BEREA — Arguably, the thinnest area of the Cleveland Browns just got thinner Saturday.
Linebacker Chris Cocong was carted off the practice field after tearing his right Achilles tendon. He is out for the season. Now, the Browns' defense — most especially their linebacking unit — is in peril.
"It's hard when you see something like that happen in practice," Scott Fujita said. "Especially Chris. Watching how far he's come in the last couple years, he is just a guy I enjoy being around."
Fujita is another linebacker who won't be around at the beginning of the season.
He was suspended for the first three games for his role in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. He has appealed his suspension and is waiting to hear back from the NFL.
On Sept. 9 when the Browns open the season at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson will be playing along side two less-experienced linebackers.
"I don't want an injury at any position," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said Saturday. "We'll keep moving forward. Nothing can stop the train, we've got to keep going."
Kaluka Maiava and rookie James-Michael Johnson now take the lead as the favorites to replace Gocong and Fujita. Maiava is entering his fourth season. He played in all 16 games, starting a career-high six games last season including the last five in place of an injured Fujita. Maiava recorded 34 tackles and one forced fumble.
"We're definitely going to miss our leaders," Maiava said. "If someone goes down you've got to be the next guy up and keep going. You don't wish that for anybody. (Gocong) is a big part of this team."
At 6-foot, 229-pounds, Maiava is smaller than Gocong (6-2, 263) and Fujita (6-5, 250), but that does not concern Shurmur.
"There's a lot of linebackers in the league, although they may not be tall, they're not small," Shurmur said. "He's kind of thickly built guy. Even though he's not tall, he's pretty powerful."
"Kaluka is obviously a very fine football player. He first established himself as a special teams player and he's very effective in scrimmage downs as well. We anticipate that he'll be one year better in our scheme and one year better as a player."
Johnson (6-1, 240) was selected by the Browns in the fourth round (120th overall) in April's draft. At Nevada, Johnson recorded 100 tackles his senior season, 5.5 tackles for loss. Now, the pressure just increased for him to make an impact at the professional level.
"Stuff happens really fast at this level," Johnson said. "I'm not concerned with starting right now. I'm concerned with Chris. That's football. It throws things at you you're not ready for."
As the new ownership buzz dies down, the Browns now must turn their attention to finding answers at the linebacker position for a defense that allowed more than 140 yards rushing on average, last season.
"They are very flexible position wise," Shurmur said. "They really can play inside as well, Kaluka, JMJ, and some of the young linebackers that we have on our roster. Anytime there's an injury, it's unfortunate when it happens. It's the unintended consequence of playing this game. As safe as you try to be sometimes it happens. It drives the coach nuts for sure. I worry about that when we come out here. You don't want to see guys get hurt.
"I think the important thing though, is when that happens, you quickly get your eye right back on the ball and you get guys in there that can compete. It's also a lesson to guys that play behind people, it's a play away from being in there and being in there full time. That's what you have to learn from that."