BEREA—In Eric Mangini’s perfect world, there is no distinction between players who play inside and outside linebacker. He loves versatility and wants players that can line up equally at inside or outside linebacker in his 3-4 defensive scheme.
The Browns traded Kamerion Wimbley away to the Raiders, partially because he played exclusively on the outside. The emergence of Matt Roth late in the season as a pass rusher made the Browns feel comfortable to part with Wimbley, even though he led the team with 6.5 sacks. Roth had four sacks in just games.
Also, the trade that brought Chris Gocong to the Browns gave the Browns a player that Mangini envisioned back when he was with the Jets as a pass rushing specialist. The Browns signed Scott Fujita as an unrestricted free agent. Gocong and Fujita can play on the inside and outside.
Due to the number of candidates at the linebacker position, we’re breaking the linebacker position into two parts -- inside and outside.
Because many of these players can play both spots, we will attempt to talk about the candidates to play outside linebacker, attempting to break them down how we see it playing out. David Bowens started on the outside in 2009 before moving inside after injuries to D’Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton. He played very well inside and ended up with 71 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
Here are the most likely players competing at outside linebacker to start training camp:
David Bowens (6-3,265) – Finished second on the team with 71 tackles. He started as the starting outside linebacker and then moved inside after season-ending injuries to D’Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton. Bowens played very well inside and could end up inside once again. Bowens was second on the team with 5.5 sacks. He also had an interception and five passes broken up with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Bowens is entering his 12th NFL season.
Chris Gocong (6-2, 263)—Originally, a third-round draft choice of the Eagles in 2003, Gocong came to the Browns in the trade with the Eagles for Sheldon Brown. Gocong started 11 games last season and had 50 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. Gocong has 203 tackles with four sacks in the last three seasons in Philadelphia.
Matt Roth (6-4, 275) – Finished the season with 28 tackles, including four sacks in just six games after being claimed off waivers from the Dolphins. Roth is entering his sixth year in the NFL after being a second-round draft choice of the Dolphins. Roth had 12.5 sacks in his first four seasons with the Dolphins, including five in 2008.
Marcus Benard (6-2,256) – Benard showed flashes in the 2009 preseason and ended up with 11 tackles in the regular season, including 3.5 sacks in just six regular season games. Benard was a free agent signed by the Browns in 2009 and was on the practice squad for the first eight games.
Jason Trusnik (6-4, 250) – Trusnik came over in the Braylon Edwards trade and most thought he was just a throw in the deal. However, when injuries forced him to play linebacker, he showed versatility at both positions and ended up with 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The former Ohio Northern star was a special teams player primarily with the Jets, but showed enough the Browns tendered him a second-round restricted free agent offer.
Austin English (6-3, 250) – English is an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma, who is a long shot to make the team. His best shot would be as a practice squad player.
Roth, Bowens and Gocong would seem to be the early favorites to be competing for the starting outside positions with Trusnik and Benard pushing for playing time. The Browns are hoping that the contingent won’t make them miss Wimbley, who although wasn’t the difference maker they envisioned, was the best pass rusher the Browns had on the edge.
(Next, we’ll look at the inside linebacker position.)