The Browns secured another piece of their foundation long term Tuesday when they signed linebacker Christian Kirksey to a four-year contract extension.
The deal is worth $38 million with $20 million guaranteed.
Kirksey had been scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but now he’s under contract through 2021.
A third-round draft pick in 2014, Kirksey became a full-time starter last year, played all 16 games and provided a bright spot on a dismal defense. He finished third in the NFL with a career-high 148 tackles and had 2.5 sacks and three passes defensed.
Kirksey, 24, had at least nine tackles in 10 games and played all but two defensive snaps. He also emerged as a leader in the locker room, winning the Dino Lucarelli “Good Guy Award,” which is voted on by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.
After the Browns fell to 0-9 last season, Kirksey became the first member of the team to publicly guarantee it wouldn’t finish 0-16. He turned out to be prophetic because the Browns defeated the San Diego Chargers in their penultimate game and wound up 1-15.
“Christian Kirksey brings a lot to this football team,” head of football operations Sashi Brown said in a news release. “He’s another example of a young talented football player that we want to be part of our organization for the long-term. Chris reflects the hard work and commitment we want in our locker room.
“He has done everything asked of him since he was drafted and has developed into an impact starter. We are very pleased to get a new deal with him in place. We look forward to watching him continue to emerge as a leader of our team and establish a culture of winning here in Cleveland.”
Kirksey, 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, played inside linebacker last season in a 3-4 defense, but he’s transitioning this offseason to weakside linebacker in the 4-3 scheme of new Browns coordinator Gregg Williams.
“A linebacker’s a linebacker,” Kirksey said last week at the team’s golf outing. “You’re going to be in the act. You’re going to be in positions to make a lot of plays. I know Gregg. He knows what he’s doing on his defense. He knows the best spot to put me, so I’ll be ready to just play wherever he wants me to play.”
With an average annual salary of $9.5 million, Kirksey is now the 14th-highest paid linebacker in the NFL, according to the website Spotrac.com.
“First and foremost I want to thank [owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam] for this opportunity and the organization for believing in me,” Kirksey said. “[Coach] Hue Jackson has been telling me from Day One that I have a chance to be a great player in this league and for them to offer me this contract speaks volumes.
“I am glad to be here and to be a Brown for a long time. This is my home. This is where I want to be. I love my teammates and we are ready to get this thing rolling. I am excited for the future.”
The Browns also signed strongside linebacker Jamie Collins and left guard Joel Bitonio to contract extensions this offseason. Collins received a four-year, $50 million deal. Bitonio got a five-year, $51 million contract.
Bitonio was drafted in the second round in 2014, one round before Kirksey. Unfortunately for the Browns, they had a first round from hell that year, picking cornerback Justin Gilbert (No. 8 overall) and quarterback Johnny Manziel (No. 22), both of whom are out of the NFL.
Drafting Kirksey has looked like a wise choice for a while, and his breakout 2016 season confirmed it. In March at the NFL owners meetings, Jackson said re-signing Kirksey was among the Browns’ priorities this offseason.
“He’s another one of those cornerstone players in my opinion,” Jackson said then. “... He’s talented. Did a great job last year. Looking for him to be even better this year.”
Now the Browns can plan on Kirksey being one of their defensive leaders for many more years.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ.