The King might have left Cleveland this week, but Christian Kirksey thinks his Browns are primed to assume his vacated throne.
Entering his fifth season in Cleveland, the Browns linebacker has seen his fair share of losing rosters. But Kirksey gushed to NFL Network on Tuesday about the differences between this year's unit, refurbished at nearly every position by new general manager John Dorsey, and those bumbling Browns sides of seasons past.
"Being one of the longest tenured players on the team, I've seen the teams come through Cleveland," Kirksey prefaced. "I'm going on to my second head coach, my third general manager, my third defensive coordinator, so I've seen players and front office people come in and out the building, and this is just a different feel."
Kirksey cited the leadership and competitiveness of one of Dorsey's major acquisitions, former Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, as a culture-changer.
"He's our guy to take the field and finally have a competitive attitude on the offensive side of the ball," Kirksey said of Taylor. "Jarvis Landry, Josh Gordon, all those guys just have a swagger about themselves. In all my years I've never had that on the offensive side of the ball. Those guys are telling us, 'We're working today.'"
Kirksey isn't the only Brown this offseason to be publicly optimistic about Cleveland's chances in 2018. Gordon boasted that Cleveland employs the "best receiving corps in the league," a statement Landry seconded. Browns coach Hue Jackson said earlier this month that Cleveland has upgraded with talent "everywhere" and that the roster features a "great blend of young talent and veteran talent."
One "young talent" who has earned the respect of his peers quickly is fourth-overall pick Denzel Ward. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams told reporters that vets are telling him, "We're better when Denzel is out there." The rookie cornerback also drew praise from Kirksey, who claims Ward is Cleveland's missing piece on defense.
"Just seeing him on the practice field, he's like a silent assassin," Kirksey said of the rookie. "He don't say too much, but when he's on the field his play is lock. Him being a lockdown corner like I see will give Myles Garrett an extra step to the quarterback."
While much of the attention has been paid to Cleveland's renovated star-studded offense, the Browns defense has quietly added some nice pieces. Along with Ward, the Browns snagged Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, Bills defensive back E.J. Gaines, Raiders cornerback T.J. Carrie and Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the last of whom joins Kirksey on a linebacking corps on the rise.
"If we keep putting in the work each and every day," Kirskey said of his unit, which also boasts Joe Schobert and Jamie Collins, "we can be a great linebacking corps, one of the best in the league."
With training camp still weeks away, optimism in Cleveland is as high as it's been in years. But whether the Browns can translate their different feeling into a different, more prosperous reality remains to be seen.