The Browns just finished another double-digit loss season and questions abound throughout the roster. Are the Browns heading in the right direction? Do the Browns have a core to build around?
The OBR is breaking down the Browns current roster position-by-position. In the seventh in the series, we will take a look at the linebacker corps.
The Browns entered the 2011 season with a lot of questions at the linebacker position. They also had depth issues. Other than the starting trio of D'Qwell Jackson, Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, the Browns had very little experience behind them.
Jackson was scheduled to be the middle linebacker after finishing the previous two seasons on injured reserve with two different torn pectoral muscles. Jackson played the first six games of the 2009 season before tearing the pectoral muscle the first time. In the preseason of 2010, Jackson tore the other pectoral muscle forcing him to injured reserve.
The Browns signed Jackson to a one-year contract and headed to training camp in 2011 with him as the middle linebacker without a legitimate alternative if Jackson couldn't hold up.
However, Jackson responded with an outstanding season with 158 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and one interception. There has been speculation around the league that Jackson could be the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. Jackson was voted as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Jackson is an unrestricted free agent, but Tom Heckert said it was safe to assume that Jackson would return to the Browns. If the Browns can't come to terms with Jackson on a new contract, the Browns could slap a franchise tag on him.
Gocong was one of the players the Browns identified as a core player and signed him to a contract extension. Some observers of the Browns thought it was curious that the Browns extended Gocong, as his play had been pretty much non-descript. However, in the second half of the season, Gocong played very well and finished the season with 70 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two fumbles. Gocong showed his versatility when Fujita was placed on injured reserve as he was shifted over to the strong side linebacker spot.
Fujita ended his second-straight season on injured reserve after injuring his hand and has missed 13 games the past two seasons. Fujita finished the season with 50 tackles, one sack and an interception. Fujita has been a solid player for the Browns, but has not been able to stay healthy.
Kaluka Maiava tore his ACL and spent the majority of the 2010 season on injured reserve. Maiava had shown he could be a valuable special team player, but it was questionable if he could be an every down linebacker. Maiava stepped in and started six games when Fujita was injured and responded with solid play. He finished the season with 34 tackles and a fumble. He also was second on the team in special teams tackles.
Titus Brown played very well in the preseason and appeared to be a solid backup for Jackson on the inside and either of the outside positions. However, Brown suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason and never was able to play on a regular basis. He finished the season with just five tackles and a sack in 10 games.
Quenton Spears was primarily used on special teams and finished fourth with eight tackles.
Ben Jacobs and Brian Smith spent most of the season on the practice squad and were added to the active roster at season's end. Neither made any tackles.
Bottom Line: In many ways, the Browns were very fortunate at the linebacker spot. Jackson and Fujita were on injured reserve in 2010 and both were slated to be two-thirds of the starting linebacker unit. Jackson responded with an outstanding season and should be re-signed to a long-term contract.
Gocong played very well and his play showed what the Browns saw in signing him to a contract extension. Fujita has been a strong leader, but his age and durability is in question after finishing the last two seasons on injured reserve.
Maiava and Brown displayed they could provide depth and could step in and start if called upon.
With Jackson and Gocong established as starters, the Browns need to bring in a free agent or draft choice that can compete with Fujita or provide immediate depth.
(Next: We'll take a look at the secondary).