Tom Heckert Jr. must have suspected something when he selected a couple of linebackers in last April’s college football draft.
The Browns’ general manager knew he was going to lose Scott Fujita for three games at the beginning of the season due to the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. But he never would have guessed what happened to Chris Gocong the other day.
When the veteran outside linebacker’s right Achilles’ tendon ruptured in a non-contact play Saturday and short-circuited his 2012 season, the Browns’ least talented position was dealt a severe blow.
The Browns have veteran depth at just about every other position on the team. Linebacker was where they could least afford an injury.
But that’s where Heckert’s prescient ways come into play. Who knew when he drafted James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho that those two would play a vital role this season?
Heckert apparently did.
Gocong’s unfortunate injury could very well pay off for the two rookie linebackers, who put up significant numbers in college. Whether that translates well to the National Football League is, of course, an entirely different matter.
But if there’s one position on the team that college players have an easier time assimilating to in the pro ranks, it’s linebacker. Especially if that’s a position they’ve played on a full-time basis.
Johnson, a tackling machine at the University of Nevada, comes in with a reputation as a ball magnet. Some say the ball finds him, but more likely he finds the ball. He always seemed to be around the ball at Nevada.
And if Acho can duplicate the accomplishments of older brother Sam, who emerged as a starting linebacker as a rookie last season with the Arizona Cardinals, he could be something special. He’s lighter (240 pounds to Sam’s 260), but owns the same football instincts.
Right now, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is relying on Kaluka Maiava to fill the hole created by Gocong’s injury. But Maiava’s size is a mitigating factor. He’s not big enough (5-11, 230) or strong enough to help the run game, which needs all the help it can get.
His work ethic cannot be questioned. But the results fall far short of expectations and that’s where Jauron has to decide if gambling on a couple of rookies is the way to go.
If that proves too much of a gamble for Heckert, the only other route to travel is the waiver wire, where the pickings are thin. Veterans Stephen Cooper, Kevin Bentley, Gary Hackett, E. J, Henderson, Ernie Sims Jr. and Matt Roth are out there. But those street free agents arrive with some sort of baggage.
The best of the lot might be Roth, who logged a productive season and a half with the Browns before opting to jump to Jacksonville last season. The outside linebacker preferred to play in the Jaguars’ 3-4 scheme after the Browns converted to a 4-3. Then the Jags released him after switching to the 4-3.
No one has expressed interest in him so far and you have to wonder if he’ll acquiesce and play OLB for a 4-3 team. At 6-4, 275, he could be valuable in the run defense.
Cooper might be the next best bet if he has recovered from injuries that virtually wiped out his 2011 season. He’s 33 years old now and that could be a negative factor, but he’s smart enough to hold down one of the outside positions until next season, when Gocong will return.
Heckert no doubt is scrambling to shore up the linebacker roster. Excluding Fujita, Maiava and veteran D’Qwell Jackson, Quinton Spears is the only backup on the roster with more than one NFL season. He has two as a reserve.
Panic time? Not really. With an offense expected to far exceed the accomplishments of last season’s team, Heckert knows that the defense, while it might not exceed the achievements of last season, won’t be in as much trouble so long as the offense can score.
Nevertheless, the GM won’t stop trying to strengthen that vital area. But you can bet it’ll be high on his priority list for next year’s draft. Provided he’s still here with the new ownership.
Had to put in that caveat because in the business world, you never know what’s going to happen with a new ownership.