Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a seven-part series in which Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich analyzes players who will vie for starting jobs or other important roles during training camp. The first full-squad practice of camp is scheduled to run from 9:30 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Saturday at the team’s headquarters in Berea.
The Browns have had trouble covering tight ends and running backs for several years, but they might finally possess the personnel at inside linebacker needed to solve the problem.
They signed veteran Karlos Dansby to a four-year, $24 million contract in March partly because he proved to be one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL last season as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. He is a lock to start.
Dansby, though, can’t do it all by himself. The Browns need another reliable player they can station next to him in the 3-4, hybrid scheme used by new coach Mike Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.
The job will be awarded to the winner of a two-man race between veteran Craig Robertson and rookie Christian Kirksey, a third-round draft pick from Iowa. Robertson has experience on his side, though Kirksey’s coverage skills should give him a leg up.
Robertson took first-team reps throughout the spring in organized team activities and minicamps while Kirksey toiled with the second unit. Still, I’m predicting Kirksey will supplant Robertson at some point this summer.
The primary reason stems from Robertson’s struggles last season.
Although the Browns retained Robertson this offseason as an exclusive-rights free agent, they also made a blatant effort to upgrade the position by selecting Kirksey, who signed a four-year, $3.05 million contract last month.
ProFootballFocus.com ranked Robertson 52nd among 55 inside linebackers who played in a 3-4 system last season. The website rated him 29th against the run, but last, or 55th, in coverage.
More than one team exposed Robertson’s deficiencies last season, but in Week 6 the Detroit Lions ripped him to shreds like no other.
After the Lions prevailed 31-17, running back Reggie Bush revealed the offense made a halftime adjustment by emphasizing his matchup against Robertson.
Bush finished the first half without a catch before hauling in five passes for 57 yards in the final two quarters. Robertson also surrendered the Lions’ go-ahead touchdown, tight end Joseph Fauria’s 23-yard catch with 10:35 left.
Kirksey’s strength, meanwhile, is supposed to be coverage. Pettine values speed over size in his linebackers, and he has described Kirksey as someone with “safety-type attributes.”
With spread offenses and tight ends resembling receivers becoming the norm, solid coverage linebackers are increasingly vital.
The good news for the Browns is they secured a bona fide playmaker by signing Dansby to replace former defensive captain D’Qwell Jackson, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason after the Browns cut him in February with a $4.1 million roster bonus due. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Dansby fifth among 3-4 inside linebackers last season, 14th against the run and fourth in coverage.
Now the Browns just need a respectable sidekick in the lineup alongside Dansby. If they’re right about Kirksey, he’ll fit the description.
The other players at the position will fight for the right to provide depth. Tank Carder’s contributions on special teams — second on the team with eight tackles last season — give him an advantage over Zac Diles, Darius Eubanks and Brandon Magee.
Nate Ulrich - Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
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