BEREA: Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson became overwhelmed with emotion, paused for 21 seconds and sighed before uttering the final words of his news conference.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” Jackson said with tears in his eyes.
Jackson established himself as the leader of the Browns’ defense last season after battling back from two torn pectoral muscles that forced him to miss 26 consecutive games from 2009-10. The Browns rewarded him Monday with a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension that includes $19 million in guarantees and roster bonuses, a league source said.
“I can remember dating back over a year ago when I didn’t know whether or not [I would play again],” Jackson said. “I was injured, I was rehabbing, I was doing the necessary things to get myself prepared for an upcoming season when [President Mike] Holmgren and staff gave me the opportunity to come back and play. That’s all I needed. I just wanted an opportunity. Now I sit here — I’ve been through a lot — prepared for and ready to lead this team into a postseason and carry the young guys on this team.”
Jackson played last season under a one-year contract worth about $4.5 million, including incentives. He was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at 4 p.m. March 13, but the Browns ensured he would not hit the open market by locking him down with a new deal.
“You know how important he is to this team,” Holmgren said. “You know how important he will be in the development of the team in years to come. So signing this extension was the No. 1 priority for us as an organization this offseason.”
The Browns could have used the franchise tag on Jackson, 28, if a contract extension wasn’t reached, but now they won’t need to do so. They still have until the March 5 deadline to franchise another player. Kicker Phil Dawson, who received the tag last year, and running back Peyton Hillis would be the only logical candidates on the roster.
The Browns have signed several core players — offensive tackle Joe Thomas, defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, outside linebacker Chris Gocong and tight end Evan Moore — to contract extensions since last summer. Jackson is another vital member of the organization, Holmgren said.
“Building the foundation with the young guys in the drafts, that’s all well and good,” Holmgren said. “But what you also need, the component every successful team needs, is leadership from players that the younger players look up to. And by having D’Qwell sign with us for an extension, we have one of the pieces of that puzzle in place.”
Jackson, the runner-up for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award, missed 10 games in 2009 with a torn left pectoral and all 16 games in 2010 with a torn right pectoral before bouncing back with a stellar 2011 season in defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme. Jackson had a team-high 158 tackles, finishing with eight fewer than Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, the league leader in tackles. Jackson also had a career-high 3.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries to go along with an interception and a forced fumble.
The 6-foot, 240-pound Jackson, whom the Browns drafted in the second round (34th overall) in 2006, was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, when he compiled 30 tackles, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble in three games.
He was selected as a first alternate for the Pro Bowl, finishing behind Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens and Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs. He also was named the Browns’ Player of the Year by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.
“To come back from that injury in back-to-back years, you have to be mentally strong,” Jackson said. “It’s tough to do. Once I made that decision that this was my plan of action, this is what I’m going to do and not sway from that, it’s a great feeling to be sitting here today. It was a great feeling to play 16 games and get that behind me.
“My goal is to continue to [improve]. I matured as far as how to take care of my body better. I have a motto — whatever you put into your body is going to help you or hurt you. That time, which I thought was the lowest of low, I was able to get out of it, take myself out of the hole.
“Not being able to play football would not have been the end of the world, but football is my life right now. I just want to put my best foot forward doing it.”
The Browns finished this past season with a record of 4-12, but their defense improved with Jackson calling the plays in the huddle and pacing the team in tackles in all but three of its games. In 2011, the Browns ranked 10th in defense (332.4 yards allowed per game) and fifth in points allowed (19.2 per game) after ranking 22nd (350.1 yards allowed per game) and 13th (20.8 points allowed per game) in those respective categories the previous season.
Jackson said he knows great expectations will come with his new contract. He’s hoping to prove he’s worthy of it by helping reverse the fortunes of the Browns and finishing his career in Cleveland.
“To start somewhere and finish somewhere has become important,” Jackson said. “Each and every day, I think about being here next year and the year after that and the year after that.
“Just to be a part of when we do make that next step, I want to be a part of it. That means something to be able to walk away and say, ‘I was a part of that team,’ so I have something to talk about when I get old and gray.”