Chris Kirksey pulled his white number 58 jersey over his shoulder pads in the Detroit Lions' cozy visiting locker room. The Browns lost the coin toss and sent their kickoff unit onto the field. Kirksey, a starter on special teams, trotted towards the 35-yard line. He got the chills.
"I had a chance to look up to see the fans and to see everything, it all hit me at once," said the Browns' rookie linebacker. "I'm finally here."
Except the thing about Kirksey is that he's not just "here." His impact on the field has exceeded expectations early on, so much so, that Mike Pettine called Kirksey's name first when asked who impressed the coach the most during Saturday's preseason opener. The third-round pick might not start in Pittsburgh Week One, but the likelihood that he'll receive a significant amount of snaps is heavily trending upwards.
Where is Kirksey standing out?
ProFootballFocus.com has become a widely used tool for scouts and media alike in assessing players' performances. Although he has only played in one preseason game, the website has Kirksey ranked as the top cover linebacker in the NFL.
Kirksey blanketed Lions tight end, and fellow rookie, Eric Ebron on several routes, some as far as 25-yards down the field. The sideline-to-sideline speed we've seen in practice settings has translated to real game action for Kirksey. Earlier last week Pettine mentioned how happy his staff was with Kirksey's ability to "thud" ball carriers in the run too, often stuffing them backwards
One reason for Kirksey's rapid evolution during training camp can be traced back to his days at Iowa. Not many juniors are elected to be team captains. Kirksey was with the Hawkeyes. Head coach Kirk Ferentz trusted Kirksey to police his fellow teammates and be a vocal leader amongst the defense.
Kirksey hasn't been leading veteran players in the NFL, per say. But he has been proactive in making sure he's not a young player swimming up to his ears in new concepts.
"If you were just an observer at practice and didn't have a roster, you wouldn't think he was a rookie," said Pettine of Kirksey. "He's great on the practice field. He asks the right questions. He's been very engaging in the meeting rooms."
"I'm out here with a bunch of veterans," said Kirksey about his quick transition. "There's no time to think like you are a rookie. When your name is called, show what you got."
Because of Craig Robertson's strong training camp, too, Pettine has hinted a few times the two could platoon as the WILL inside linebacker position. Whatever the case, the coaching staff is going to continue to feed Kirksey more reps than we imagined when he was picked in May.
Monday practice observations
- There was an MVP at practice on Monday: Buster Skrine. The cornerback picked off Brian Hoyer a deep route late in practice, and broke up several passes using his physicality.
- "Even since I've gotten here last year, you see the speed and change of direction that Buster has," said quarterback Brian Hoyer. "We're always wary of that going against him because you know that even if he has a little bit of separation, he can close like the one he had over there today. It's got to be a perfect throw or Buster is going to close in on it."
- The defense was dominant in general on Monday. Runs on the outside were snuffed out before backs could cut the corner. There were several turnovers and almost-interceptions. Part of that had to do with the weather conditions.
- Pettine decided to work training camp outside during moderate rain Monday morning, instead of moving practice inside. The rain eventually tapered off. Still, many coaches would've shut practice down to the public. His players respected his decision.
- "Being out here [in the rain] shows the type of coach he is," said Tashaun Gipson. "There are types of things he wants us to be able to endure. Some games it's going to snow, it's going to rain. We're in Cleveland. I think it's a testament what [Pettine] and his coaching staff are bringing to the table. Our guys embrace it."
- "We're going to have to play in rain at times," said Pettine. "I thought it was good work for the quarterbacks and the receivers especially working with a wet ball."
- Pettine revealed to the media more of how the committee of he, quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will make a decision for a starting quarterback.
- "Those guys are coaches," said Pettine. "They're right there in the front lines with them working with them every day. I think it's important to take their input. I'm just not going to make a decision based on what I feel. If it's unanimous then that's easy, but if there's a tie that has to be broken, I'll do it."
- Jordan Cameron was limited to non-contact drills on Monday but the Browns expect him to be able to go against the Washington Redskins.