On top of this, the Browns will be without staring strong-side backer Scott Fujita for the first three games of the season while he serves his suspension for being a part of the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
The Browns haven't focused as much on their linebackers as they have on other positions the last few seasons, which leaves them with questionable depth to replace both men. And with Gocong being one of the Browns' most important linebackers, it is extremely important that someone steps up and claims that job definitively and as quickly as possible.
Last season, Gocong had the second-most defensive snaps of any Browns linebacker with 883 (subscription required). Of those 883 snaps, 470 came in run defense, 118 in the pass rush and 295 in pass coverage. Whoever replaces Gocong, therefore, needs to be strongest against the run.
Marty Gitlin of CBSSports.com surmises that Gocong's spot will likely go to rookie James-Michael Johnson, who was drafted in the fourth round as a run-stopping specialist, while Kaluka Maiava will take over for Fujita to start the season. The two can play either linebacker spot, however, so it's not impossible to imagine this not being the set-in-stone lineup at their respective positions.
Johnson isn't terribly explosive, but as Bleacher Report's James Dudko points out, defensive coordinator Dick Jauron doesn't typically require his linebackers to blitz. And as Johnson will be primarily used in a run-stopping capacity, explosiveness isn't the biggest priority.
Johnson has been impressive thus far in camp, with head coach Pat Shurmur saying that he separated himself from the pack once the team started practicing in full pads. ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley believed that Johnson was the lock for Fujita's job prior to Gocong's injury, saying his ability to always locate the ball had him looking far better than Maiava so far in camp.
Though the Browns likely weren't anticipating Johnson getting significant snaps in his rookie season, he does appear capable of starting. While losing any starter to a season-ending injury is never good news, and the learning curve will indeed be steep for Johnson, the Browns could have found themselves in a worse situation.
How well do you think James-Michael Johnson will handle being a starter?
At this point, however, don't rule out Cleveland bringing in another linebacker, perhaps even a veteran, to provide depth. With Gocong out for the year and Fujita gone for three games, the only linebackers on the depth chart at the start of the season will be Johnson, Maiava, D'Qwell Jackson and rookie Emmanuel Acho.
There aren't a lot of promising options when it comes to veteran free agents at linebacker at this point in the year, so the Browns may wait to see who doesn't make the cut around the league and bring on a player from that pool. Ideally, whoever they add would need to be talented enough to fill the occasional hole if necessary. But more importantly, they'd need him to simply provide depth, at least to start the year.
It hasn't been the best offseason for the health of the Browns' defensive front seven, but it looks as though they have the players able to step up and take on unexpected responsibility. Keep a close eye on Johnson through camp and in this Friday's preseason contest against the Detroit Lions; hopefully his improvements will be evident and his ability to start once the regular season begins shines through.