Browns Mailbag

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Browns Mailbag: Who is ready to emerge at linebacker alongside veterans Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert?

OTAs are over, mandatory mini-camp awaits and a six-week vacation (ish) is on the horizon.

Sounds like the elements are right for five of your questions on this sunny Friday.

What is the projected lineup with the linebackers, including the new additions (Takitaki and Wilson) and how will they be used to complement the current starters (Schobert, Kirksey, Avery)? -- Dana H., Long Beach, California

In an enlightening session with reporters Thursday, new linebackers coach Al Holcomb shed some light on how he views this group. Simply put, he wants the linebackers to perform at a higher level than they did last year, and the biggest improvement he wants to see is an increase in physicality and better tackling. Both areas were exposed a bit in Cleveland’s season finale loss at Baltimore, when the Ravens averaged more than 6 yards per carry on their way to rushing for a whopping 296 yards.

It starts with Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, of course. And while the Browns’ base is a 4-3, Holcomb stressed that reporters shouldn’t view it that way when it comes to discussing starters. The way the league has evolved from a passing standpoint means the Browns and most other teams rely on packages that put more and more defensive backs on the field. It’s why the nickel cornerback -- whoever that winds up being -- is essentially an every-down starter.

The point Holcomb stressed repeatedly is versatility. He wants his linebackers to be able to line up at any of the three spots and play the position as if it’s their best. That includes Schobert and Kirksey and will also include rookies Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, both of whom are currently focused on one spot but will have more and more thrown at them as they get closer and closer to their first NFL season.

“They’re both physical football players,” Holcomb said. “Both smart, intelligent. They play with their hair on fire. Those guys run to the ball. I believe once we get the pads on we’ll see more of what they’re capable of doing.”

Holcomb used the same description for Avery, the second-year player who has been spotted working some at defensive end during OTAs. Avery showed he was dynamic as a situational pass rusher last season and had more put on his plate as a traditional linebacker when Kirksey and Schobert dealt with their respective injuries.

“He’s still a young player and he’s still getting acclimated to playing off the ball,” Holcomb said. “Obviously his comfort level when he came out of Memphis was he was on the line of scrimmage and predominantly rushing the passer. Our job as coaches is to put our players in the best position possible, positions they’re comfortable in and advantageous so that we can get the production out of them. As we continue to grow within this system, you’ll start to see guys continue to flourish and get more comfortable in different roles.”

I haven't seen much on rookie K Austin Seibert. How has he done during OTAs? -- Andy A., Bethany, Oklahoma

Seibert has drawn positive reviews from special teams coordinator Mike Priefer and he had a very good day Thursday, connecting on all five of his field goal attempts during a period midway through the practice. Greg Joseph, his competition for the starting kicking job, made all five of his attempts, too. The key for Seibert over the coming weeks and months is to gain comfort with Cleveland’s kicking battery of long snapper Charley Hughlett and holders Britton Colquitt and Jamie Gillan.

“Right now, Austin does not have the timing down because the other three guys have worked out with Greg, Charley and Britton in terms of the timing,” Priefer said. “We want them to be around 1.3, 1.30, 1.27 – 1.32 (seconds) is our parameters. Austin is a little bit slower than that right now, but as he continues to work with those guys, he will speed it up a little bit.”

Behind the scenes photos from Media Day

T.J. Carrie was being mentioned as a possible replacement at safety after Jabrill Peppers was traded. Is this still a possibility? Where did he line up during OTAs? -- Ronnie B., Harts, West Virginia

Carrie primarily lined up at cornerback during OTAs but also took reps here and there at safety. The Browns are keeping their options open at the position. At Thursday’s practice, with veteran Morgan Burnett working on the side and Damarious Randall absent, veterans Eric Murray and Jermaine Whitehead worked with the first defense.

One thing to keep in mind. In the past, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has utilized a type of hybrid linebacker in his defense. With the Panthers in 2017, it was Shaq Thompson, who is listed as a linebacker. Depending on how things shake out over the next few months, it could be a safety who handles that kind of role in Cleveland.

“People are trying to spread you out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a safety but it has to be a body type that has the flexibility that can possibly cover receivers and at the same time play in the box,” said Joe Whitt, Cleveland’s pass game coordinator/secondary coach. “We’ll try a number of different bodies to get that role taken care of.”

Any guess on the new uniforms in 2020? -- Bill T., Memphis

I don’t have to guess. I’ll just say you’ll be pleased.

Greg Robinson: 10 holding penalties (7 accepted) in 8 games. Are you concerned for full 16 games? -- Gurjit S., Rocklin, California

Personally, I’m not. I think Robinson filled the role well last season and is in the driver’s seat to do the same in 2019. Does he have some things to clean up? Certainly. It’s just no secret how much of a factor he was in Cleveland’s offense really clicking into gear during the second half of 2018.

“This is a young player still in my mind,” said offensive line coach James Campen. “He has a lot of room to grow -- not physically, he’s a big man -- but a lot to grow mentally and the awareness of the game and his fundamentals, making sure he’s always consistent. He has an abundance of talent. The thing about him is he’s a passionate man. He wants to please, he wants to protect his teammates, he wants to be good. It’s just getting him consistent and getting his belief mechanisms up that he can do anything because he really is a special talent.”

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