Deshaun Watson looks to pitch on December 24 against the Saints. (Tim Phillis – For the News-Herald)
The Browns and Jets start training camp a week before the other 30 NFL teams because they will meet on Aug. 3 in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
The Browns will begin camp on July 22, not in Berea as they normally would, but in Greenbrier, W.Va., because coach Kevin Stefanski believes the weather at the resort will be good for the team to bond. He is grateful that the team’s owners, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, were willing to pick up the tab.
The extra week and extra preseason game will come in handy because the Browns have a lot of issues that need to be resolved if they are to challenge for the AFC North championship. They were last in the division at 7-10 last year, two games behind the third-place Steelers and three behind the Ravens. The Bengals clinched the title with a 12-4 record.
The Browns were busy in the offseason strengthening the roster and coaching staff in order to compete for a postseason spot. Here’s a rundown of the key additions they’ve made since last season ended in a 28-14 loss at Pittsburgh.
Training: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone.
Receivers: Elijah Moore, Marquise Goodwin, Cedric Tillman and tight end Jordan Akins
Defensive line: DE Za’Darius Smith, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, DT Maurice Hurst, DE Ogbo Okoronkwo and DT Tristen Hill
Secondary: S John Thornhill and S Rodney McLeod.
The top priority for Stefanski is obvious and the fourth-year head coach started working the last six games last year. He has to make Deshaun Watson play like Watson did in 2020 when he was with the Houston Texans. The Texans were 4-12 that year, but Watson threw 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions as he led the league with 4,823 passing yards.
Seven hundred days passed between Watson playing his last game with Houston and his first with the Browns on Dec. 4 of last year after serving his 11-game NFL suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He was 3-3 and threw seven touchdown passes and five interceptions. The word “rust” appeared in all the stories written about Watson.
“He’s working really hard,” Stefanski said during minicamp in June, the last time the Browns practiced. “He has, like any of us, a year later, he has a better understanding of all things. So we just have to keep racking up days and get better every day.”
Watson had the entire offseason with OTAs and minicamps, plus some informal sessions outside the team to work with his receivers.
“I’m pretty much ahead of where I was last year,” Watson said June 7 at minicamp. “Last year, I was just learning a new system, trying to adjust to different teammates, different players, how guys run routes, how Kevin calls plays and just being able to process the game at the speed I know.
“And being able to talk to Kevin and AVP (offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt) at the end of the year about what we want to do and be confident about it. It allows me to play a little faster when I’m on the field.”
Watson was then asked if he was ready to say the rust had been removed.
“I’m not,” he said. “We’ll figure it out in Week 1 at Cleveland Browns Stadium against Cincinnati. That’s when I can really, after that game, we can see where things are going.”
2. Sync Nick Chubb with Watson: This one will be seen as the season progresses. Nick Chubb rushed for 12 touchdowns in 11 games with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. He ran for zero touchdowns in six games with Watson. No one seems concerned that the trend will continue.
“You can’t really look at the numbers,” Chubb said. “Twelve is the most I’ve had since I’ve been here. I don’t think it had much to do with it. I think we have to figure out some things, take the problems on the offensive. I don’t think Deshaun will hinder me at all.”
Chubb averaged 18.2 carries per game with Brissett and 17 per game with Watson leading the way.
3. Get more from Jedrick Wills: I’m not the president of the Jedrick Wills fan club, and I’m not alone. A source told me the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were happy the Browns took Wills with the 10th pick in the 2020 draft because Tristan Wirfs was the tackle they wanted with the 13th pick. The source said the Bucs wouldn’t have taken Wills 13 if the Browns had taken Wirfs 10 because they were concerned about Wills’ work ethic. Wirfs has been to the last two Pro Bowls.
Browns assistant offensive line coach Scott Peters was asked what Wills needs to work on to be a better player.
“Just refining everything,” Peters said. “Just being more disciplined, and I think he’s starting to do that when he understands the right sets, the right techniques given the situation. And then just win every time. Win and finish.”
Finish is the key word. Applies to all linemen.
“We just have to stay in front of our man, and as simple as that sounds, we have to do it and block for a long time, because we know Deshaun can make big plays late,” Peters said.
