CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns knew what kind of player they had in linebacker Christian Kirksey, but that was only part of the reason why the front office and coaching staff made a push to sign him to a long-term extension in late May.

Because the Browns believe Kirksey is an emerging leader on defense, they signed him to a four-year contract extension, and expect the transition into a frontline linebacker to happen during the 2017 season.

“I think he’s ready,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said. “I think that has always been a part of his makeup.”

In three years out of the University of Iowa, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Kirksey registered 292 total tackles, including 183 solo stops and 109 assists, along with eight sacks, six passes defended and two fumble recoveries.

“I think he has that ability to do it,” Jackson said. “I think when there has been another real vocal person in the group, and when that person goes, it allows another person to start to step up. I think Christian is doing what I know he can do, and it’s important. We need that kind of guy.”

Last season, the Browns ranked near the bottom of the NFL in several statistical categories, most notably points, yards and rushing yards allowed.

On the field for the fourth-most plays in the NFL, 1,067, the Browns allowed 392.4 yards and 22.8 first downs per game, and surrendered third-down conversions on 45.1 percent of their opponents’ attempts in 2016.

Despite the team struggles, Kirksey, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, had a career year for the Browns in 2016.

Over 16 starts, Kirksey was among the NFL’s most prolific defenders, as he registered 148 total tackles, 96 solo stops and 52 assists to go along with 2.5 sacks and three passes defended. The total tackles, solo stops and assists were single-season career highs for Kirksey.

“What he was doing last year is more similar to what we are asking him to do this year,” linebackers coach Blake Williams said. “Obviously, there is a schematic change, but if you look at what he was being asked to do last year and where he was playing within that scheme, it is more similar to what he is doing right now at that WILL position.”

According to Williams, Kirksey has the natural aptitude required to be an impactful every-down player in the NFL sooner rather than later.

“He has been great,” Williams said. “He has some instincts and some playmaking ability. We all saw that last year. He was a great special-teams player early in his career as he developed into this. At that WILL position, I always tell talent evaluators, scouts is if you are a great fourth-down player, you should be a great WILL linebacker.

“If you are a great fourth-down player, you should be a good third-down player and you should be a good WILL linebacker, and you are seeing that with him already. Same thing with him is we are able to move those positions around so you can’t get a beat on it. They are kind of interchangeable, and you see him getting a grasp for that and doing that.”