A day after superstar running back Nick Chubb suffered a concussion, the Cleveland Browns were dealt a significant defensive blow as second-year linebacker Mack Wilson was helped off the field by trainers after sustaining an injury. He was then taken into the medical facility on a cart. Reports are that Wilson is considering season-ending surgery, but that has yet to be confirmed at the time of writing. The full extent of Wilson’s injury is currently unknown, but if he misses time, what will the impact be for the Browns’ defense?
Mack Wilson’s injury thins Browns linebacker depth even more
Wilson, a fifth-round pick in 2019, started 14 games after Christian Kirksey went down with an injury in Week 2. Wilson struggled, as one would expect a fifth-round rookie to, but did have his moments. He demonstrated improvement as the season progressed, becoming a solid starter by the end of the year. He was expected to start at WILL this season and was largely regarded as the best coverage linebacker on the roster.
During this offseason, Kirksey was released, and Pro Bowler Joe Schobert was not offered a new contract. The Browns do not value the LB position that highly, and that makes a lot of sense. The majority of defensive snaps are now played in nickel (with two linebackers and five defensive backs), and that will be Cleveland’s base formation. It may even be more common to see the team deploy just one LB rather than three.
Before Wilson’s injury, the Browns already had one of, if not the NFL’s worst linebacker corps. The other players in the room are Solomon Ajayi, Tae Davis, B.J. Goodson, Willie Harvey JR, Montrel Meander, Jacob Phillips, and Sione Takitaki. Two are rookies, four went undrafted, and only Goodson has NFL starting experience. None have proven themselves to be useful in coverage, whether at the NFL or collegiate level.
What will the Browns linebacker depth chart look like after Wilson’s injury?
It’s challenging to make many observations from training camp, as the footage is limited, and the team has only practiced with pads on for two days. However, based on this regime’s defensive scheme and valuation of linebackers, combined with the skillset of the healthy players, we can get a pretty good idea of what things will look like when the Browns kick-off against the Baltimore Ravens in just 25 days.
B.J. Goodson provides a substantial veteran presence
Goodson was signed in free agency and was a solid run-stopper with the Green Bay Packers. He seemed like the favorite to start at MIKE, and the injury all but guarantees that will happen. This is because Goodson’s primary competition, third-round rookie Jacob Phillips, could very well slide over to WILL and take Wilson’s spot.
In his career, Goodson has racked up 160 tackles but has struggled to make an impact elsewhere. Through four seasons he has just seven tackles for loss 0.5 sacks, and four turnovers. Additionally, despite being the most experienced linebacker on this roster, he has not played over 40% of a team’s snaps since his rookie season in New York back in 2016.
Jacob Phillips seeks to earn a significant role right away
Phillips is very explosive and tackles exceptionally well. His instincts and diagnosis skills are both excellent. He should end up as a solid run-stopper in the middle. However, he didn’t show much in the way of coverage skills at LSU, which is a big concern.
There is nothing that Wilson can do athletically that Phillips cannot, as he registered 218 tackles in his three years at LSU. As with Wilson last year, there will be a rookie learning curve if Philips is thrust into the lineup from the start of the season. However, if he can improve his feel in coverage, he can do a more than adequate job when called upon.
Sione Takitaki must show development in his second season
Takitaki probably has the most potential of the group from a physical and athletic standpoint. Although he played well as a rookie, he didn’t see the field much, logging just over 100 defensive snaps. It’s a mystery as to where the coaching staff sees his best fit; he’s athletic enough to play any LB spot, but maybe best suited at SAM, which is not a starting position. Perhaps he will see time at WILL, although he’ll need to prove himself capable in coverage first.
The other linebackers aren’t expected to be significant contributors on defense, and will instead make the team for their special teams’ ability. The Browns may not even keep six total linebackers as is the norm. Any other roster spot opened up this way will likely be filled by a defensive back, as that is the position group that this defense will be built on.
The safeties will be heavily relied upon
The safety group was drastically transformed this offseason. The 2019 starters Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett are gone, and second-year man Sheldrick Redwine is the lone significant holdover. Cleveland signed Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo in free agency and drafted Grant Delpit in the second round. Sendejo and Redwine are free safeties, so they will be working on the backend (although Redwine has a hybrid skillset, and could even see some snaps in the slot).
Joseph and Delpit will be counted on to provide support in the run game, but there is some reason for concern; both players have dealt with injuries, and Delpit’s tackling could be seen as weak. Although it is not due to effort, and once he got healthy in 2019, he improved leaps and bounds, missing zero tackles during the College Football Playoff.
Mack Wilson’s injury is a significant hurdle the Browns defense must overcome. The linebacker group was already fragile, and this does not help matters in the slightest. Whether Wilson is replaced by someone on the roster currently or a free agent, scheme, rather than talent, will likely be Clevland’s approach to compensating.