When Joe Woods was hired by the Browns in February for his second gig as an NFL defensive coordinator, he inherited a defense flush with veterans and established talent at most positions.
The defensive line is fastened with Myles Garrett, Olivier Vernon, Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi. In the secondary, where Woods has primarily coached in the NFL, he has Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit — all young players with high ceilings — to match with top veterans Andrew Sendejo, Karl Joseph and Terrance Mitchell.
The linebackers position, however, carries the most uncertainty. The ambiguity won't go away until the regular season, but Woods will try to make the most of a group that includes fifth-year veteran B.J. Goodson and much younger players in Mack Wilson, Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips. Montrel Meander, Willie Harvey, Jermaine Grace, Tae Davis and Solomon Ajayi will be in the fold as well.
Predictions can be made all offseason, but no one will know the final alignment until the Browns take their first training camp reps and see which linebackers stand out in preseason action.
"Right now, we are giving them some primary positions to learn, but (linebackers coach) Coach (Jason) Tarver and (senior defensive assistant) Coach (Ben) Bloom are really trying to cross-train most of the linebackers," Woods said Thursday in a video call with local reporters. "This is going to be a situation where once we get on the field and we start running our defense, it is going to be how well they fit in a specific position."
Check out the best photos of linebacker Mack Wilson
Woods talked in-depth specifically about Wilson and Takitaki. It's difficult to avoid pairing the two linebackers together in a discussion about the linebackers group as a whole — they were both drafted two rounds apart in 2019 and gradually earned more playing time as their rookie seasons neared a close.
Wilson is 22. Takitaki is 24. They're young, and their development will be key to how Cleveland addresses the position in the future.
Their potential is also one — or is it two? — reasons why Woods believes the linebacker position won't be a weak spot in the defense.
"They are both athletic. They have cover skills. They have range," Woods said. "They play with a nasty demeanor. Both of those guys just look like what we want in a linebacker: athletic, play physical and run to the ball. I think they are a natural fit. They are just both young guys who need to keep gaining experience."
They assuredly will this season. Woods plans to implement a 4-3 scheme, and Takitaki said in an interview last month he's been told to prepare for the "Will" position, or weak side linebacker. The Browns will certainly tinker with players in different positions throughout training camp, however, and nothing will be set in stone until the Week 1 depth chart is submitted.
"Once we get on the field and we start running our defense, it's going to be how well they fit in a specific position," Woods said. "Are they capable of making plays based on the scheme? It's going to be something we are going to have to feel out once we get back for training camp."
Woods alluded to a potential change of schemes in the future, too. The Browns will start with a 4-3 look, but Woods said he might ease the Browns into a transition to a dime package, which would only require one or two linebackers on the field.
With more proven experience in the secondary, a potential switch makes sense, but the Browns will face tough rushing opponents in the first quarter of the season with matchups against Lamar Jackson, Joe Mixon, Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott. Multiple linebackers will be a necessity for the Browns to contain the run.
That's where Woods' focus is, and he knows he'll need his linebackers to step up regardless of what scheme is used.
"Defensively, for us," Woods said, "we better knock the run out."
We'll find out in August which linebackers are up for the challenge.