DraftBrowns.com Editor: Brendan Leister
As the NFL game changes and evolves, teams are constantly making an effort to become more innovative. Offenses are playing at faster paces and employing multiple formations all while using the same personnel packages. Adding to the stress that these tactics put on defenses, offenses are also finding skill players that can be moved around the formation and excel in the run game along with the pass game. To combat this, defenses are forced to find versatile players that have the skills to play in space while also having the ability to be a force in the run game. Finding these “jack-of-all-trades” types can be a challenge much of the time, but the Cleveland Browns seem to have found a player that fits the mold in linebacker Chris Kirksey.
Kirksey is a 21 year old, 6’2″, 235 lb linebacker who served as a permanent team captain during his final two seasons at the University of Iowa. Throughout his college career, Kirksey’s versatility was consistently on display as he played outside linebacker, weak side linebacker, covered the slot, did a good job in the run game, and also contributed on special teams. In 48 career games, he recorded 315 (151 solo) tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, four interceptions, nine passes defensed, five forced fumbles, and two defensive touchdowns. As a senior in 2013, Kirksey recorded 104 (47 solo) tackles, five tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, one interception, one pass defensed, and two forced fumbles.
Transition from College
Chris Kirksey will be transitioning from the outside linebacker position in Iowa’s 4-3 defense to the weak inside linebacker position in Browns head coach Mike Pettine’s multiple-front 3-4 defense. This means that Kirksey will spend most of his time off the line of scrimmage when the Browns are in their base defense. During his college career, Kirksey spent much of his time standing up on the line of scrimmage in the Hawkeyes base defense. In this role, he was often asked to set the edge in the run game. Moving off the line of scrimmage and chasing from the weak side in the run game will be different for Kirksey, but his skill set shows that he should project very well to the new position.
Playing the Run
Although Kirksey is not the biggest linebacker, he displays violent hand usage when taking on blocks and he is an extremely reliable tackler in space. When in pursuit, he displays a very high motor and he does a good job of taking smart angles to the football. One of the things that stands out most when watching Kirksey in pursuit is the discipline that he shows in maintaining inside or outside leverage. He rarely abandons his assignment and he is very aware of what he is expected to do on each play. When facing cut block attempts, Kirksey shows excellent balance and hand usage that allow him to stay on his feet when many players would fall to the ground. Overall, Kirksey has all of the necessary traits to become a very good run defender in the NFL.
Examples (please refresh page if videos are not showing up):
Kirksey takes on a puller, sheds the block, and tackles the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage:
Kirksey defeats a cut block attempt from the lead blocker as he sets the edge. He then pursues the ball carrier and makes the tackle for a short gain:
Kirksey violently sheds a block and pursues the ball carrier through the tackle:
Kirksey pursues a run from the backside and combines with teammates to make a tackle short of the first down marker:
Kirksey lines up over the slot, recognizes the run, closes on the ball carrier quickly, and performs a beautiful form tackle:
Kirksey defeats a cut block attempt from the lead blocker as he sets the edge and turns the run back inside to his help. He then pursues the ball carrier and combines with teammates to bring him down behind the line of scrimmage:
Playing in Space
Chris Kirksey is a very fluid athlete that has plenty of experience playing in space. He possesses the hips and movement skills to cover slot receivers in short areas and he shows good awareness when covering the flat in zone coverage. There were times during Kirksey’s college career that he was asked to come up to the line of scrimmage and play press-man against slot receivers. Although he showed a tendency to be a little too physical before the ball was in the air, Kirksey’s ability to flip his hips and run with athletes in space is pretty rare for a linebacker. The flexibility that Kirksey could potentially give the Browns when they try to match up with versatile running backs and tight ends looks to be invaluable.
Kirksey presses the slot receiver at the line of scrimmage then turns and runs with him in man coverage. The quarterback throws a pass to another receiver in the area and Kirksey combines with a teammate to make the tackle:
Kirksey lines up over the slot, drops into his zone, recognizes the quarterback passing the ball to the running back in the flat, and he pursues the back. He makes the tackle short of the first down marker near the sideline:
Kirksey reads pass, drops into his zone, recognizes that the quarterback is passing the ball, closes on the intended receiver, and makes a diving interception:
Kirksey shows off his closing burst as he blitzes from the slot and makes a big hit on the quarterback on third down:
Kirksey blitzes off the edge, defeats the fullback with a swim move, and then sacks the quarterback:
Kirksey blitzes off the edge and shows excellent balance as he defeats the cut block from the running back. He then shows off his motor as he continues to pursue the quarterback and combines with a teammate for the sack (notice that the play took place on third and seven in a tight game, late in the third quarter):
All in all, it is easy to see why the Cleveland Browns valued Chris Kirksey enough to select him with the 71st overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He is a versatile athlete with a diverse skill set that has experience playing in a lot of different roles. Expect Kirksey to contribute on special teams immediately and compete with Craig Robertson for the starting job at weak inside linebacker during training camp and the preseason. Regardless of if Kirksey starts in the base defense, his ability in coverage should give him a good chance to play on passing downs at the start of the season. In a league where offenses are getting all of the attention for employing versatile weapons, the Cleveland Browns found one on the defensive side with the selection of Chris Kirksey.
Special thanks to the guys over at DraftBreakdown.com for making it easy to find the resources to evaluate draft prospects.