Cleveland Browns' linebacker Chris Gocong's season-ending Achilles tear injury has left a void at both the strong and weak side linebacker position in 2012.
Gocong's 3.5 sacks and 47 tackles in 2011 don't make him invaluable but the numbers to fill in the void are going to have to come from somewhere.
After his first two years with the team, he demonstrated the consistent and adequate ability that he could provide to the defensive unit. With him out and Scott Fujita facing a suspension, the defense now has a question mark where it assumed it had security.
It isn't so much that he is irreplaceable, it's that there really aren't many options in the thin Browns' linebacker corps.
Given that the Browns are not inclined to go out and sign leftover free agents, they will likely fill the void with the youth currently on the roster.
In fact, Shurmur said something very close to that in a report from Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said the team would cover it (Gocong's injury) up with players already on their roster.
Let's take a look at which Browns defenders are going to have to step it up this season in the wake of losing their versatile outside linebacker.
Scott Fujita, the Cleveland Browns' starting strong-side linebacker, is facing a three-game suspension to start the season due to his alleged participation in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
The Browns are used to Fujita being missing, though, as he has not played a full season since 2006—his first season in New Orleans.
There is a chance his suspension will be overturned or delayed, but the Browns cannot afford to not plan ahead in the event that it actually happens.
Whenever Fujita makes it back onto the field, he is going to need to avoid injuries and provide mentoring to the youngsters who will likely be seeing the field early and often in 2012.
If Fujita can do those two things, he will help the Browns immensely. That’s pretty much why they signed him in the first place. Hopefully he can turn things around by putting the past behind him and have a comeback type season.
Kaluka Maiava has had a lot of experience over the past two seasons due to injuries on the Cleveland Browns’ defense. He’s filled in for Chris Gocong at the weak-side linebacker position while he covered the strong-side in Fujita's absence, but he may be moved to the strong-side with the absence of both of them to begin this season.
He was an under-the-radar draft pick in 2009, coming from a deep USC Trojans linebacker group, but he has developed into an integral component of the Browns defense.
The problem for the Browns is that he hasn’t really developed or progressed from his rookie season. Expectations are growing for Maiava and he is going to need to improve by leaps and bounds this year if he hopes to stick around in the NFL.
A huge knock on him is his size and strength. Sometimes he gets lost in the shuffle and is unable to break free from pulling linemen and tight ends. An outside linebacker needs speed, though, and Maiava moves with good agility and a natural instinct in his reads.
The Cleveland Browns selected James-Michael Johnson in the fourth round and then picked Emmanuel Acho in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.
With those picks, the Browns believed they had addressed a concern about competent linebacker depth which was exposed over the past two seasons.
Instead, these two rookies may have to learn fast and be ready for action quicker than was originally thought.
Johnson has been learning fast and making an impression in camp to this point. His athleticism and strength will allow him to likely play any of the linebacker positions—an invaluable commodity in this situation.
Acho, on the other hand, has not caught on as quickly as Johnson. The first impression of Acho has been that he has the athletic ability and speed to drop into coverage and rush the passer.
A question that remains is whether he is strong or skilled enough to shed blockers and react instinctively to NFL play development.
D’Qwell Jackson cannot afford to get injured again in 2012. After receiving his big payday this offseason, Jackson is the key piece of the Cleveland Browns linebacker puzzle.
When healthy, Jackson has been a tackling machine as well as one of the biggest vocal leaders of the Browns defense. Sure, he could do some things better, like tackle the ball carrier closer to the line of scrimmage.
Regardless, Jackson’s influence and success will have a major impact on the success of the defense this season.
If he can get his teammates to buy into the system and into what he is doing out there, there may be positive changes in the run defense despite losing Chris Gocong for the season.
Chris Gocong’s injury won’t just affect the linebackers. Frostee Rucker and Jabaal Sheard, the Cleveland Browns’ projected starting defensive ends, are going to have to step up their game this season.
Sheard had himself an excellent rookie season in 2011 but will have to build on that and improve in order to help strengthen the Browns’ run defense this year.
Technique and play recognition are going to be huge for the two defensive ends. If they can seal the edges and, at the same time, wreak havoc in the offensive backfield from those edges, life will be all the easier on the new look Browns linebacker corps.
Hopefully, the team has a contingency in place in the event someone else goes down or isn't performing at an acceptable level.
If not, a repeat of 2011's miserable rush defense seems more like a possibility.
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