The Cleveland Browns wasted no time in beginning to use some of their ample salary cap space when free agency officially opened at 4:00 PM on Tuesday. It was quickly reported that they had agreed to sign two players to bolster head coach Mike Pettine’s defense: middle linebacker Karlos Dansby and strong safety Donte Whitner.
Browns fans probably already know a little bit about the 6’4″, 250-pound Dansby, but let’s take a closer look.
From his high school days forward, Dansby has been a tremendous athlete who has shown the ability to impact a game from his linebacker position. As a senior at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama he was an All-State linebacker, posting 81 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries. He also played wide receiver and was a power forward on the basketball team.
Dansby was recruited to college at Auburn, and started his time there as a strong safety. In his sophomore year he moved to linebacker and from there he put together an impressive college career. In 36 games he had 218 tackles (128 solo), 10 sacks, 31 tackles for loss, 7 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 15 pass deflections and 8 interceptions. Dansby won multiple honors, including being named a First-Team All-American as a senior in 2003 and being named All-SEC in both 2002 and 2003. He was also a semi-finalist for the Butkus award in 2003. He also made one of the more interesting plays I’ve seen.
He continued to impress in the lead-up to the NFL draft, and was projected as a 1st-round pick and one of the top linebackers available. He was drafted with the first pick of the second round in the 2004 draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
In his rookie season, Dansby appeared in 15 games, starting in 11 of them. He immediately flashed the ability that had made him a high pick, racking up 61 tackles (44 solo), 5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 3 fumble recoveries. He was honored by being named to Pro Football Weekly’s All-Rookie Team.
Dansby consistently proved to be a very productive and underrated force in the middle of Arizona’s defense over the next 5 seasons in Arizona. In 2005 he became the first linebacker in Cardinals history to return 2 interceptions for touchdowns in a single season and also made over 100 tackles for the first time in his career. He would do so 3 more times in his first stint in Arizona. In 2006 Dansby had a career-high 8 sacks. He had a career-high 4 forced fumbles in 2007.
In 2008, Dansby was named a Pro Bowl alternate after recording 119 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries and 5 passes defensed. He stepped up his game even more in the Cardinals postseason run, with 37 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 passes defensed and an interception of a pass by the despicable piece of crap Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl. Dansby had another impressive season in 2009, and capped it with one of the more memorable plays in one of the more memorable games in recent playoff history, grabbing a fumble by Aaron Rodgers in overtime and returning it 17 yards for a game-ending touchdown in the Cardinals 51-45 Wild Card win over the Packers.
The Cardinals had designated Dansby as a non-exclusive franchise player in both 2008 and 2009 to keep him with the team without having to commit with a long-term deal. But in 2010 Dansby hit the open market and signed a 5-year, $43-million contract with the Miami Dolphins. The deal included $22 million in guaranteed money and made him the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history. Dansby produced two 100-tackle seasons in his time in Miami, with 332 tackles total in his 3 years there. He also had 6 sacks, 1 interception, 18 passes defensed and 5 forced fumbles during that time. In 2012 he led the Dolphins with 133 tackles and had a career-high 9 passes defensed. Despite that solid season, he was released by Miami on March 13, 2013.
He found a new home in his old home, as the Cardinals brought him back to the desert on a 1-year, $2.25-million deal. Dansby clearly accepted the contract in hopes of proving he still had value and securing another big contract. He proceeded to do just that.
In 2013, Dansby had what may have been the best season of his career, and emerged as one of the leaders of a surprisingly good Cardinals defense. He excelled in all facets of his game, posting 121 tackles (including a career high 103 solo tackles), 6.5 sacks, 4 interceptions (2 returned for touchdowns), 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovered, and a career-high 19 passes defensed. His impressive performance assured that he would hit the free agent market for the second straight season in a position to cash in, despite the fact that he was 32 years old.
FITTING WITH THE BROWNS
The Browns were speculated as a possible suitor for Dansby after the season ended, especially after the ouster of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, whose viewpoint on players over 30 was well-known. That speculation heated up when starting middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was released on February 26. As Tuesday progressed, reports emerged that the Browns had used the pre-free agency negotiating window to work out a deal with Dansby.
