Craig Robertson's importance in the middle of the Browns' defense had grown long before Karlos Dansby went down with a knee injury.
It just became a little more obvious when Cleveland needed the next man up in a big way when one of its best defensive players was lost for a month.
When it was time to step up and replace one of the team's leading veterans, Robertson filled the void seamlessly and stuffed the stat sheet with tackles and numerous other big plays. During Dansby's four-game absence, Robertson swapped his responsibilities at WILL linebacker for MIKE and proceeded to accumulate 42 tackles, an interception and a touchdown on a fumble recovery. He finished the year with 99 tackles, the second-most of any player on the roster, and was named the Browns' Walter Payton Man of the Year for his commitment to community engagement.
On and off the field, it was easily Robertson's best of his three seasons and counting in the NFL.
"His level of play this year, a guy that's bought into what we're doing and very coachable," coach Mike Pettine said in December as he rattled off a list of players who 'Played Like a Brown' in 2014. "You could see the difference – again, I didn't study him too much from last year's tape – but you could see just a big improvement in his approach to the game, how hard he works."
Robertson is at the center of why there's optimism about the middle of Cleveland's defense heading into 2015.
A restricted free agent, Robertson would join second-year Chris Kirksey, who flourished under Robertson's tutelage, and Dansby at the middle linebacker spots. Behind them at safety are two of the Browns' three 2015 Pro Bowl representatives, Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson, while the middle of Cleveland's defensive line promises to be bolstered by the return of a healthy Phil Taylor.
His presence in the Browns' locker room only promises to grow, as he served as one of the team's top vocal leaders in 2014. It was rare to spot Robertson by his locker throughout the season because he spent most of his time with Kirksey, whom he closely mentored.
"That's my guy," Kirksey said in November. "He never steered me wrong. Not once. We are very close."
Robertson has been with the Browns for three years -- long enough to establish himself as one of the team's key veterans and short enough to remember what it's like to be in Kirksey's shoes. His perspective matters when it comes to assessing the upgrades Cleveland has made on defense since Pettine arrived last year.
"The camaraderie we have in our room is incredible, all the way down from (Dansby) to (linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach)," Robertson said. "We've got guys in our room who want to learn the game of football and want to be a part of Cleveland. I've been a part of some times where you've got not everyone in the room is as committed as we were.
"I pride myself on talking to everybody. I felt the same energy from everyone Week 1 to Week 16."