The continued retooling of the Cleveland Browns franchise continued Wednesday, as the team announced the release of longtime starting linebacker D'Qwell Jackson—who was the longest-tenured player on the roster.
Taken in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft (No. 34 overall), Jackson has played each of his eight seasons with the Browns. He twice led the AFC in tackles (2008 and 2011), compiling 815 career tackles and 11.5 sacks. The former Maryland standout also gained a reputation as one of the biggest voices in the Cleveland locker room, winning the 2011 Ed Block Courage award.
Upon the announcement of his release, Jackson released a statement, saying in part:
Eight years ago I began a journey that blessed me with the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful organization and community. I want to take this time to thank each and every one of you for opening your arms and hearts to my family and me, and for making Cleveland an easy place to love and call home. It’s been an honor playing in front of you.
The decision to move on from Jackson won't be easy from a football standpoint, either. Jackson, still just 30, led the Browns with 140 total tackles and was an anchor in the middle of an underrated unit. Cleveland finished 2013 ninth in total yards allowed, highlighted by its eighth-place ranking against the pass.
The Browns didn't fare as well metrically—which may have helped expedite Jackson's departure. Football Outsiders had Cleveland No. 22 in its defensive DVOA metric, and it fell back to 27th in the weighted form of that same statistic.
Jackson had his own foibles as well, especially against the run. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) measured Jackson's run-stop percentage at 5.9 percent, ranking 37th among the 40 players who received at least 50 percent of their team's defensive snaps. Jackson, as per the rest of his career, was almost entirely absent in pass-rushing situations as well.
With Jackson due to count $9.43 million against the cap in 2014, something had to give. A restructuring could have been in order, but the Browns' decision to release him now says whatever negotiations they had about a reworked deal didn't go well. New Browns general manager Ray Farmer—himself a signal of the latest changing of the guard in Cleveland—indicated as much in the press release.
"We had positive discussion with D’Qwell and his agent over the last several days, and we came to the mutual agreement to go in different directions," Farmer said in the release. "D’Qwell is the epitome of class, leadership and professionalism."
As longtime NFL writer Brian McIntyre pointed out, Cleveland nets a hefty cap-space haul by releasing Jackson now:
Browns announce the release of LB D'Qwell Jackson. Was due $4M roster bonus on 3/15. Team saves $8M in cash, $5.233M in cap space— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) February 26, 2014
As for what's next for Jackson, he shouldn't lack for suitors. NFL general managers are still going to look at the robust tackle totals he puts up when healthy and think he can help their teams. Jackson, despite not being great against the run, is quietly one of the league's better inside linebackers in coverage. Pro Football Focus ranked him 10th in coverage snaps per reception.
When Jackson does get into the play, he also does a stellar job of wrapping up. He missed just seven tackles all season, per PFF. Although aging linebackers don't typically receive a ton in guaranteed money—Jackson will certainly take a pay cut—some team will offer him a one-year deal at a pretty good salary in the not too distant future.
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