Anthony Walker knew by Week 5 last season the Browns were going to make the playoffs.
Walker was on the other side of the field with the Indianapolis Colts, who were 3-1 and entered the game with one of the best defenses in football. As a linebacker, Walker had a front-row seat to the array of weapons the Browns had on offense. When he was off the field, he watched the Browns defense deliver two interceptions and a sack to shut down the Colts for a 32-23 win.
So when Walker spoke with Browns coach Kevin Stefanski last week after signing with Cleveland, he brought those memories up first.
"When I spoke with Coach Stefanski, I told the guys in our locker room that that's a great football team over there," Walker said in his introductory Zoom call with local reporters. "When you can stop the run and run the football, you can put yourself in position to be successful in the NFL."
Now, Walker is hoping to help the Browns reach an even higher level in 2021. He was one of several defensive free agents Cleveland signed last week at the start of free agency, and it's not hard to see why the Browns wanted to add Walker to their linebackers room based on his first four NFL seasons.
Walker became one of the most consistent tacklers on the Colts since he became a full-time starter in 2018, his second NFL season. Since Week 1 that year, Walker has amassed 321 tackles and has starred alongside All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard in helping the Colts build one of the best linebacker groups in the NFL.
Most people would point to Leonard as the glue of the Colts linebackers room, and they're right — Leonard has at least 120 tackles in each of his first three NFL seasons — but Walker's importance to the defense steadily grew over his final years, too, and the reactions from his former teammates after news broke of Walker's departure proved it.
Leonard posted several tweets showing his emotion and said "If y'all actually understand the impact he has on a locker room!" Cornerback Kenny Moore also said "you'll never understand the affect a teammate can have on another."
Translation: Walker was a massive leader.
"I'm definitely appreciative of their outpouring comments and the love and respect we have for another," Walker said. "It's definitely great to have the respect of your peers and close friends."
But the Browns need a player like Walker in their linebackers room.
2020 third-round pick Jacob Phillips and Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, two players entering their third NFL season, are all still developing and are poised to take big leaps in 2021. Walker, as well as nine-year veteran Malcolm Smith, should help ensure the linebackers have all the leadership they need.
How can he do that? Well, as a middle linebacker — also known as the MIKE — Walker will be in charge of not only positioning the other linebackers, but the rest of the defense on each snap. Walker earned the respect of teammates for carrying those roles in Indianapolis and watching hours of tape each week to ensure no look from the opposing offense would throw them off.
He's bringing the same mentality to Cleveland.
"On gameday, you're not really surprised on the field when a team does something," Walker said. "I want to make sure we're lined up and ready to go against anything the offense can present against us. I listen to my coaches more than anything. I'm making sure I'm on the same page with the defensive coordinator, but also on the same page with my teammates."
Walker's leadership and communication is exactly what the Browns need for a defense that will have plenty of new faces in 2021. With the potential for several new starters across each position, the Browns will rely on Walker to pick up the playbook quickly and deliver the same consistent tackling skills that helped him ascend in Indianapolis.
If Walker does that, he'll see the same level of success he remembers watching on the other side of the field against the Browns last season. He knows Cleveland has a winning formula to football, and now he has an opportunity to be a part of it.
"They play good complementary football on offense and defense," he said, "so I'm just happy to be a part of this organization and do my small part to be successful."
Check out photos of linebacker Anthony Walker