Browns need more big plays from LBs

Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson #52 of the Cleveland Browns waits for the snap of the ball during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 24-10.

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Browns beat reporter Fred Greetham will break down the Browns roster on a position-by-position basis. We’ll breakdown the linebacker position.

Linebackers (D’Qwell Jackson, Craig Robertson, Paul Kruger, Barkevious Mingo, Quentin Groves, Tank Carder, Jabaal Sheard, Darius Eubanks, Paul Hazel, Eric Martin, Brandon Magee)

Inside Linebackers

Jackson (6-0, 240, 30) — Jackson played every play this season except a ‘Hail Mary’ on the final play of the Vikings game. He now has 48 consecutive starts since missing back-to-back seasons with torn pectoral muscles in the 2009-10 seasons. He led the team with 143 tackles. He also had 1.5 sacks, five quarterback harassments, two tackles for loss, one interception, a forced fumble and recovery. Jackson had a smooth transition back to the 3-4 as some were concerned he would be more effective in the 4-3. Jackson has a salary cap number of over $8 million for next season and might be asked to restructure his contract.

Robertson (6-1, 234, 25) — Robertson played his first NFL season in the 3-4 and played well against the run but had trouble in pass coverage. He played in 14 games and had 89 tackles, which was fourth on the team. Robertson also had three sacks, three quarterback harassments, five tackles for loss and three passes broken up. He also had a forced fumble and recovery. He missed two games with a knee injury.

Carder (6-2, 235, 25) — Carder played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. He backed up Robertson and earned the start when Robertson was injured. However, Carder hurt his shoulder early in his first start. He finished with 11 tackles, one quarterback harassment and a pass broken up. He had eight special team tackles, which was second on the team.

Eubanks (6-2, 222, 22) — Eubanks played in nine games with one start when both Robertson and Carder were injured. He had 15 tackles and three tackles on special teams. Eubanks was an undrafted free agent rookie from Georgia Southern, who signed with the Vikings and was claimed by the Browns on waivers.

Outside Linebackers

Kruger (6-4, 270, 27) — Kruger was the biggest off-season signing by the Browns after the 2012 season and he had an underwhelming year in terms of sacks. Kruger’s forte with the Ravens was rushing the passer and the Browns had him play every down. Overall, he played solid, but not spectacular. He finished with 69 tackles, playing in all 16 games. He finished with 4.5 sacks, but did have 24 quarterback harassments and 11 tackles for loss, six passes broken up and two forced fumbles.

Groves (6-3, 265, 29) — Groves was one of the unrestricted free agents the Browns targeted to rush the passer and lead their special teams. Unfortunately, he injured his ankle in the second game, was inactive for several games and then re-injured the ankle trying to come back. He ended up on injured reserve after surgery on his ankle. He had just five tackles, but two were for sacks. He was the special teams captain and was missed after his injury on both special teams and in rushing the passer.

Sheard (6-2, 255, 24) — Sheard was switched to the outside linebacker position after playing defensive end his first two NFL seasons. He might have been the team’s most improved defensive player, as he played better late in the season. Sheard was inactive for three games with a knee injury but ended up leading the team with 5.5 sacks. It was his lowest total of sacks, but he has led the team in sacks all three of his NFL seasons and now has 21 for his career. He is the first player in Browns history to lead the team in sacks three years in a row. He finished with 27 tackles, 16 quarterback harassments, seven tackles for loss, four passes broken up, a forced fumble and recovery

Mingo (6-4, 240, 23) — Mingo suffered a bruised lung in the preseason and ended up missing the first game. When he made his NFL debut in the second week against the Ravens, he sacked Joe Flacco on his first NFL play. He had a sack in his first three games, but then had just two the rest of the season. He finished with 42 tackles, five sacks, 13 quarterback harassments, 10 tackles for loss and eight passes broken up. Mingo’s sack total was the third-highest among rookies as the Lion’s Ziggy Ansah led with eight.

Martin (6-2, 250, 22) — Martin was picked up by the Browns after the final roster cuts. He played primarily on special teams and was fourth with six tackles and he recovered a muffed punt. He played as a reserve and had seven tackles. Martin was an undrafted rookie free agent from Nebraska whom the Browns signed after he was waived by the Saints.

Hazel (6-5, 227, 23) — Hazel, like Martin, was an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Jaguars from Western Michigan. He was released and claimed by the Browns off waivers. He played almost exclusively on special teams. His only statistic was he was credited with one quarterback harassment.

Magee (5-11, 255, 23) — Magee was another player picked up on waivers after being an undrafted rookie free agent from Arizona State by the Cowboys. The Browns signed him and he played on special teams.

Summary: One of the biggest decisions the Browns will have to make is if they are staying with the 3-4 or switching to the 4-3. They spent last off-season trying to acquire pass rushing outside linebackers for the 3-4 and they spent a lot of money getting Kruger, Groves and Mingo. Sheard made the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker pretty well. They also need to make a decision on whether they want to pay Jackson the amount of money he is due in 2014.

Looking Ahead: In a 3-4 alignment the outside linebackers are the pass rushers and the inside linebackers are the run stoppers. The Browns could use help on the inside if they stay with the 3-4 and could draft one or sign one in free agency. Jackson has been solid and Robertson has potential, but the pair haven’t made the game changing plays needed inside.

Hopefully, Groves can rebound from his injury. If Mingo can bulk up without losing his speed and quickness, he should be better with experience. Kruger’s play was solid, and Sheard showed he is a good player. Similar to the offensive line, it seemed the Browns were collecting undrafted rookie linebackers from other teams and trying to develop them. The Browns went out and concentrated on getting difference-makers at outside linebacker and they might show their worth this year. However, the Browns might want to add a run-stopping inside linebacker through the draft or via free agency. If the defense switches back to the 4-3, they might have to re-assess their outside linebackers.

(Next we’ll look at the secondary)