The Browns will shift their voluntary offseason workout program into a higher gear this week when organized team activity practices begin, marking the first time quarterback Deshaun Watson will participate in on-field work with the vast majority of his new teammates.
Yes, Watson and other Browns players have been on the field for drills in recent weeks, and he hosted the majority of the offense for workouts over the weekend in the Bahamas.
But the upcoming OTA sessions will be the first practices for the Browns since they traded with the Houston Texans for Watson on March 18, a move team brass believes will propel it from a disappointing 8-9 record last season to legitimate Super Bowl contention.
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The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association stipulates players may wear helmets but not pads during OTA practices. There are other rules, but the most important one is seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills are permitted in OTA practices, provided no live contact occurs.
Teams may conduct a maximum of 10 OTA practices. The Browns' first one will be held Tuesday, with their first one open to the media taking place Wednesday. They'll wrap up their first week of OTAs Thursday.
The Browns have other OTA practices scheduled for May 31-June 2 and June 6-9.
Remember, OTAs are voluntary. Two years ago, there were no in-person OTAs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, almost all of the starters on offense refrained from participating because former Browns center JC Tretter led a movement as the NFL Players Association president against attending the voluntary offseason workout program, citing injury data and COVID-19 concerns.
In other words, OTAs this year are expected to have the highest attendance in the coach Kevin Stefanski era.
Players aren't contractually obligated to show up to CrossCountry Mortgage Campus in Berea until mandatory minicamp June 14-16, when quarterback Baker Mayfield plans to report to the Browns if he's still on the roster because he doesn't want to be fined or jeopardize any of the guarantees in his $18.858 million salary for 2022. The Browns can excuse Mayfield from mandatory minicamp, but they can't tell him to stay away. Training camp, which begins in late July, is required, too.
For now, though, it's spring practice time. And this is a guide for what to watch from afar because OTA practices are closed to the public, and only three of them are open to reporters (Wednesday, June 1 and June 8).
Browns should balance passing game development with prep for a potential Deshaun Watson suspension
There's only one first practice of a new era, and Watson's arrival certainly makes this a new era for the Browns.
When Watson's first Browns game will be is a mystery, though, because he could be suspended under the NFL's personal conduct policy. Two dozen women have accused Watson of sexual misconduct or sexual assault during massage appointments, and 22 have active civil lawsuits filed against him. Last week in Houston, NFL officials interviewed Watson, who avoided charges on 10 criminal complaints in March and has denied all wrongdoing.
While the Browns wait to find out whether Watson will be available for their Sept. 11 regular-season opener on the road against the Carolina Panthers, they'll be preparing him to get on the same page with a receiving corps led by another offseason trade acquisition, four-time Pro Bowl selection Amari Cooper.
But because a Watson suspension appears to be more likely than not, it would also be wise for Stefanski to ensure quarterback Jacoby Brissett is developing adequate chemistry with Cooper and other projected starting pass catchers, including receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and David Bell, a rookie third-round draft pick, and franchise-tagged tight end David Njoku.
The Browns signed Brissett this offseason to be Watson's primary backup.
How different will the offense of Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski look out of the gate?
In late March at the NFL owners meetings, Stefanski would not rule out making wholesale changes to his offense with Watson aboard.
When Stefanski landed his first head coaching job in January 2020, he brought the scheme he learned in Minnesota from Gary Kubiak to Cleveland. Its staples are play-action passing off a running game powered by zone blocking. Stefanski has also become known for frequently using big personnel. The Browns led the NFL the past two seasons in 13 personnel (three tight ends).
With Watson, Stefanski figures to spread the offense out with more three-receiver sets and implement run-pass options.
It's hard to fathom Stefanski completely forsaking the system he has used the past two seasons, but changes will be made, some of which should be evident in OTAs.
Cleveland Browns rookies will find out how they fit with veteran players
The Browns held rookie minicamp from May 13-15, but those incoming first-year players have yet to practice with their veteran teammates. They will during OTAs.
The day after General Manager Andrew Berry made Martin Emerson Jr. the Browns' first draft pick this year, taking the cornerback from Mississippi State University in the third round (No. 68 overall), the franchise traded nickelback Troy Hill to the Los Angeles Rams on April 30. The Browns view Emerson primarily as an outside corner, and although 2021 first-round selection Greg Newsome II has shown he can move from the outside to slot corner, the defense appears to be thin at nickelback with Hill gone.
During the recent rookie minicamp, Stefanski downplayed the notion that the Browns were in the market for a new nickelback because of Hill's departure.
“I think we have multiple guys who can fill that role and have filled that role in there,” Stefanski said. “I think that's why we talk about versatility. If you're playing corner or if you're playing safety, you're going to be trained to play in the slot and play our nickel position. I think we have multiple guys who can do that.”
Well, OTAs ought to provide the first peek of how the Browns plan to address nickelback and to what extent they'll experiment with Emerson there.
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The slot on the other side of the ball is a position of interest, too. All signs point to Bell being the top candidate there, though he can play on the outside, where he appeared the most at Purdue University. Former Browns receiver Jarvis Landry has taken his inside-outside versatility to the New Orleans Saints, so the Browns are counting on Bell to fill a similar role.
Another rookie worth tracking is running back Jerome Ford. A fifth-round pick, Ford has conceded he didn't expect the Browns to draft him out of the University of Cincinnati. Do you know why? It's because they were already stacked at his position with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson and Demetric Felton Jr., who played more receiver than running back last season as a sixth-round rookie.
Chubb is the only one in the group who can be safely ruled out as a trade possibility. Perhaps the Browns will find a way to keep all of the running backs on the roster for the coming season — it would make sense if fewer tight ends are factors this year — but the coaching staff getting side-by-side comparisons between Ford and his veteran counterparts could inform such decisions.
Which players will start with Myles Garrett on the Cleveland Browns' defensive line?
Aside from All-Pro end Myles Garrett, there are question marks across the defensive line.
The Browns agreed Sunday to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney as the starting end opposite Garrett, but the competition for the rest of the pass-rushing pecking order will be notable. Trade acquisition Chase Winovich and free-agent acquisitions Stephen Weatherly and Isaac Rochell will be vying with two rookies — third-round pick Alex Wright and seventh-round selection Isaiah Thomas — and holdover Curtis Weaver for rotational roles.
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At defensive tackle, rookie fourth-round choice Perrion Winfrey will have a chance to become an immediate starter at three-technique. Free-agent acquisition Taven Bryan and holdovers Tommy Togiai, Jordan Elliott and Sheldon Day are also in the mix for the two starting spots on the interior of the defensive line.
Nickelback and defensive line are likely the top areas of intrigue for defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
Revamped Cleveland Browns special teams will be on display
It's May. The wind and wintry weather later in the year at FirstEnergy Stadium will be the real tests for York and Bojorquez. Still, looking good in the spring wouldn't hurt the confidence and trust special teams coordinator Mike Priefer has in his new players.
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Which Cleveland Browns players have made changes to their bodies?
This is the time of year when certain players catch the eyes of coaches, teammates and reporters because of physical transformations they have undergone since last season ended on Jan. 9.
Most of the time, those changes are good news, but once in a while, they're not.
One player the Browns have been casting in a positive light along these lines is center Nick Harris, a fifth-round pick in 2020. Harris is positioned to succeed Tretter as the starter in the middle of the offensive line, but Harris will need to hold off free-agent acquisition Ethan Pocic.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Browns OTAs primer: Deshaun Watson's first practices and more