The offseason has arrived, and it figures to be a busy one in Cleveland as the Browns evaluate the highs and lows of the 2021 season. We're doing some evaluations, too, by taking a thorough look at how each position fared throughout the year.
Next up: the linebackers
The Raw Numbers
Rush defense: 109.2 yards allowed per game (12th in NFL)
Anthony Walker Jr.: 113 tackles, two TFLs, two pass breakups
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: 76 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 tackles for a loss, 4 pass breakups,
Malcolm Smith: 51 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups, 3 TFLs
Jacob Phillips: 17 tackles, 1 sack, 3 pass breakups, 2 TFLs
Sione Takitaki: 44 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 5 TFLs, 1 fumble recovery
Mack Wilson: 42 tackles
Tony Fields II: 4 tackles
Analysis in 150 Words or Less
The defensive improvements the Browns anticipated receiving with the addition of Walker in free agency and Owusu-Koramoah in the draft came to full fruition — both players were the top tackle leaders and provided a steady presence in the middle level of the field. Owusu-Koramoah, a 2021 second-round pick, steadily improved as the Browns hoped throughout his rookie season and appears poised to become a top playmaker on the defense for years to come. Phillips, a 2020 third-round pick, missed the first 12 games due to injury but bounced back to play in four of the final five games and record 12 tackles and two pass breakups in the last two games of the year. He and Owusu-Koramoah are two young prospects the Browns hope to build around.
Number of Significance
4 - Owusu-Koramoah ranked fourth among rookie defenders in tackling despite missing three games. He was only eight tackles behind Dallas LB Micah Parsons, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and was also one of three rookie defenders, joining Parsons and Arizona CB Marco Wilson, to force multiple fumbles.
The Browns were anything but pleased after their 16-10 loss to the Ravens in Week 12, but Owusu-Koramoah provided one of the top positives of the game with the way he handled QB Lamar Jackson. Owusu-Koramoah recorded a season-high 13 tackles and a half-sack. Six of those tackles were against the shifty Jackson, and four of them limited Jackson to 1 yard or less. Jackson threw four interceptions and had the lowest passer rating of his career that night, and Owusu-Koramoah's presence was definitely a factor and had arguably his most promising game of his rookie season.
The Browns did a solid job of limiting Chargers RB Austin Ekeler to only 66 rushing yards during Week 5 in Los Angeles, but he and LA's tight ends had their way in the pass game. Ekeler had three total touchdowns. TE Donald Parham also found the end zone and TE Jared Cook caught a 29-yard pass late in the fourth quarter that set the Chargers up for a game-winning touchdown — which was scored by Ekeler. The entire defense had a difficult day in LA, but it was a particularly bruising game for the linebackers.
What They Said
"(Defensive coordinator Joe Woods) really tried to key in on my strengths, just in terms of the versatility that he saw on the film during college. He really tried to replicate as much as he could with that kind of position and the type of scheme that I was definitely getting well at or really progressing at. He really did a good job of trying to take my strengths and develop those. It's my job to be able to strengthen my weaknesses and things that I did not necessarily do that I saw that can definitely improve." - Owusu-Koramoah
Who's Back for 2022?
Owusu-Koramoah, Phillips, Takitaki, Wilson and Fields are all under contract in 2022 via their rookie deals. Willie Harvey Jr. was also signed to the roster on a reserves/futures deal at the start of the offseason.
Who's a Potential Free Agent?
Walker and Smith will be unrestricted free agents on March 16. Both players combined for 164 tackles, so the linebacker position could jump on the offseason priority list for the Browns if both players are left unsigned. Elijah Lee, a core special teams player, is also set to be an unrestricted free agent, and Montrel Meander will be an exclusive rights free agent.
The Browns might've found a gem in Owusu-Koramoah, who's set to be with the Browns through 2024 and could be a player who takes the biggest jump in performance in 2022. Phillips likely will have a shot to compete for a big role in the defense after he performed well in a small sample size, but the Browns will still have roles to fill at the position depending on if they're able to re-sign any of the aforementioned UFAs. The future, though, certainly looks bright at linebacker with "JOK."
Check out the best photos from the 2021 season by the Browns photo team