Jason Tarver is confident the Browns' linebackers room will be an even stronger group in 2021.
Tarver's beliefs are no different from what head coach Kevin Stefanski has said about the entire Browns roster or what Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry has said about the front office's approach to the offseason, but Tarver has a long list of reasons he can already point to and show why his group will be better next season.
"I really like the entire room," Tarver said in a recent interview on Cleveland Browns Daily. "We want to get as many good players as we can and put them in positions to be successful. The age range, the experience range and the ability range is all there."
A year ago, Tarver was preparing to coach a linebackers group that entered the season as one of the youngest positions on the Browns. The core consisted of Jacob Phillips, the 2020 third-round draft pick, and Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, two 2019 draft selections who were set to handle a bigger workload in 2020. The top two veterans of the group, B.J. Goodson and Malcolm Smith, finished the year handling a large chunk of defensive snaps.
Phillips, Wilson and Takitaki, the oldest player of the trio at 25, are all set to return and potentially grasp even larger roles with the defense as they continue their NFL maturation. Smith, who re-signed with the Browns at the beginning of free agency, will return as a top defensive mentor and capable rotational player as well, and the group's potential is one big reason why Tarver believes the linebackers are set for substantial improvement next season.
"Now, we have the video to teach off of," Tarver said. "It's all of our job together as coaches, players and organizationally to go, 'This is the standard. It needs to look like this.' The closer we get to that, the better we'll play."
Tarver's room will also welcome a new leader and one of the top free-agent acquisitions of the Browns' offseason: Anthony Walker.
Walker, a four-year veteran, signed with Cleveland after starting his career with a strong impression on the Indianapolis Colts. He quickly became one of the top leaders of the locker room and backed up his voice by recording 321 tackles over the last three seasons, and when news broke that he was departing Indianapolis, several Colts players took to social media to express how much they'd miss having Walker with them.
"It sucks that he's leaving but Cleveland is gaining a Dawg!" tweeted All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. "He's a great leader and he's going to lead your defense to be great! I will truly miss him! I give him a lot of credit for my success!"
Tarver has taken a full embrace of Walker, who is capable of wearing the green helmet sticker and calling plays to the rest of the defense. He's not afraid to share his football intelligence, use his voice and position players across the line of scrimmage, which checks several boxes Tarver looks for in his players.
"Anthony is disciplined, tough and smart on and off the field," he said. "He has a nice pace about his play. He's quick and explosive, so the football intelligence and ability to play all three linebacker positions … he makes it easy. We're excited about him."
The linebackers could also benefit from some of the other top Browns' free-agent signings in safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill, who both signed with Cleveland after spending last season with the Los Angeles Rams, which boasted the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
Both entered the offseason as some of the most sought-after free agents and solidified themselves as quality pass coverage assets in 2020. Their additions should help the linebackers blossom — opposing quarterbacks should have a tougher time getting rid of the football, which leaves more time for the linebackers to reach the backfield or aid the rest of the defense against the pass.
The defensive additions likely aren't over, either. The Browns are widely projected to take a linebacker at some point during the upcoming draft, which could provide Tarver with yet another young player to develop along his revamped group.
"Andrew (Berry), Kevin (Stefanski), everybody in personnel and coaching — we're all working together on identifying personality types that fit as well," he said. "These are great football people that want to put something together, and you can hear it not only in their press conferences, but you see it in how they play."
The pieces already appear to be in place for a much-improved season in 2021. The Browns defense ranked 21st a year ago and dealt with ups and downs across all defensive position groups.
Now, Cleveland has prioritized defensive upgrades as it looks to build another playoff-caliber season. The linebackers room has been addressed with potentially more help to come.
But Tarver believes the pieces are already in place for a big season.
"We just have that whole room surrounded (with talent)," he said, "so now we can put people in the best position to be successful."
The Browns' initial 53 man roster on August 31, 2021