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Browns positional analysis: Linebackers

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Posted March 02, 2011 @ 2:24 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

This is the seventh in a series of position-by-position looks at the Browns' personnel entering the 2011 season. Here is our analysis of Cleveland's LB situation: 

Overview: The Browns will switch to a 4-3 defense in 2011, a change that could lead to some alterations in their LB corps. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Browns GM Tom Heckert told reporters who cover the team that Scott Fujita is likely to be the strong-side linebacker. According to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, Heckert also indicated that Chris Gocong could be a fit at middle linebacker, with free-agent-to-be D'Qwell Jackson an option at weak-side linebacker.

Here's a breakdown of each of the linebackers on the roster, in alphabetical order:

LB Eric Alexander — Alexander (6-2, 240) played five games for Cleveland a season ago, notching six tackles and a forced fumble. The 29-year-old Alexander will attempt to make the roster as a reserve linebacker and a special-teams contributor.

DE-OLB Marcus Benard — Benard, who turns 26 in July, led the Browns with 7½ sacks a season ago. According to The Plain Dealer, Benard figures to rush the passer on passing downs, but Heckert indicated it's unclear how Benard fits into the picture on earlier downs. The guess here is the 6-2, 256-pound Benard primarily will rush the passer from an end position if he's with Cleveland in 2011.

LB Titus Brown — Brown (6-3, 250) was a reserve inside linebacker in the Browns' 3-4 scheme and a special-teams contributor. However, he played defensive end at Mississippl State.

ILB Blake Costanzo — Costanzo, who turns 27 in April, will vie to make the roster on the strength of his special-teams ability if he's back with Cleveland. The 6-1, 235-pound Costanzo was a favorite of former Browns head coach Eric Mangini. Costanzo, who has three-plus years of experience, is slated to be a free agent.

LB Auston English — The 6-3, 250-pound English signed with the Browns in January. He was a defensive end at Oklahoma but is listed as a linebacker on the Browns' roster. He turns 24 in March.

OLB Scott Fujita — Fujita, who turns 32 in April, had a strong first season with the Browns, notching 51 tackles, 3½ sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in nine starts, eight of which came at outside linebacker. The 6-5, 250-pound Fujita likely will play on the strong side in the Browns' 4-3 scheme. He is no stranger to the 4-3 scheme, having most recently played in the defense with New Orleans in 2009.

ILB Chris Gocong — Gocong started all 16 games at inside linebacker in 2010, recording 75 tackles and a pair of sacks. According to The Plain Dealer, Gocong (6-2, 263) is slated to be the middle linerbacker in the Browns' 4-3 scheme. Gocong, 27, played on the strong side in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme and also could move outside if needed.

LB D'Qwell Jackson —Jackson has missed most of the past two seasons with pectoral injuries, but Heckert reportedly has said the team would like to bring him back, and he could fit as the club's weak-side linebacker, per The Plain Dealer. The 27-year-old Jackson has five years of NFL experience. The scheme change could help Jackson (6-0, 240), who was on the small side for a 3-4 inside linebacker.

LB Kaluka Maiava — Maiava (6-0, 229) will compete for a reserve role. Maiava, 24, missed most of last season with a knee injury.

LB Steve Octavien — Octavien (6-0, 255) signed with the Browns in December and appeared in two games. The 26-year-old has appeared in 18 career games, notching nine tackles on defense.

DE-OLB Matt Roth — The 6-4, 275-pound Roth, who was an outside linebacker in the Browns' 3-4 scheme, fits best as a defensive end in the 4-3, a position he has before played with the Dolphins. However, he's slated to be a free agent. Roth, 28, recorded 86 tackles and 3½ sacks a season ago. He is entering his seventh NFL season.

LB Jason Trusnik — Trusnik (6-4, 250) made five starts at outside linebacker a season ago. His contract is set to expire. Trusnik, who turns 27 in June, has four NFL seasons to his credit and has played inside and outside in a 3-4 scheme.

Bottom line: Fujita and Gocong likely will be starters in the Browns' 4-3 scheme. Jackson is the player to watch; he was the Browns' best linebacker before his tough run of injuries. There's a sense that he's a better fit in the 4-3 than the 3-4. The other story line to watch is how the Browns configure the rest of the depth chart now that they have changed coaches and schemes.

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