In the span of about year, Joe Schobert went from playing mostly special teams to being the Browns' lone representative in the Pro Bowl last season.
That was in large part thanks to an unusual ability to understand the game, said linebackers coach Blake Williams. It's why he and Cleveland's coaching staff expect big things for the former Wisconsin standout moving forward.
"He's got a chance to probably be the most intelligent player and most intelligent MIKE we've ever coached in this system — his capacity for understanding and thinking quickly and knowing what the offense is doing," said Williams, who spoke of Schobert in the same breath as linebackers and former pupils such as London Fletcher, Jonathan Vilma and James Laurinaitis.
Schobert, a fourth-round pick in 2016, is among a trio of starters returning at linebacker for the Browns, a group that includes Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins Sr. In an effort to create perpetual competition in the room, the club also added former Eagles standout Mychal Kendricks last month and selected former Memphis star Genard Avery in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.
In last year's winless campaign, Schobert was a bright spot, leading Cleveland with 144 tackles en route to playing every single snap. Along the way, he found his voice as the team's middle (MIKE) linebacker, which more or less acts as the quarterback of the defense under coordinator Gregg Williams.
"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," Gregg Williams said in December, shortly after Schobert was named to the league's annual all-star game as an alternate. "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."
Part of Schobert's job is to make sure the defense lines up correctly, putting his teammates in positions to make plays. "What you don't get to see is how much better he makes people around him," Gregg Williams said. "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."
Cleveland hopes Schobert continues to do that. The next jump, his coaches say, is to make more impact plays that change the outcome of games.
"His next step is continuing to free himself up and go make game-changing type plays, not just protecting the entire defense plays, which he does so much of the time," Blake Williams said.
"He sees what the offense is doing and he'll just completely change the defense and he might not make the play himself, but that tackle for loss by a D-lineman was because he changed everything we were doing. He's special from that standpoint."