Those same fans will also be part of another youth movement for a team that seems perpetually stuck in one. Kirksey’s release leaves behind a sizable hole on a linebacker depth chart that will also likely lose Joe Schobert.
Once again, the Browns will have to fortify their linebacker position in the draft—an area where they have struggled to deliver consistent results.
Christian Kirksey was one of Cleveland’s rare draft hits
Browns fans haven’t had much to cheer about since the NFL brought them back in 1999. Two decades later, Cleveland still has far more draft busts than playoff appearances.
In particular, the 2014 draft represents the Browns in a nutshell. Armed with two first-round picks, Cleveland selected cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel. Both were gone after two tumultuous years.
On the other hand, they landed star guard Joel Bitonio in the second round and Kirksey in the third. The latter developed quickly into an integral member of the team both on and off the field. Kirksey went from a part-time starter to a team captain while starting all 32 games from 2016-2017.
Cleveland’s defensive leader blossomed into an every-down force who literally never came off the field. In fact, he played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in back-to-back seasons before injuries arose.
Injuries and salary led to Browns cutting Christian Kirksey
Following his breakout 2016 campaign, Kirksey inked a four-year, $38 million extension that made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebackers. He continued his strong play in the first year of the deal, but ultimately his hefty salary became untenable due to his unavailability.
Kirksey’s 2018 season ended with a trip to injured reserve due to a quad issue. He managed to play just two games last season before a torn pectoral resulted in another trip to IR.
Having played just nine games the last two seasons, Kirksey’s value obviously didn’t match his pay. The Browns reportedly tried negotiating a restructured deal with their veteran linebacker, but ultimately the team decided to move on.
By cutting Kirksey, the Browns saved $7.5 million against the cap. Cleveland already had ample cap space before the move, and this should help give them even more flexibility to pursue Trent Williams to upgrade the left tackle spot.
Browns going with youth movement at linebacker
Besides cutting Kirksey, the Browns also appear to be moving on from Schobert. The team’s top tackler in each of the last three seasons, Schobert enjoyed his best all-around campaign in 2019. Despite recording 133 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions, nine passes defended and two forced fumbles, the former fourth-round pick will hit free agency and cash in elsewhere.
The veteran departures open the door for increased roles for second-year linebackers Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki. Wilson actually finished second on the team with 82 tackles while also flashing the playmaking ability that made him a force at Alabama. Takitaki started just one game and recorded 21 tackles.
Neither Wilson (6-foot-1, 233) nor Takitaki (6-foot-1, 238) bring tremendous physical traits to the position. The Browns would do well to dip into the early- or mid-rounds to unearth another starting-caliber linebacker to fill out the top of the depth chart.
After showing one homegrown linebacker the door, and with another one set to hit free agency, the Browns will have to hope they strike gold again at the position in the 2020 NFL draft.