At this point, it may be the story of Cleveland's draft, but the Browns once again passed on picking a wide receiver. Instead, with the 71st overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, they decided to go with a linebacker in Christian Kirksey.
At 6'2", 233 pounds, Kirksey is undersized. His lack of bulk and strength has led to many analysts projecting him as a pure third-down linebacker. However, Kirksey does have the ability to start.
Kirksey doesn't always take the best angles in run defense, and he struggles to work his way off blocks, though he does have good length. However, the Iowa product is naturally athletic, with the ability to flow sideline to sideline. Not many plays are outside of Kirksey's range.
In Mike Pettine's defense, it is crucial that linebackers be able to play in coverage. Kirksey was one of the top coverage linebackers in this draft, and he should at least play in nickel situations as a rookie. It may be a while before Kirksey is an adequate run defender, but he is ready to play in nickel situations.
In 2013, Cleveland started D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson at linebacker. Jackson is a decent player, but the Browns chose to release him, signing Karlos Dansby as his replacement. This was a clear upgrade in talent, but Cleveland also got older.
Now, the Browns sit with Dansby and Robertson as their starters. Robertson was picked on in coverage in 2013, though defensive coordinator Ray Horton isolated him more than he should have. Regardless, Robertson is not a starter and shouldn't be more than a backup.
Kirksey, at the least, provides a significant upgrade over Robertson in coverage. He isn't a great pass-rusher or run defender, but he is ready to cover NFL players.
There is no denying that inside linebacker was a huge need for the Browns. This pick helps address that problem, but it's fair to wonder whether it was the best pick for Cleveland.
It is legitimately possible that Kirksey will never develop into a good all-around player. He may never be more than a situational defender. He does address a huge area of concern, though, and should help the Browns win as a rookie.
Cleveland has established that it is not content to sit tight on defense. Between the Justin Gilbert pick and now this selection, the Browns have made an effort to upgrade, especially in coverage.
Many expected Cleveland to target almost exclusively offense early in the draft, and this hasn’t been the case. Part of this could be the influence of a defensive coach in Mike Pettine, as both players have been perfect scheme fits.
Given the number of picks Cleveland surrendered in its trade-ups, it was never feasible that the team would sufficiently address all its needs. It is still disappointing to see the team neglecting its biggest need this far into the draft, however.
None of this means Kirksey won't be a good player. He very well could be, and he's an excellent fit for what the Browns needed at inside linebacker.