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Analyzing the LBs: Young core poised for more after vets led the way in 2020

Cleveland’s top 2 tacklers in 2020 are eligible for free agency

The offseason is officially underway, and free agency is just around the corner. Until then, we'll be putting the Browns' current roster through a thorough, position by position review.

Next up: The linebackers

The Raw Numbers

Tackling Grade (Pro Football Focus) - 61.0 (13th in NFL)

Run Defense Grade - 59.5 (18th in NFL)

B.J. Goodson - 91 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 4 TFLs, 6 passes defensed, 2 INTs, 1 fumble recovery

Malcolm Smith - 72 tackles, 1 sack, 4 TFLs, 2 passes defensed, INT, 1 forced fumble

Sione Takitaki - 67 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs, 1 pass defensed, INT, TD

Mack Wilson - 39 tackles, TFL, 2 passes defensed

Jacob Phillips - 25 tackles, TFL, 1 pass defensed

Tae Davis - 7 tackles, 1 pass defensed

Elijah Lee - 6 tackles

Analysis in 150 Words or Less

This group took on a different look in 2020 after the departures of Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, and it didn't just have to do with the names and faces. One year after seeing two linebackers take the vast majority of snaps at the position, the Browns rotated a little more, often deploying three at a time with four players getting significant snaps in a given game. The results were mixed, but the Browns were steady enough at a position that came into the season with major question marks. Goodson and Smith, in particular, were reliable veterans who led the way while Takitaki took a big step forward in his second season. Phillips, a third-rounder out of LSU, had a knee injury derail a large portion of his rookie season but he finished strong and showed the kind of promise that gets you excited about his future.

Number of Significance

1,407 — Combined snaps played by Goodson and Smith, both of whom joined the Browns as free agents heading into the 2020 season. Takitaki, Wilson and Phillips combined for 838 as the veterans largely remained healthy and led the way for the otherwise young position group.

Low Point

Cleveland's Monday Night Football showdown with the Ravens was memorable for plenty of reasons but it was a forgettable night for the defense, which surrendered a season-worst 231 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns to Lamar Jackson and the rest of Baltimore's dynamic runners. Though Jackson didn't pass it much, he hurt Cleveland most when he looked to his tight end, Mark Andrews, who led the Ravens with five receptions for 78 yards.

High Point

Takitaki made the biggest play of his career, picking off Carson Wentz and racing 50 yards for a touchdown, in a great, defensive-led Week 11 win over the Eagles. The Browns struggled against the run on Philadelphia's opening drive but clamped down the rest of the way, allowing just 10 rushing yards in the second half. It was the third straight game in which Cleveland's defense held its opponent to fewer than 20 points.

What They Said

"I think I'm a whole lot smarter. Coming from college, watching film isn't as much of a big thing. It's basically just everyone going out and competing. Obviously there's schemes, but in the NFL, we all know it's a different level. I feel like I've got a good footing on it for next year." — Phillips

"You have to smile when you speak about Sione because of the way he plays. He is right where he needs to be. He had a lot of experience early in the year when some of our other guys were not back yet. What is great about this position group is we have guys embrace and compete to get playing time." — LBs coach Jason Tarver

Nathan Zegura's Take

"You look at this room and there are questions. What do you do? How do you replace Goodson? How do you replace Malcolm Smith? Do you bring them back? Are you looking for your young guys to really step up, Phillips, Takitaki and Mack Wilson? What do you do with your special teams guys? A lot can change in this room or it can end up staying very much the same. Big decisions for Andrew Berry and Co. It will be interesting to see what kind of resources they allocate to this linebacker room this offseason and who takes the big step forward when the Browns hit the field early in 2021."

Who's Back for 2021?

Phillips, Takitaki and Wilson are all under contract through 2021. Montrel Meander, who spent most of 2020 on the practice squad, is also set to return.

Who's a Potential Free Agent?

Goodson, Smith and Lee are poised to be unrestricted free agents. Davis is a restricted free agent.

Check out the best 100 photos from this season by the Browns photo team