The days are winding down until the 2020 NFL Draft. As we get oh so near to our final destination, we'll be breaking down a position group that matters for the Browns when they're on the clock with one of their seven picks.
Our next stop is the linebackers, a position that's experienced some significant turnover on Cleveland's current roster.
Why the position matters for the Browns: Cleveland is looking to replace two veterans in Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey who combined for 572 tackles over the past three seasons -- and that was with Kirksey injured for most of the past two. They were solid players who will be missed, but that's the NFL. It's next man up, and the Browns have a handful of young options at the position at the ready. Cleveland used two of its draft picks on linebacker last year, a third-rounder on Sione Takitaki and a fifth-rounder on Mack Wilson. Takitaki largely played on special teams while Wilson wound up starting 14 games in place of Kirksey. They'll both be expected to take big steps forward in 2020 while being joined by fifth-year player B.J. Goodson, a free agent signing who has spent time with the Packers and Giants. Three other young players -- Jermaine Grace, Willie Harvey and Montrel Meander -- fill out the room. It's probably the youngest position group on the entire roster, and it could get even younger with the selection or two of a linebacker in this year's draft.
This year's top dog: Clemson's Isaiah Simmons can't be pegged into a single position because of his immense versatility, but we're lumping him in with the linebackers for this exercise. Yes, that's the position he played for the past two seasons, but the Tigers used him in a variety of ways to get the most out of the best athlete on their defense, and some NFL evaluators view him as a safety. He won the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's best linebacker, in 2019 after racking up 102 tackles, 16 for loss, eight sacks, three interceptions and nine pass breakups. Then, at the NFL Combine, Simmons ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein projects Simmons as a Pro Bowl player and compares him to Colts Pro Bowl LB Darius Leonard.
Check out photos of the top linebackers in the 2020 NFL Draft
Rounding out the top five: There's a bit of a gap between Simmons and the rest of the pack, but the consensus "next two" both project as plug-and-play starters in the middle of whichever defense adds them to the mix. Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray is coming off a third-team All-American season in which he cleared 100 tackles for the second straight year. Patrick Queen is the latest of the numerous talented LBs whom LSU seems to send to the NFL on an annual basis. Wisconsin's Zack Baun has drawn plenty of comparisons to Schobert, a fellow Badger, after a monster senior season in which he amassed 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks. Akeem Davis-Gaither is the biggest small-school name at the position after starring at Appalachian State and earning Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
How many first-rounders: Simmons has been projected by nearly all analysts to come off the board somewhere in the top 10. The projections have been as high as No. 3 to the Lions and as low as No. 10 to the Browns. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., NFL Network's Damiel Jeremiah and The Athletic's Dane Brugler all project Murray and Queen to be taken somewhere in the 20s in the first round while Jeremiah and Brugler slide Baun into the end of their first round.
A sleeper or two?: Brugler projects the Browns to take Texas Tech's Jordyn Brooks with one of their third-round picks, so let's talk about him. He has the rare distinction of earning all-conference honors in all four of his seasons with the Red Raiders. He started at least 11 games in all four seasons and was at his best as a senior, when he landed second-team All-American honors. His 20 tackles for loss were among the best in the nation. And though he may not qualify as a sleeper, Ohio State's Malik Harrison is worth monitoring. He's a prototypical run-stuffer who could be a nice fit for the Browns in the middle, especially when you consider the kind of teams Cleveland faces six times a year in the AFC North.
Quote to note: "Mentally, I feel like there isn't anything I can't do. I played every position except for a nose or 3 technique. When it comes down to it, I'm going to try with my best ability to do everything I can." -- Simmons