BEREA - During the NFL lockout middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson didn't know how much the Browns coveted his services.
Now Jackson is one of the most indispensable players on the team.
Seemingly a natural fit for the 43 defense, Jackson adapted to the change in systems easily during training camp. He continued to show his value in a 27-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday by recording a team-leading 11 tackles, including two sacks.
That's a good start for someone the Browns weren't willing to make a long-term commitment to during the offseason. Limited in his options as a restricted free agent, Jackson signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract that will carry him into unrestricted free-agent status next year.
The dollars and cents of the situation don't matter to Jackson at this time. After missing all of last season and 10 games of the 2009 season with pectoral injuries, Jackson is simply glad to be playing again.
"With my history I'm just fortunate enough to be able to come out here every day and play football," Jackson said. "When you're out so long, you feel like you're not a part of everything. It's a great feeling that I hope never leaves, but I'm not looking for any personal accolades. By the grace of God I have my health back."
The Browns have been judicious in their manner of spending money since the lockout ended. Building for the future, they recently signed tight end Evan Moore, defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin and offensive tackle Joe Thomas to contract extensions, and there's talk of an extension for running back Peyton Hillis.
Jackson doesn't want his future to become so mind-consuming that it affects his performance. He's willing to wait until the appropriate time before discussing what's next in his career.
"A few years ago when I was going through all that, I let it affect me," Jackson said. "This year my mindset is the same. I'm older and more mature now, so I understand it's a process. As long as I can take care of business, and the way (president) Mike Holmgren and (general manager) Tom Heckert are handling business, any rookie coming in that can play, when that time comes hopefully you sign a long-term deal.
"I'm not thinking about that right now. It's only been one game. I have a long ways to go before I get into any kind of that talk."
Prior to last Sunday Jackson's last appearance in a regular-season game was at Pittsburgh on Oct. 18 of 2009. Usually plenty of rust settles in during an absence of that length, but Jackson, who turns 28 on Sept. 26, didn't have much to shake off.
"I wasn't out there physically (during my injuries), but I always stayed in tune with what was going on," Jackson said. "This summer I watched a lot of film. Just always staying in shape. That time off gave me extra time to focus in on my body, so when it came to this time I'm ahead of the curve. When I go out there on that field, I don't feel anyone has worked harder than I have since I've been out. It motivates me. It keeps me hungry."
Jackson was selected by the Browns in the second round of the 2006 draft. The first-round pick that year was used on outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who was traded to Oakland prior to last season.
Wimbley recently signed a five-year contract extension worth $48 million. If Jackson keeps playing well, maybe he'll be rewarded with a Wimbley-like deal.
"He got a good contract," Jackson said.