Now we know that Ray Farmer has inked Dansby to a 4-year, $24 million deal which includes $12 million in guaranteed money. While those are the final numbers, the deal really breaks down as a 2-year deal worth $14 million. It had been rumored that the Cardinals were offering a 2-year deal in the $10-12 million range.
Dansby now becomes a key part of Pettine’s defense, and along with Whitner will be looked to to provide productive play along with veteran leadership. On paper, it would appear that he will be an excellent fit and a fine signing for the Browns.
Questions about the signing mostly center on a couple of factors. One is Dansby’s age. While a valid concern, the reality is that his production and durability are strong indicators that his age shouldn’t be a major issue. Dansby has missed only 8 games in his 10-year career, and only 1 game in the past 5 seasons. And, as mentioned, 2013 may have been the best season he’s ever had. The other big concern I’ve heard is that Dansby slacked off when he received his big contract from Miami and then only turned it back on last year when he was playing for another contract. This stems back to his showing up overweight and starting slow in 2011, and a general perception in Miami that he just didn’t live up to his deal. While fans may have expected more because of how much money the Dolphins threw at him, though, the fact is that his production stayed pretty much where it was at in Arizona. Actually, he was in some ways better in Miami than in his last couple of seasons as a Cardinal. He also provided veteran leadership and was a positive force on and off the field.
Taking a closer look at Dansby’s production through Pro Football Focus’s (PFF’s) ratings system further reveals his value. He was rated as the 5th-best inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013 (11th in pass rushing, 3rd in coverage, 14th in run defense). He was 1st among ILB in sacks and ranked 5th in stops (which PFF defines as solo defensive tackles which constitute an offensive failure). That sort of all-around production makes Dansby so valuable as a linebacker that can play all three downs.
Going back a bit, here are Dansby’s ratings from PFF among inside linebackers over the past few seasons:
2012: 13th overall (50th in pass rush, 16th in coverage, 11th in run defense)
2011: 11th overall (30th in pass rush, 12th in coverage, 14th in run defense)
2010: 12th overall (12th in pass rush, 5th in coverage, 30th in run defense)
2009: 22nd overall (54th in pass rush, 9th in coverage, 28th in run defense)
2008: 29th overall (8th in pass rush, 34th in coverage, 34th in run defense)
2007: 5th overall (2nd in pass rush, 13th in coverage, 8th in run defense)
So those numbers reveal that Dansby actually has been improved over the past 3 or 4 seasons in many ways from his prime seasons in Arizona. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a couple more seasons of top 10 to top 15 play at the inside linebacker position as a starter with the Browns. He represents an upgrade over D’Qwell Jackson, who has faded some over the past couple of seasons.
That being said, there is definitely some risk associated with guaranteeing $12 million to a 32-year old middle linebacker who has played a ton of snaps in his 10 years in the league.
And, whether it is reasonable or not, whatever Dansby does in Cleveland will be compared to what D’Qwell Jackson does with the Indianapolis Colts. One can point to Dansby’s durability as an advantage over Jackson, who has missed 31 games in his 8 years in the league. Of late, though, DQ52 has been pretty durable, including playing in all 16 games in each of the last 3 seasons. In fact, you could argue that between missing those games with injury, not playing in any postseason games, and having 3 less years in the league, Jackson is a safer bet to hold up better and longer than Dansby going forward because he has less miles on him.
What you can’t argue with is the production, though. Dansby has been a better overall player than Jackson over the past couple of seasons. He is much better than Jackson at cutting through the defense to make stops and bust up offensive plays. While the total number of tackles they both make are similar, many of D’Qwell’s were made farther down the field than Dansby’s. He is just a better playmaker than Jackson.
If Dansby can continue playing at the level he has over the past few seasons and remain healthy, then the Browns will have made a solid move here.
Rob Magee is a lifelong Browns fan who suffered his most devastating punch to the gut when a friend recorded The Langoliers over his VHS copy of the 1993 Browns vs. Steelers game that featured two Eric Metcalf punt returns for touchdowns. You can follow him on Twitter @robisindy, or you can send your thoughts to him at DPNRob@gmail.com.