The Cleveland Browns enter the 2020 season with one of, if not the most inexperienced group of linebackers. After the departure of veterans Joe Schobert (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars) and Christian Kirksey (now with the Green Bay Packers), the Browns will have to rely heavily on their youth.
While the Browns did sign veteran B.J. Goodson to a one-year deal this offseason, there has been no definitive reason to this point in his career to get excited about the potential he brings to the table. This leaves three young linebackers to the forefront in 2020: Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson, 2019 draft picks, and Jacob Phillips, a third rounder from this past April.
After an early-season injury to Kirksey, it was Wilson who was asked to step up in his absence as he was thrust into the starting role immediately. Takitaki, on the other hand, had a difficult time finding the field as a rookie only contributing on special teams and as a situational WILL by the end of the year.
Can Jacob Phillips start on day one?
Phillips joins the Browns after starting in the middle of the defense for the National Championship winning LSU Tigers. Given the lack of depth and experience in Cleveland, there is a real and probable chance he steps in and starts on day one.
While Goodson could be a wildcard and an outlier in data, and with Takitaki seemingly still having ways to go, fans in Northeast Ohio are fond of Wilson. However, there is not much evidence to prove the excitement is merited for the former Alabama linebacker.
Here, we take the returning linebacker with the excitement in Wilson, and compare him to the new guy in Phillips using the box score, production metrics, athletic testing, physical makeup, and on-field traits.
Looking at the production numbers
We begin our comparative analysis by looking at the production numbers of both Wilson (professional and last year at Alabama) and Phillips (from 2019).
The Cleveland Browns fed Mack Wilson to the wolves
Despite his active use and willingness to engage with fans on social media, Wilson did not do much on the field in 2019 to demand such a level of excitement heading into his sophomore season. In his rookie campaign, Wilson tallied a total of 57 solo tackles, only four of which came behind the line of scrimmage, and just two hits on the quarterback; he added seven passes defended and one interception for the Browns in 2019.
Wilson had the ability to make one or two splash plays a game that would get fans excited, but overall his body of work was extremely unimpressive. Out of all qualifying linebackers in 2019, Wilson finished in the bottom five at his position according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), posting an abysmal grade of 41.7.
In other words, Wilson played like a day-three pick who was forced into action well before he should have been. And while he will more than likely have a starting role in 2020 (due more to depth and experience rather than talent), he has a long march ahead of him in proving he can be a long term solution at the linebacker position.
Jacob Phillips, an analytical gem for the Browns
After an undefeated 2019 season with the LSU Tigers playing next to first round pick Patrick Queen, Phillips flew a bit in the shadows of a star-studded defense. This does not mean, however, that he was not one of the most productive linebackers in the 2020 NFL Draft.
During his 2019 campaign, Phillips racked up 56 solo tackles, seven and a half of which came behind the line of scrimmage, and one sack for the Tigers. In fact, in Rotoworld’s Hayden Winks’ Adjusted Production Metric, Phillips was the fourth most productive linebacker in the 2020 draft behind only first rounders Isaiah Simmons and Kenneth Murray, and day-three pick Evan Weaver.
Overall, Phillips was Wink’s 105th prospect using his analytical model, so drafting him with the 97th pick in the draft was right around the appropriate value. Throughout this comparative article, the argument will be made that it is Phillips, not Wilson who Browns’ fans should be putting their faith behind.
In Winks’ model, Phillips finished with an analytical grade of .79. In that same metric the year before, Wilson posted a score of just .71.
Comparing the physical and athletic makeup of Phillips and Wilson
It is often a rebuttal to disputing Wilson’s potential that he has a high ceiling because he is “ultra-athletic.” However, Wilson’s Relative Athletic Score (RAS) would seem to disagree with that. Wilson was not the most athletic linebacker a year ago, as Joe Schobert’s RAS topped his, and he is still not the most athletic linebacker on the roster.
Looking at Mack Wilson’s RAS numbers
Wilson tested as nothing more than an average athlete for the linebacker position, in just the 54th percentile. His 40 yard dash time was nothing impressive at a 4.71, and his explosiveness displayed in his vertical and broad jump were even more unimpressive as he tested in the 42nd and 64th percentile in those drills.
Wilson went on to test extremely poorly in his agility drills, showing that his ability to put his foot in the ground and change directions on a dime is lacking. He tested in the 54th percentile in the 3-cone drill and only in the 25th percentile in the short shuttle.
Even his size is below average for the linebacker position, measuring within the 46th percentile in height but the 69th percentile in weight. With only 32 inch arms, Wilson does not have the ideal length that teams love to see from the linebacker position.
