WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The Browns still have six weeks until they open the season, and they still have a bunch of things they must implement and decide on.
But the top story of the offseason is also the key to unlocking this offense, so let’s not pretend a whole lot outside the passing game really matters at this early stage. We’re watching Deshaun Watson closely, and over the Browns’ eight days at the Greenbrier Resort, Watson was pretty impressive.
Saturday, especially, was a big day for Watson and tight end David Njoku. In fact, the only time Njoku even came close to getting slowed down is when he crashed into the net behind the goal post that’s in place to keep kicks from sailing over the edge of a nearby mountain. That catch went for a touchdown in an early one-on-one period, and Njoku made a big play later with a one-handed catch for a big gain in a seven-on-seven.
It was hard to tell if that throw was a little high or Njoku just didn’t see it until he was almost too late, but he’d broken open at the second level of the defense and Watson floated it toward open space. When Watson is on the move, either by design or improvisation, Njoku is big enough and athletic enough to almost always be in the quarterback’s sightline. And probably 75 percent of the pass plays we saw at the Greenbrier came with Watson on the move.
Pass catchers are often the stars of open training camp practices. It’s fairly easy for onlookers to watch (and judge) wide receivers in just about every drill, and no one comes to camp to see the punt team get lined up correctly or to watch centers correctly diagnose an oncoming blitzer. We want touchdowns.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) July 30, 2023
Given the Browns’ remake of the wide receiver position this offseason and the importance of the passing game, we’re especially watching — and frankly, expecting — to see highlight-reel throws and catches. Graded against previous Browns camps of the last 10-15 years, we saw a touchdown explosion over the first week of camp. Graded with a more measured approach, it’s fair to say it was a good week overall for the passing game, and more important weeks lie ahead.
There were a number of good throws and a couple of “wow” throws, but there was never a period of prolonged impressive completions like there was in the June minicamp. That’s probably due in large part to the increased degree of difficulty here; the Browns have really good cornerbacks, and minicamp rules prohibit those corners from putting their hands on wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. That changes once training camp gets going.
Nobody seemed to be able to cover Njoku. The first pass of most drills at the Greenbrier seemed to go to Donovan Peoples-Jones more often than it went anywhere else. Watson hit a beauty of a deep ball in a seven-on-seven to Jaelon Darden on Thursday, and on Saturday got another one as Anthony Schwartz somehow ended up uncovered. Amari Cooper was more of a spectator than anything else as he dealt with a minor injury, and everything about the passing game generally runs more smoothly when Cooper is in there. Cooper isn’t hurt, and he’ll be a big part of things when the passes actually count.
The Browns have a clear top four in their pass catcher group with Cooper, Elijah Moore, Njoku and Peoples-Jones. Moore continues to line up all over the formation, and because Cooper and Njoku can also comfortably play multiple spots, eventually the Browns will create specific matchups and intentionally set up big-play shots. Right now, we’re seeing the basics. Saturday was the first day for competitive drills in full pads — and the first day the offense ran any plays in a competitive setting that weren’t on a script.
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Piece by piece
The defensive line group was a lot of fun to watch. Even mostly in individual drills, it’s fun to watch rare talents like Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith run through their reps and take straight lines to the quarterback. Just about every one of coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defensive drills includes a straight line to the quarterback.
During Saturday’s late-practice seven-on-seven sessions, Schwartz had edge rushers sprinting off the edge to hit tackling dummies. That drill is designed both to establish the attack mentality and to at least somewhat simulate a pass rush for the quarterbacks.
Overall, the Browns will continue to take a mostly deliberate and instructional approach to training camp. Coach Kevin Stefanski said he feels like the entire first two weeks of camp are an extended acclimation period, and the overarching goal will always be to have a relatively quiet camp with a focus on preventing injuries.
“It’s taking care of players and I feel like everybody’s feeling super refreshed, feeling good,” defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said. “You don’t get camp fatigue early on and stuff like that either. So it’s definitely a different approach for me, but I feel like it’s a good one.”
The Browns’ cornerbacks also had an impressive week. The Browns have a clear top three with Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. Thomas Graham Jr. also showed up during the week with multiple impact plays.
