CLEVELAND, Ohio – There’s something to be said about a team that hasn’t been there before acting like they haven’t been there before.
The Browns had almost an entire roster in attendance for Wednesday’s second practice of OTAs, a voluntary session, just like everything else leading up to the three-day mandatory minicamp in the middle of June. The only significant players missing were tight end David Njoku, defensive end Myles Garrett, left guard Joel Bitonio and, obviously, quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Njoku is staying away until an extension gets done, Garrett will be just fine (and has attended other voluntary sessions) and Bitonio just spent the weekend in the Bahamas with many of his offensive teammates and any parent of two, like Bitonio, knows there’s a give-and-take at home when you get away to the Bahamas for a weekend with your buddies. (OK, that last part is unconfirmed, but Bitonio, like Garrett, will be fine.)
There’s not much else to do this time of year if you’re covering football, so voluntary practice attendance takes on an outsized role in what we discuss, but it does matter, at least a little. After losing the offseason program in 2020 and having sparse attendance in 2021 as the players union fought the program, players showing up to work alongside their teammates and coaches is a welcome change.
“I think it says the team has bought in. We want to win, ”running back Nick Chubb said of all the players in town for the week. “We want to change how things were in the past. For everybody to come back, that says a lot. ”
Even Chubb, at times, has preferred to stay in Georgia to work out, but here he was after also attending the trip to the Bahamas paid for by his new quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
Watson, by all appearances, has been in town for the entire program and it seems his teammates are following suit. This doesn’t feel like the teams in 2019 or 2021 who tasted success the previous season and gave off an air at times that all they had to do was show up and it would happen again.
This feels like a team actually willing to show up when they don’t have to and the offseason program just feels different when coaches are able to coach players who will make a real impact on Sundays as opposed to focusing only on players down the 90- man roster simply hoping to make it to Labor Day.
No one wins the Super Bowl in May. Building a strong foundation in the spring, however, can be a step to getting there.
The Watson effect
We’d be remiss not to mention the starting quarterback didn’t talk to media during either the first media availability of the offseason program last month or on the first day of practices open to the media on Wednesday.
It’s also not surprising, given Wednesday’s practice session occurred the day after two of Watson’s 22 accusers who have filed civil lawsuits against him were interviewed on HBO. This is the awkward dance everyone is doing as football starts amidst the ugliness of this entire situation.
At some point, Watson will talk again, either by choice or because, as the quarterback always is, he will be compelled to.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski said he didn’t watch the interviews, though he did read about them.
“I would tell you, we did a lot of work on that. As we talked about – we have done a lot of work on Deshaun the person and there is legal proceeding ongoing, there is an investigation ongoing so I will not comment much further than that, ”Stefanski said after practice. “We understand with respect to that, it is something that we are going to be dealing with as these proceedings go on.”
All of this will hang over the Watson discussion at least until a resolution is reached and a potential suspension is served – and very likely beyond. There is also the football side to this, one at this moment occurring the day after those HBO interviews and with the lawyers on each side of the case sniping at each other via local sports talk radio.
The reason the Browns were willing to take all this on – the football side is really good. Watson looks the part of an elite quarterback.
During a 7-on-7 third-down drill, Watson converted four of his first five throws for first downs, including a deep ball to tight end Miller Forristall down the right side, a bullet to wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, and two throws to tight end Harrison Bryant, one on the move and another bullet to the third-year tight end.
The one incompletion was a deep throw on the left side to wide receiver Jakeem Grant. (As an aside, Grant, in an interview with cleveland.com, was quick to agree he was interfering with on the play.)
It’s early, there’s no contact and springtime team drills, whether 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, are not exactly a simulation of Sundays in September, but you could see how this all might work with Watson at the helm, whenever he’s able to take the field.
* Take spring depth charts with a grain of salt, but David Bell was lining up in the slot with the first unit alongside Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
The second unit, at least at times, involved Ja’Marcus Bradley in the slot with Anthony Schwartz and Mike Harley Jr. outside.
* Who is Mike Harley Jr.? He’s a 5-foot-11, 180-pound undrafted free agent who set the University of Miami’s career record for receptions. He reportedly ran a 4.46 40-yard dash and jumped 35.5 inches at Miami’s pro day. Let’s all agree to keep an eye on him.
* Listeners to the Orange and Brown Talk Podcast shouldn’t be surprised Greg Newsome II played inside when the Browns were in nickel. Greedy Williams was the outside corner opposite Denzel Ward.
This is what the Browns were doing last season when Troy Hill was injured. Against two receiver sets, Newsome played outside with Ward. When teams went to three or more, Newsome slid inside and Williams played outside.
Adding Martin Emerson Jr. to the mix gives the Browns even more depth at outside corner and makes it even more possible for Newsome to play inside more often.
* Yes, we saw a little bit of Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the field together. Good luck defending those packages with a quarterback like Watson who can deliver on the move or effectively run the ball himself.
* Let’s put a pin in Jacob Phillips getting work with the first team at Mike linebacker. He was training there last year before a camp injury derailed his season.
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