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Rookies play big role in Browns’ season opener

Posted Sep 11, 2017

Eight see significant playing time vs. Steelers

The No. 1 pick was on the sidelines, but Cleveland’s 2017 draft class and a slew of undrafted free agents had a significant impact in Sunday’s season opener.

It started with the quarterback and flanked out to all aspects of the team. DeShone Kizer took every snap under center and first-round pick Jabrill Peppers played every single snap on defense and a few more on special teams.

All told, eight rookies saw the field and 10 of the 44 players who played at least one snap made their respective NFL debut. Cleveland was similarly young last season but there was a comfort level displayed Sunday that encouraged the team’s longest-tenured veteran.

“I think we are a better team than we were in the past,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “Even though we do have so many young guys with none or very little experience, I think they were able to overcome that in how they played. The type of people there are on this team, they play with resolve and composure.”

Kizer, the second-round selection who earned the starting job near the end of the preseason, was lauded for his poise and resilience. Some of his best throws and possessions came directly after some of his more adverse moments.

Kizer, the third-youngest quarterback to start a game in NFL history, threw for 222 yards, scored his first NFL touchdown with a 1-yard rush and threw his first touchdown on a fourth down in the fourth quarter.

“I thought he did a great job,” wide receiver Corey Coleman said. “It was his first time playing in a real football game and he handled it like a true professional. It can only get better.”

Two other rookies, first-round tight end David Njoku and seventh-round running back Matthew Dayes, saw the field for the offense. Njoku caught two passes, including a 13-yarder on third-and-long, while Dayes was on the field for 13 plays and finished with a combined 16 yards of offense.

No one played more snaps on the entire team than Peppers, who logged 60 of 60 snaps on defense and was on the field for 13 special teams plays. The former Michigan standout had four tackles and a pass defensed and returned three punts for an average of 11.3 yards. His 25-yard return in the second quarter was longer than any the Browns had in all of 2016.

Browns special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said Friday there was “no concern” about overusing Peppers, and it was clear Sunday he’ll be counted upon in multiple phases of the game.

“I think what you are trying to do is make the other team concerned that when he has the ball, he is going to make a play,” Tabor said, “and that is why you want him back there as your returner.”

Training camp standout Trevon Coley rode the momentum he gained from the preseason into a start in his NFL debut. The second-year player logged 39 snaps and played a big role in Cleveland’s defense allowing just 35 rushing yards on the day.

Third-round pick Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker James Burgess Jr., an undrafted free agent in 2016 who bounced around the league before landing with Cleveland late last year, each made big plays in spot duty. Ogunjobi was in on four tackles and Burgess had a key, third-down pass breakup.

Seventh-round kicker Zane Gonzalez nailed his only field goal attempt and both of his extra points while linebacker B.J. Bello and safety Kai Nacua, both of whom were elevated from the practice squad Friday, played key roles on special teams.

“They don’t ride the roller coaster. A lot of guys are young, but they are steady,” Thomas said. “It seemed like a lot of guys who were out there today played with a steadiness that you wouldn’t expect out of a young or a first- or a second-year guy.”

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