacement at starter once the veteran decides to hang up his cleats.
Johnson is athletic and (most importantly) a great tackler, and he could certainly get some time on the field this year—if he impresses enough in camp, he may leapfrog Maiava and start in place of Fujita for the first three games.
The Browns selected another linebacker in the draft this year, using a sixth-round pick on Emmanuel Acho. Acho is very similar to Johnson in both height and weight, as well as in tackling ability.
The latter is something the Browns desperately need, so while Acho may not make much of an impact in his rookie season, he could easily wind up a starter in a year or two, especially if the linebacking crew yet again struggles to stop the run in 2012.
Acho will be among the linebackers fighting to take Fujita's job for the first three games of the season. He could win out, but if not, he'll get a bit of situational play this year and that's it.
Ben Jacobs was active for five games in his rookie season, but he didn't get much playing time. He served instead as injury insurance and much-needed depth. He's been getting more chances to impress in the offseason program, lining up at starting middle linebacker in 11-on-11 drills at May's OTAs.
The Browns have nine linebackers on their roster right now, however, which should limit Jacobs' snaps. He could also end up on the practice squad. Depth is certainly key at linebacker for the Browns this year, but other players look to be farther ahead than Jacobs at this point.
Craig Robertson is another second-year player who is likely headed for the practice squad. If any marginal linebackers are kept on the 53-man roster as depth, I see Jacobs having the advantage over Robertson. He'll be a non-factor this season unless necessity dictates otherwise.
The Browns picked up Quinton Spears off of the waiver wire last fall. He was an undrafted free-agent rookie who spent camp and the preseason with the Miami Dolphins before being claimed by the Browns.
Spears was brought onto the Browns' roster as a reserve player. Should he remain with the squad this year, he'll play the same role, providing depth on a linebacking corps that may still need it.
It's a 4-3 defense, but with the team having so many struggles in tackling and stopping the run last year, the Browns would be well-served to have a few extra linebackers in their reserves.
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