Cleveland Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey has developed into a cornerstone player in his first season as a full-time starter on defense.
The Cleveland Browns have been a mess on defense all season, ranking 31st in overall defense, rushing defense and points allowed per game.
But that does not mean the defense has not been without some bright spots, one of whom has been third-year linebacker Christian Kirksey, who has already set career highs in tackles and become a cornerstone for the defense in his first year as a full-time starter.
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Kirksey has possibly benefited the most from the mid-season acquisition of linebacker Jamie Collins – a player opposing offenses have to be aware of — and the improved play f second-year nose tackle Danny Shelton – who is eating up blockers at the line of scrimmage.
“That is where it shows up,” defensive line coach Robert Nunn said on Tuesday. “Going back when I was at Miami and we had (linebacker) Zach Thomas and those big tackles, and when those big tackles weren’t there, Zach wasn’t making those tackles like that. You can ask Kirksey about that. When Danny is playing at a high level, he has to have a lot of attention and those guys can run through and make the plays.”
But to give all the credit to Shelton and Collins would be doing a disservice to Kirksey. It is one thing for Shelton to create opportunities for the linebackers, it is another for the linebackers to make the play when it matters, rather than five or six yards down the field.
Kirksey’s on-field improvement is a product of growth as a player and his work ethic, according to inside linebackers coach Johnny Holland.
“I kind of expected that from Kirksey just from watching his tape from last year,” Holland said on Tuesday. “I always said if a linebacker can flash some stuff — he may not do it consistently, but if he has it in him I feel like as a coach that’s my job to get it out of him all the time. He’s been able to do it.
“When I came here, (Christian) said, ‘Coach, I want to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL.’ I told him if he’s willing to work and buy in and listen and do what it takes that he can be because he has athletic ability. He can run and he can hit and he’s a smart player. I expected that from him. He’s a very confident, and he’s gaining more confidence in himself now. The sky’s the limit for him.”
It has been hard to see at times, given the team’s 0-12 record, but there have been a handful of players on both sides of the ball that have made some nice progress this season.
Kirksey has played himself into a building block along the defensive front seven, along with Shelton, Collins (if he resigns in free agency) and rookies Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib.
If that group continues to improve, and the Browns can add an impact player like Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (just saying) in next spring’s draft, then the days of the Browns defense looking up at the rest of the league may soon become a fading memory.