Before training camp began, defensive coordinator Ray Horton was talking to the media about his defensive scheme and specific players therein. He answered questions about rookie draft pick Barkevious Mingo and free agent acquisition Paul Kruger. He discussed established veterans like Joe Haden and D’Qwell Jackson. He talked about being pleased with Jabaal Sheard’s progress in his transition to an outside linebacker.
When Craig Robertson’s name came up, it elicited a smile. “That’s my little ace in the hole, I hope,” said Horton.
Coming into camp, if you looked at the Browns’ defensive front seven and tried to find the weak spot, most would have pointed right at Robertson who found himself thrust into a starting role last season. Horton’s words would say otherwise.
“He was what I envisioned, what I hoped he would be,” said Horton. “He’s a young athletic backer that is savvy. When I came in I wasn’t sure what his instincts were as far as picking up a new defense. He’s been everything I want.”
Paul Kruger was drafted in the second round by Baltimore. He signed a four-year free agent deal with the Browns this winter for $40.5 million dollars, $20 million of which is guaranteed. Jabaal Sheard was drafted in the second round by the Browns in 2011. His rookie deal is worth just over $5 million. D’Qwell Jackson was also drafted in the second round. In 2012 he signed a new deal with the Browns for $42.5 million, with $10.4 million guaranteed.
The other starting linebacker? That would be undrafted free agent Craig Robertson from the University of North Texas. In 2012 he signed a two-year deal with the Browns—for $870,000.
Much has been made about Horton’s quarterback-attacking defense. When fans think of this kind of defense, thoughts of outside linebackers coming off the edge and maybe even safety blitzes come to mind. According to Robertson, howver, the inside linebackers will also have plenty of chances to be the aggressors.
“You know we’re going to be blitzing just as much as those guys,” said Robertson to WFNY. “They might have a little bit more, blitzing and holding the edge and stuff like that but we’ve got a lot of cross-dogs and things of that nature. Just trying to make plays.” 1
Last season, Robertson recorded 83 tackles for the Browns. That was second only to his partner on the inside this year, D’Qwell Jackson. But what was it that made Horton get excited to talk about Robertson? Don’t ask Craig.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Robertson said. “I just go out and work hard. Whatever rubs off, rubs off.”
Last season, Roberston headed to Browns camp as an undrafted free agent hoping to make the team. This year, he’s at the top of the depth chart opposite Jackson, ahead of James-Michael Johnson (a fourth-round pick) and Tank Carder (a fifth-round pick of Buffalo). Robertson was quick to point out that even though he might be first on the depth chart, his goal coming into camp hasn’t changed.
“Same thing: You’re trying to make the team every year no matter where you are on the depth chart,” said Robertson. “The depth chart doesn’t matter. In the preseason, the depth chart doesn’t matter at all. You gotta secure what you do, but most importantly you have to learn the defense.”
Something about this camp is different though. For Robertson, he admits the difference in him is confidence. It’s the confidence of having been through a full season in the NFL. The confidence of knowing that despite not being selected in the draft, you are good enough to hang with the best players in the world.
This year, the Browns brought in several undrafted players for a chance to make the team. They always do. In fact, every NFL camp has around a dozen guys that realistically don’t have much of a shot at being on the final roster. It’s really just simple math. A training camp roster can have up to 90 players this season. After the preseason is over, only 53 players will make the team. Another eight can be added to the practice squad.
Around the league it is rare to have more than one or two new undrafted players make a roster in a given year. You would think that would make Robertson a popular man on the team with the 18 or so players that the Browns brought to camp who were not selected in April’s draft.
“To be honest, our team is different,” he said. “We had more than just me. It wasn’t just me as the undrafted guy.” “We had a couple undrafted guys excel. I almost want to say there a couple of us at each position group, especially I know for sure on defense. So you could talk to the guy sitting right next to you in the meeting room rather than go talk to somebody you don’t see that much.”
Last season, the Browns brought 15 undrafted rookie free agents to camp. Amazingly, four players along with Robertson made the team. Linebacker L.J. Fort, defensive backs Johnson Bademosi and Tashaun Gipson and wide receiver Josh Cooper all saw significant action for the Browns. Thursday night against the Detroit Lions, at least two of those five will start for the Browns. Robertson will be joined by either Bademosi or Gipson depending on which of the two start at free safety.
There is plenty of excitement about the Browns new style of defense. Much of it’s success in stopping the run will rest on the shoulders of Craig Robertson. It’s an opportunity that Robertson will be ready for.
(Photo: Candice Vlcek for WFNY)
Cross-dogs, if you haven’t guessed would be a term for a stunting blitz from the inside linebackers.