Editor's Note: Over the next two weeks, Nathan Zegura, Andrew Gribble and Anthony Poisal will be giving their takes and predictions on some of the hottest topics surrounding the Browns as they prepare for training camp.
The weather will be warm and the competition will be hot at a number of position groups when training camp opens next week.
Poisal: I'm going with linebacker, where all but one role is solidified. Anthony Walker established himself as an every-down linebacker in his last four seasons in Indianapolis and looks to be on the field as much as possible. The real competition starts after him. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could certainly start Week 1 and become a key piece just from his versatility alone. Jacob Phillips, a third-round pick in 2020, will be given a shot as he enters his second NFL season, and Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson enter crucial third seasons and could be starting candidates. Tony Fields II, a 2021 fifth-round pick, is in the fold as well. The competition could be even tighter if defensive coordinator Joe Woods opts to lean heavily on nickel and dime packages this season, which would leave only one or two spots on the field for linebackers.
Zegura: Once again the focus is on the defense here, and I think there are many intriguing battles at all three levels. I will get to defensive tackle later in the week, but that should be an intense competition to see who ultimately will make this roster. At cornerback, the Browns feel like they have four starters for three spots, so that will be interesting to see play out. However, the position group I am the most excited to see battle it out at camp is the linebacking core. This is the one position where playing time and roster spots are completely up for grabs. You would expect the Browns ultimately will carry six linebackers, based on historical trends, so that is the number we will focus on during camp. We also know that the Browns will play significantly more nickel and dime with one or two linebackers on the field than they will play "base" defense with three linebackers. That's why the battle for playing time will be so fierce and players likely will focus on their specializations and situational roles rather than full-time roles. That's not to say guys can't earn full-time opportunities because the Browns certainly have enough talented players to do so. Free agent signee Anthony Walker Jr. was an every down player for the talented Indianapolis Colts defense and averaged 107 tackles per season over the last three years. He is considered the early favorite to start at Mike linebacker (MLB). Second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is widely considered to be one of the steals of the 2021 draft and has the ability to play the run, cover in the slot and blitz at an elite level. He has elite three-down traits and has impressed coaches with his ability to be in the right place at the right time consistently and to not make the same mistake twice. He will have to earn his playing time as a rookie, but I would not bet against him becoming the starting WILL linebacker. Those two talented newcomers are joined by the Browns' trio of talented young linebackers. Jacob Phillips enters his second season with high internal expectations to make a major impact. He has the size, length and speed to be a three-down sideline-to-sideline linebacker who excelled in his Week 17 start at MLB against the Steelers. Third-year SAM linebacker Sione Takitaki had a phenomenal second season that saw him emerge as one of the elite run stopping backers in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He also improved his coverage skills and notched multiple interceptions, including one in the playoff win over the Steelers. Mack Wilson has position versatility and played his best football late in the 2021 season, including a dominant performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. Wilson had a standout minicamp and the fluid athlete looks to be in tremendous condition as he fights for his role on this team.
We've already discussed five linebackers and we are not close to done, which is why LBs coach Jason Tarver and EVP of Football Operations and GM Andrew Berry will have some very tough decisions ahead of them. Veteran Malcolm Smith was sensational for the Browns in 2020 and earned one of the top coverage grades of any linebacker in the NFL, per PFF. He is very reliable and an extra coach on the field who excelled in the team's nickel packages a year ago. Fifth-year veteran Elijah Lee was the Browns' top special teams tackler a year ago and likely will earn a roster spot based on his performance in the third phase of the game. The Browns also used a fifth-round pick on LB Tony Fields II, who was a great space defender and tackling machine with natural coverage skills at West Virginia. Rounding out the room is converted safety and now linebacker Montrel Meander who has been with the organization for multiple seasons on both the practice squad and active roster. The linebackers are all of a sudden one of the most talented and deep groups on the roster and I can not wait to see how this position shakes out over the course of training camp and into the season.
Gribble: I'm going with defensive tackle but of all the turnover from the previous season. Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi started a lot of games over the past two years. That's two big open jobs for a group that features six players who weren't on last year's active roster. It's a nice mix of veterans and youth, too. Andrew Billings is back from his 2020 opt-out season and should provide a big, run-stuffing presence in the middle. Malik Jackson and Damion Square have played a ton of football and are poised to play even more for the Browns. Cleveland added former Buckeye standout Tommy Togiai in the fourth round of the draft, and Malik McDowell, a former second-round pick, is looking to make the most of a big opportunity with the Browns. Then you throw in the excitement surrounding Jordan Elliott, a third-rounder from last year's draft who saw regular playing time as a rookie, and you understand why the Browns are looking forward to seeing this group sort itself out on the practice fields of Berea.