Jacob Phillips one-upped Wilson’s testing numbers
Meanwhile, Phillips put together a pretty impressive combine as he rode through the shadows most of the pre-draft process. Compared to Wilson’s 54th percentile in athletic ability, Phillips scored in the 82nd percentile with his RAS.
Phillips has great length, listed at 6-foot-3, and has his weight a bit lower than Wilson’s as well. The only area where Phillips and Wilson tested relatively the same was in their agility drills, as neither of the linebackers for the Browns showed great potential in the 3-cone or short shuttle.
Other than these two drills, Phillips showed dynamic explosion, testing in the upper fourth and fifth percentile in his vertical and broad jumps respectively. Hitting the 77th percentile in his 40-yard dash, Phillips ran a 4.66 time, coming in under the mark set by Wilson the year before.
Bigger, faster, stronger, Phillips has the athletic and physical edge over Wilson as they look to take the field together. Quite frankly, it is not even too close of a call either.
Turning on the film of the Browns’ linebackers
After looking at the production and athletic ability of both Wilson and Phillips, it is time to turn to the tape of the two young linebackers.
Browns will need more from Wilson during the 2020 season
Looking at Wilson’s 2019 film, it is apparent he was thrust into action well before he was ready and had a poor understanding of his playbook throughout the season. With a new playbook to the one he learned as a rookie, Wilson will have to dive deep in order to get ready for a 2020 season, where he must step up.
Wilson has a poor understanding of his run fits, which explains why only two of his tackles on the season came behind the line of scrimmage. Far too often, Wilson is shooting the wrong gap on his fit, or cannot spill to the boundary as he is required to do. The Browns were gashed on the ground with frequency a year ago, and much can be placed on teams running at Wilson and banking he would not be in the right position to make the play.
While he was better in pass coverage, especially in man coverage when tasked with taking on running backs out of the backfield, there is still a disconnect with Wilson in zone coverage. Even after starting 14 games as a rookie, Wilson has a ton of work to do both in his playbook and overall understanding of how he operates within a group of 11.
Perhaps Jake Burns of The OBR summed up Mack’s rookie season and the vitality of his growth best: “Wilson was perhaps expecting more adjustment time in the NFL, but his chance came quickly. Many players never get that chance in the NFL when selected where Wilson was selected, so he’s lucky in that regard.
But that doesn’t change the desire for results and that pressure is on Wilson. The Browns let Joe Schobert walk and he is now their most experienced linebacker in the room, even with BJ Goodson’s tenure in the NFL, Wilson’s rookie snap count makes up a large chunk of the overall experience. He is expected to contribute in 2020, and he is expected to play much better than his rookie season (Burns via The OBR)”
Phillips will look to make a name for himself with Browns
Phillips, on the other hand, is well known for the intuition and instincts he played with from the middle of the LSU defense. Next to first rounder Patrick Queen, Phillips actually out-produced the now Baltimore Raven.
Contrary to Wilson, Phillips dissects a play with a high intellect and understands how his fit impacts the grander scheme of the defense he works within. He has a quick first step, displaying the explosion he proved at the Combine and getting downhill in a hurry.
— OBR Film Breakdown (@TheOBRFilmBDN) May 4, 2020
Like Wilson, however, Phillips does not show much ability in coverage to this point in his young career. This is an area where linebacker’s coach Jason Tarver and defensive coordinator Joe Woods must hit hard with their young linebackers once training camp rolls around.
Wrapping up the Wilson/Phillips comparative analysis
College production: Advantage Phillips
Athletic ability: Advantage Phillips
Film grade: Call it even
No matter how one could look at the linebacking corps for the Browns, it is evident to this writer that it is Phillips, not Wilson, who deserves all of the hype heading into the 2020 season. In a perfect reality, Schobert would still be wearing the brown and orange, and the depth in the middle of the defense would not be such a red flag.
However, faced with reality, both of these young men are going to be relied on heavily in Cleveland to step up and perform early in their careers. Phillips has to prove he was worth the third rounder, a pick many thought was a reach, while Wilson must prove that he can bounce back after a less than impressive rookie season.
When looking at the starting outlook when week one rolls around, however, many think Wilson will take over Schobert’s role as the starting MIKE. Many people are expecting Wilson to take over as the leader of the Browns’ defense, but they are looking at the wrong linebacker.
However, this writer has his money on Phillips to usurp that role from Wilson (who would then more than likely move to SAM) as the two compete in training camp. Taking it a step further, it may not be too far-fetched to say, without even playing a snap in the NFL, Phillips is the best linebacker on the roster.