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The 'old man' in the middle who has helped the Browns D thrive without one of its top leaders

Veteran Malcolm Smith has stepped up in a big way at middle linebacker during Anthony Walker’s stint on injured reserve

It doesn't take much to be called an "old man" on this Browns team. Just seven players check in at 30 years old or higher, and the head coach, Kevin Stefanski, has yet to celebrate his 40th birthday.

So consider it a relative term of endearment when Stefanski used the term to describe 32-year-old LB Malcolm Smith, the oldest member of Cleveland's revamped defense.

"The old man did a nice job," Stefanski said after Smith dazzled while playing nearly every snap in the Browns' Week 2 win over the Texans. "He made plays and got that ball like we talked about. He is a very heady player. He is a great teammate."

Smith cringes a bit when he hears "old man" and his name in the same sentence. Over the past three games, he's looked nothing of the sort while filling in for Anthony Walker in the middle of Cleveland's defense. He's played the vast majority of the snaps in a three-game stretch that's resulted in three wins and included back-to-back dominant performances leading into Sunday's game against the Chargers.

Smith has been at the heart of it all, and he'll continue to play a vital role for the Browns even after Walker returns.

"I guess I'm the oldest man or an older man. I wouldn't call it the old man," Smith said. "I just try to bring youthful energy and do my job. I learn from the young guys as much as I try to give to them."

Smith's play over the past three games matches what he's routinely done ever since he joined the Browns midway through training camp before the 2020 season. The opportunities always seem to find the former Super Bowl MVP, and he just keeps on delivering.

A quick refresher: Smith was out of football as the NFL got back on its feet with a delayed start to training camp. He wasn't sure if the phone would ever ring again. 

After eight years in the league — a career that began as a seventh-round pick and featured four years in Seattle during the "Legion of Boom" era — Smith was at peace with whatever came next. 

Make no mistake, though: He stayed ready.

"It was like if I get a chance, great. If not, I've already played eight seasons. That's a full career for me already," Smith said. "I was running three-four times a week, I would simulate practice time, periods in practice and go through things in my imagination. I would imagine playing certain defenses and special teams plays. It was a lot of me by myself, but it was fun."

The Browns came calling shortly after Mack Wilson went down with a knee injury, and Smith, after going through numerous COVID protocols, joined the Browns a couple of weeks before the start of the 2020 season. 

Nothing was guaranteed. 

Smith, after all, had played in just 16 games with three different teams in the previous three seasons. His MVP performance in Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks was long in the rearview mirror, but Smith quickly showed he still had plenty left in the tank. He made the team and was on the field for Cleveland's Week 1 matchup with the Ravens. In Week 3, he made one of his biggest highlights of the season with a second-half interception in the Browns' win over Washington.

All told, he appeared in 15 games, including four starts. Perhaps more telling, Smith was one of the only members of Cleveland's 2020 defense with free agent possibilities to re-sign with the team in March.

"I just feel like we had a good team. I liked the defense, I liked the coaching staff. I knew what was going on, it wasn't like I had to step into a new place," Smith said. "My family has been in and out so they saw where we're going to be. I guess the whole city of Cleveland in general has been cool. It's a change up of what I'm used to on the West Coast but it's been good to me."

Fast forward to Week 2, when the Browns were more than thankful to have a player like Smith to call upon in the wake of Walker's injury. Walker, of course, was one of the most important additions to Cleveland's defense in an offseason full of them. Not only were the Browns counting on Walker for every-down production in the middle of the defense, but also a commanding leader for a unit that needed to jell in a hurry.

Enter Smith, who is not necessarily a middle linebacker, by trade, but certainly looked like he'd been doing it for years. Smith was at the center of the defense's best moment in Week 2 when he made a diving interception deep inside Texans territory, all while fighting off Houston WR Andre Roberts.

That high level of play continued in Weeks 3 and 4, as Smith played a key role in the Browns limiting opponents to single digits in consecutive games for the first time since 1995.

This kind of smooth transition is exactly what the Browns have sought to cultivate with a "next man up" mentality all throughout the organization.

"Guys like Malcolm make you so proud to be in the group and around people," linebackers coach Jason Tarver said. "He is amazing in how he can focus and stay in the moment and how he sees everything and how he can make it simple. He can make it easier even than coaches can. He is great, and his ability to play all positions over the past two years for us, I can't say enough about him and what he does." 

Smith is soaking it all in. 

Just a little more than a year ago, Smith didn't know if his playing days were behind him. He didn't know if an opportunity as good as the one he's maximized in Cleveland would ever present itself.

He's no old man, but he's experienced enough to appreciate what he's accomplished and what he and the players around him are working toward.

"I can appreciate a Wednesday much more than I did when I was younger, seeing the value of a Wednesday, Thursday practice and getting ready for the game," Smith said. "I try to let the other guys know these are valuable days, valuable time to get better. These days make a difference. It's not just showing up to practice. That's a difference now. 

"I'm just fortunate. Very fortunate."