Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a 12-part series in which Browns beat writer Nate Ulrich analyzes players who will vie for starting jobs or other important roles during training camp, which opens to the public July 25 in Berea.
BATTLES OF BEREA: INSIDE LINEBACKERS
Players to watch: Tank Carder (6-foot-2, 235 pounds, second year); L.J. Fort (6-foot, 230, second year); D’Qwell Jackson (6-foot, 240, eighth year); James-Michael Johnson (6-1, 240, second year); and Craig Robertson (6-1, 229, second year).
2012 stats: Carder (15 games played, including one start, one tackle, one pass defensed); Fort (16 games played, including one start, eight tackles, one sack, one interception, three passes defensed); Jackson (started all 16 games, 119 tackles, 3½ sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries); Johnson (10 games played, including eight starts, 32 tackles); and Robertson (16 games played, including three starts, 83 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, three passes defensed, two fumble recoveries).
Analysis: For the most part, the projected starters in the defensive front seven are safe bets to remain atop the depth chart heading into the regular season. Phil Taylor is the nose tackle. Desmond Bryant and Ahtyba Rubin are the ends. Jabaal Sheard seems capable of holding off rookie Barkevious Mingo and starting opposite Paul Kruger at outside linebacker. Jackson is a lock, barring injury, to start at one of the inside linebacker spots, but who will be stationed beside him? The picture at inside linebacker isn’t quite as clear as some of the other positions in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s front-seven. Throughout organized team activities and minicamps, Robertson practiced alongside Jackson with the first-team defense. Robertson’s speed and coverage skills, which he displayed last season while receiving consistent playing time in the nickel package, have helped him position himself in the driver’s seat. The main challengers appear to be Carder and Fort, both of whom failed to impress as much as Robertson last season. On paper, Johnson, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, should have established himself as a serious contender by now, though he did not make a strong case for himself this spring in the team’s new 3-4, multifront scheme. That could change when the team begins practicing in pads and hitting during camp and preseason games. If it doesn’t, Johnson could find himself on the bubble for a roster spot.
Coming Tuesday: Guards.