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Though Newsome is usually the No. 1 slot cornerback when the Browns have three corners on the field, Ward also took at least a handful of snaps inside during the first week. Ward had an active week in swatting passes away, and it was no surprise to see later in the week that A.J. Green replaced Ward in some of the team drills at outside cornerback. That’s just a case of Green needing more work than Ward at this early stage.
• On the first day Cooper sat out, receiver David Bell was first up with the No. 1 offense. But for most of the rest of the week, rookie Cedric Tillman and second-year player Daylen Baldwin seemed to log the most reps. The Browns frequently rotated a number of players at both cornerback and wide receiver — again, that’s part of keeping the players fresh — but it was easy to notice that Baldwin catches almost everything and is at least going to continue to get chances to prove he’s worth keeping.
• Stefanski said he won’t address playing time for Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game until the Browns return to practice in Berea on Tuesday, but few (if any) regulars will even dress, and the focus will be on getting game reps for younger players. Just based on the number of reps at the Greenbrier, Kellen Mond seems likely to start that game at quarterback with rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson next in line.
• We saw only one live kicking period from Cade York, and York went 5-for-5 on those kicks. Preseason game reps will be the most important part of York’s summer — and for the special teams as a whole.
Browns focused on team bonding during early portion of training camp
Wide receiver/kick returner Jakeem Grant has been first up in the return lines when he’s practiced, but he’s still been sitting out every other practice as part of his rehab from a torn Achilles tendon. Linebackers Sione Takitaki and Anthony Walker have been on a similar schedule as part of their respective returns, but neither has been part of full-team drills. Jordan Kunaszyk has been the first middle linebacker in team drills, and Jacob Phillips has played outside. There’s still a lot to sort out at linebacker once Walker and Takitaki return. Backup linebacker and special teamer Matthew Adams will miss at least a couple of weeks with a calf injury he suffered on the first day of competitive drills.
Grant and second-year running back Jerome Ford were both excused from Saturday and Sunday’s practices for personal reasons. With Ford out, John Kelly was generally up as the No. 2 running back ahead of Demetric Felton. Expect to see a lot of Kelly and undrafted rookie running back Hassan Hall in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game.
Veteran tight end Jordan Akins sat out the last three practices at the Greenbrier to rest a sore knee, and it’s no surprise that most of the veteran players will get periodic days off throughout camp. Akins made probably the most impressive catch of camp Thursday when he left his feet and reached over rookie safety Tanner McCalister to secure a pass from Watson.
As expected, the first defensive tackles up have been Tomlinson and Jordan Elliott, and the second group up in Saturday’s team drills was Maurice Hurst and rookie Siaki Ika. Defensive tackle Trysten Hill (hand) didn’t practice Sunday, leaving the Browns with just six available defensive tackles.
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Wide receiver Mike Harley Jr. is in concussion protocol after he left Thursday’s practice early, and Darden didn’t practice Sunday after he left Saturday’s practice with an undisclosed injury. Both Harley and Darden have speed and would be in line for chances to show it off in the early preseason games, so we’ll be keeping an eye on these situations. Schwartz missed the first four practices with a hamstring injury, but now he’s in line for a lot of work in Thursday’s game — and, given Marquise Goodwin’s indefinite absence due to blood clots, potentially back in the mix to eventually win a roster spot. Assuming Grant can get back to participating in full-team drills at some point over the next couple of weeks, the wide receiver battle could get crowded late in the preseason.
Saturday, cornerback BoPete Keyes was waived-injured after suffering a finger injury. Keyes had been added to the roster just before camp, and the Browns figure to explore multiple positions when they fill Keyes’ spot on the 90-man roster, with defensive tackle and linebacker likely atop the list. There are a lot of snaps — in practices and in two preseason games — to be filled over the next 12 days.
The Browns were set to fly back to Cleveland on Sunday afternoon after their seventh full practice at the Greenbrier. Monday is the players’ mandatory day off, and the Browns will practice at the Berea facility ahead of the Hall of Fame Game on Tuesday. They practiced in the morning at the Greenbrier but will return to Stefanski’s preferred afternoon practice schedule at home.
With no regulars participating Thursday, expect competitive practices on Aug. 6-7 as the Browns begin to go from the installation phase of camp to the refinement phase and point toward their Aug. 11 preseason game vs. Washington.
(Photo: Chris Carlson / Associated Press)
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