Rookie Kirksey flying under the radar

CLEVELAND – It’s a shame that the best rookie at the Browns’ training camp hasn’t received much notice.

That’s an understandable by-product of having quarterback Johnny Manziel on the roster. With most eyes focused on Manziel and his competition with Brian Hoyer, the play of other talented rookies tends to get buried.

Linebacker Chris Kirksey might change some of that if he keeps performing to the level he has so far. It’s not a stretch to say that Kirksey has been the most impressive rookie since camp started and is a leading candidate to win the Maurice Bassett Award, which is presented to the top rookie in camp each year.

Kirksey, a third-round draft pick from Iowa, didn’t take long to gain the notice of coach Mike Pettine.

“If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t think that he’s a rookie,” Pettine said.

There’s something about certain rookies that immediately grab one’s attention. It’s not just the performance level that stands out. Beyond that is a maturity and confidence that you’d expect of a proven five-year veteran.

From day one, Kirksey has carried himself as if he belongs.

“You’re out here with a bunch of veterans, and it’s no time to think like you’re a rookie,” Kirksey said. “When your name is called, just show what you’ve got. That’s how I try to challenge myself. I don’t look at myself as a rookie. I look at myself as another player on this team trying to make it.”

Kirksey is making it easy for Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil when they decide how to use his skills. It’s certain at this time that he’ll be more than simply a special teams contributor. There’s a good chance he’ll move ahead of Craig Robertson and start at an inside spot next to Karlos Dansby.

“That’s a situation where both can play for us, and that really helps the team,” Pettine said. “They can help (special teams coach) Chris Tabor out. Both can be full-time special teamers and job share within the defensive packages. Chris (Kirksey) is showing that the game isn’t too big for him. Some of the questions we had on him, he’s answered those questions very easily.”

It’s a good guess to say that after looking at film of last season Pettine immediately targeted inside linebacker as an area of need. In particular, he needed to find someone that can play the pass better than Robertson, who was routinely beaten in coverage in 2013.

General manager Ray Farmer pinpointed Kirksey at a time in the draft when it appeared the Browns might finally select a receiver to fill a position of need. The assumption can then be made that Kirksey was brought in to do more than chase down kicks and punts.

Kirksey doesn’t feel added pressure to produce because of the confidence the front office has placed in him.

“I’m just going to go out there and do my job, whether I was picked in the third round or was a free agent,” Kirksey said.

The word on Kirksey coming out of Iowa was that he is strong in coverage. Pettine said there were times when Kirksey walked out and played over top speedy receivers.

Pettine has been pleasantly surprised to see the 6-2, 235-pound Kirksey settle in on the inside. He played primarily on the outside in college, with the exception of a short time at mike inside linebacker.

Kirksey had to feel good when it was noted that Pettine referred to him as a complete linebacker. He’s quickly shown an ability to play the run well.

“Whenever the coach speaks highly of you, you have to keep it going,” Kirksey said. “My thing is, once you stop or go backwards, you’re not improving.”

It’s been nothing but full speed ahead for Kirksey.