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Joe Schobert knows he 'belongs' as NFL starter after breakout season

When Joe Schobert was named a Pro Bowl alternate last month, the Browns linebacker shrugged off the honor but also acknowledged he must be doing something right to receive such attention.

"I have a lot to work on and a lot to improve at," Schobert said in December, "but I think it means that I'm on the right track."

Schobert's self-evaluation proved to be correct. In what was a winless and frustrating season for Cleveland, the second-year player from Wisconsin and former Big Ten Linebacker of the Year was a bright spot on a defense that showed promise.

Schobert, who moved from outside to middle 'backer last spring, led the Browns with 144 tackles and played every single defensive snap this season along with fellow linebacker Christian Kirksey. For his efforts, Schobert could be honored at the league's annual all-star game later this month in Orlando as potentially Cleveland's lone representative (left guard Joel Bitonio was named a second-team alternate).

"It's pretty awesome, I definitely didn't expect it," he said. "It's a welcomed surprise, so I'm just looking forward to going down there and soaking up the whole experience."

A fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Schobert was mostly a special teams contributor as a rookie before switching positions this past offseason. He used a new diet to slim down and became what's more or less the quarterback of defensive coordinator Gregg WIlliams' defense in the process.

"There's a really good feeling in my heart for him because you guys don't see how hard he's worked behind the scenes and how far he's come," Williams said last month. "I tease him and I've teased him this week from on June 1, he was a third-team middle linebacker on this roster. What he's done and he's just scratched the surface.

"What you don't get to see is how much better he makes people around him … If you were ever to have time to sit down with him and now ask him what he knows about offense, it's not that he understands what we're doing on defense, he has to understand what the opponent is doing and listen to what the opponent is saying. He becomes a sign-stealer, a voice-stealer. He hears all of those things, and he's making checks out there on the ball yard because of what they are saying on the other side of the ball. Most of the time, it's easier when you are doing that on the road than when you are doing it at home because you can hear it on the road. He has done a very good job. I'm very proud of him. It is not even close to as good as how he can be as he continues to move on."

Schobert, asked to chart his progress, said he grew into the position as the year unfolded.

"I think I definitely made strides during the season, it was my first time playing middle linebacker since youth football," he said. "So it's definitely different keys, different reads and stuff like that and I think I got more comfortable as the season went along. There's a lot of stuff to learn from and go from, there's still a lot of room to improve."

Upon being named a Pro Bowl alternate, Schobert spoke of a desire to prove he belongs. It's a feeling, he said, that has motivated him through every level of the sport.

"Coming into the NFL and going into college and it's like, as a kid, you obviously think that high school players are so good. You get there and then college players are so good. Then you get there and belong and think NFL players are so good. So that is just like the next step," he said.

"You get to the NFL. Last year, I was running around and playing football and thinking, 'yeah I belong in the NFL.' So you just don't think you are the elite of the elite. So hopefully going into the Pro Bowl will be a similar experience and go in and recognize that 'Yeah, I belong here.'"

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