4. Fix Cade York: The Browns used a fourth-round draft pick on Cade York in 2022, and York kicked a last-play 58-yard field goal in the season opener to beat the Carolina Panthers (and Baker Mayfield), 28- 26. General manager Andrew Berry seemed like a genius for picking York.
It all went downhill for York after that. He led the Browns with 107 points, but missed 8 of 32 from the field. A 75 percent success rate is not enough. One of the tasks of the special team coordinator, Bubba Ventrone, is to get York to increase his success rate.
“Great guy, hard worker, very in tune with his mechanics, and almost too in tune at times I would say,” Ventrone said at minicamp. “So I try to make it simple, make corrections quickly, and apply them to the next kick. We are working on a few things now. Operations have been pretty strong up to this point.”
Former Browns kicker Phil Dawson once said that teams should hire a kicking coach because, unlike, say, an offensive line coach who specializes in coaching his group, special teams coordinators they generally don’t know the finer nuances of kicking.
5. JOK needs a great season: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has made it clear that he wants to attack the quarterback with his front four. It’s a strategy his defensive linemen, unsurprisingly, love.
But that scheme of throwing pass-rushers at the quarterback like four dogs trying to get to a bowl of food has its risks. The Browns expect opponents to use screen plays to slow down the pass rush. That’s where Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame’s third-year linebacker, can show the Browns they can trust him.
“He’s a very good ball finder,” linebackers coach Jason Tarver said. “He is very good at closing ground. He is very good in one-on-one matches; that has stayed the same.
“Where do you have to go? He needs to keep developing his body. Jeremiah, it’s fast. So he just needs to get really strong so he can explode through blockers and stuff which he does really well because he’ll hit you. But it is the strength to be able to make him play inside and outside.
JOK, 6-foot-2, 221 pounds, missed the last four games of 2022 with a foot injury.
6. Find the best combinations of D lines: The first team defensive line in training camp had Myles Garrett and Ogbo Okoronkwo at the end with Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith at tackle. Smith could end up spending more time at defensive end, but the prospect of him running on the inside and Garrett on the outside is intriguing.
“We will find our personality in training camp,” Schwartz said. “Part of what training camp is going to be for us is figuring out what our best combinations are and how guys play against each other. That is going to be important.
“I think we have some flexibility there, particularly a guy like Za’Darius Smith, who is a very effective inside running back. We played with a lot of guys up front. We’ll go through eight, maybe even nine guys at times, trying to keep them fresh and keep throwing 100 mph fastballs.”
Defensive tackles Jordan Elliott, Maurice Hurst, Perrion Winfrey, Tommy Togiai and Tristen Hill, plus wingers Anthony Wright and Isaiah Thomas, are part of the group Schwartz expects to “throw 100 mph fastballs” in the fourth quarter when the offensive line otherwise is theoretically tired.
Schwartz’s excitement is contagious and his players are running a fever.
7. Find roles for receivers: Berry spent the offseason finding more receivers for Watson. He traded for Elijah Moore and signed Marquise Goodwin plus tight end Jordan Akins in free agency. He used his first draft pick to take wide receiver Cedric Tillman from Tennessee.
Amari Cooper caught 78 passes for 1,160 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns last season. Donovan Peoples-Jones set career highs with 61 receptions and 839 receiving yards a year ago.
“Everything is new,” Watson quipped when asked about the offense. “The foundation and structure of the offense is the same, but as we build and continue to prepare for the season, everything else is new.
“AVP and Kevin have done a great job getting all the guys in the receiving room to be able to do everything: play different positions, play outside, play inside. Everyone can do everything. So you never know going into a game plan or a situation where what staff we have and what we can do with that pool of staff. So it’s amazing.”
Players say that all they want to do is win, but don’t think for a second that they don’t want their catches either, because that’s how they get paid. Van Pelt and Stefanski have the difficult challenge of coming up with winning game plans and keeping everyone happy.
• Only eight practices at Berea will be open to the public this summer. The first is at 2 pm on August 1, two days before the Hall of Fame game and four days before Browns legend Joe Thomas is enshrined in Canton.