The Cleveland Browns need linebacker help and it might not come early in the draft, but the 2019 class is loaded with later round options, many of which who will be at the combine.
There isn’t much debate when it comes to the Cleveland Browns and adding linebacker help. The discussion is largely around how and when to do it. Joe Schobert is a stud, but Chris Kirksey and Jamie Collins have not been as good as one would hope. Some amount of that blame goes to the now former defensive coaching staff, but it seems unlikely that Steve Wilks and his staff are a panacea, assuming he even likes their potential fits in his scheme.
Collins may be released at any time as the Browns would no longer be eating a ton of money in moving him. Kirksey likely has one more year with the Browns as it doesn’t make much financial sense to move him now. And as a result, because of the money and the amount of respect he has, he will get every opportunity to improve from last year’s disappointing season which concluded with a season-ending injury.
Those factors considered, the Browns should be in the market for linebackers, but it will probably be later in the draft. This linebacker class has been criticized for being weak, but there appear to be a ton of viable linebacker prospects that will be available on day three that are long on potential and assuming they test well, could project to substantially outplay their draft slotting.
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The four linebackers mentioned here seem to be slated for round three or later and all have excellent production. It will largely come down to fit both for Wilks and in terms of what they want to pair with Schobert, even if it’s more for the 2020 season and beyond rather than 2019.
David Long Jr, West Virginia
- 76 solo tackles (14 percent) in 2018.
Playing in that 3-3 Mountaineer defense, Long plays outside linebacker, has the ability to make a ton of impact, but also has significant responsibility. Rushing the passer, chasing plays down and coverage responsibilities, Long has experience doing just about everything.
There will be a small size concern with him as he’s listed 5-11, 221 pounds. So long as he’s not shorter than that and can play in the 220s, he’s fine. It’s unrealistic for anyone to expect him to play up towards 240 as it would likely impact his speed and quickness, which is one of the things that makes him stand out as a prospect.
Despite his size, Long is not afraid to be physical with blockers. He doesn’t always win, but he’s not afraid to take on and try to defeat blocks, holding up his gap and not creating huge seams for opposing runners. He’s also someone who has an understanding how to manipulate a blocker to spin off and make a tackle.
The defense also lets him be incredibly aggressive to shoot gaps and make plays, so he’s racked up 34.5 tackles for loss in his last 21 games. New Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks says he wants to be aggressive, so being able to get a player like Long, who can shoot gaps and is willing to attack could be attractive to play WILL. Long has some production in coverage, but playing in the Big 12, he’s got a ton of experience playing in space.
T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
- 73 solo tackles (15.4 percent) in 2018.
Edwards looks and plays the part of a classic, old school MIKE backer but makes plenty of plays in the passing game. He’s there to be a hammer in the running game, but makes just enough plays against the pass to be dangerous. Edwards is also an effective blitzer and can surprise quarterbacks with how quickly he’s on top of them.
Testing will be important for Edwards as it’s really the last threshold he has to clear from being an outstanding prospect. He doesn’t look particularly fast on tape, using instincts, intelligence and studying to play faster and put him in position to make plays, including catching ten interceptions the past three seasons.
Edwards is a thick, powerful player, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he came in slimmed down a bit for testing. And that could be what NFL teams want him to do anyway to try to maximize his agility. Particularly if he were to come to the Browns and be the running mate for Joe Schobert, he would need to be in order to play full-time WILL.
Jeff Allison, Fresno State
- 72 solo tackles (13.8 percent) in 2018.
Jeff Allison is a linebacker that loves to attack downhill. The second the ball is snapped on a down where there’s a chance to run, he takes an aggressive power step and is trying to diagnose the play and find where the ball is going. Occasionally, it will leave him a step late in getting to his pass responsibility, but it’s difficult to run on him. He’s not only looking to attack, he will take on blockers violently, fight through trash and make his way to the ball. As a tackler, he could be more explosive if he consistently kept his legs involved, driving on contact.
When it comes to coverage, Allison is more than athletic enough to get to his drops. He also will get a good jam when he has the opportunity. The issues are having too much wasted movement in making the read and then deciding where he should be on a given play playing in his zone. At times, it causes him to get exploited. If he can be more efficient in his movements combined with his consistent effort level, he can make substantial improvement.
Allison’s straight line speed looks good. His change of direction, ability to stop and change direction looks good. Hopefully those will test that way. The biggest question with Allison might be his agility and the 3-cone drill and it’s because he ends up off balance quite a bit. Perhaps that’s just because he plays so hard, he can end up out of control, but a good 3-cone would help alleviate that concern.
Sione Takitaki, BYU
- 74 solo tackles (14,1 percent) in 2018.
Takitaki plays a similar role at BYU that Joe Schobert did at Wisconsin and should be converted to a full time linebacker in the NFL. Takitaki is typically a SAM backer that can be an edge rusher but will end up playing in space, occasionally in the middle. Takitaki is accustomed to taking on contact, playing forward and can run and chase down plays. And he’s a powerful player, both in taking on contact and as a tackler.
Takitaki is clearly most comfortable the closer to the line of scrimmage he is or when he’s going to be coming forward. He does have experience playing in coverage, particularly zone, but he often looks like a fish out of water there. Even his stance can be lackadaisical out there and he just doesn’t appear to be as engaged.
Takitaki’s quickness and speed looks pretty good. He’s explosive and can generate power quickly. At times, he will knife his way into holes or split double teams. It will be interesting to see what type of athletic number he puts up because he looks good on the field. Takitaki is the type of player that gets drafted because of his relentless play as a run defender who makes tackles, perhaps as a base SAM. If he can become more worthwhile in his pass defense, he can potentially increase his contribution to the team.