When the Browns selected their first four picks of the 2021 NFL Draft, no one knew for sure just how much any of the four players would be used in their rookie seasons.
It turned out that all four were needed in large volumes. CB Greg Newsome II, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, WR Anthony Schwartz and OT James Hudson III all saw a considerable amount of snaps in multiple games, providing each of them with valuable experience and giving the Browns plenty of tape to examine for improvement in Year 2.
Browns Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry spoke positively about how each player contributed in their rookie seasons. It's still too early to fully digest the value Berry has carved from both the 2020 and 2021 draft classes, but the returns have been promising thanks to some steady contributions from the most recent round of top picks.
"For all rookies – I should say maybe for the overwhelming majority of rookies – and certainly within our class, we saw progress and expect them to take a step forward," Berry said.
The returns from Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah, two players the Browns saw as first-round talents, were tremendous in shaping the Browns defense into a top-five unit in the league. Cleveland, of course, overhauled its entire defense last offseason with the goal of becoming one of the best in the league, and Newsome (drafted 26th overall) and Owusu-Koramoah (drafted 52nd overall) were among the top contributors.
Newsome finished his rookie season third on the Browns with nine pass breakups and mostly served as Cleveland's starting cornerback on the other side of the field from Pro Bowler Denzel Ward. He still took plenty of snaps against some of the league's top receivers, and no matchup for Newsome appeared to be more telling of his potential than when he lined up against Bengals rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase.
Newsome registered a season-high three pass deflections in Week 9 against the Bengals when he went against Chase and second-year WR Tee Higgins. He only saw Chase for a few snaps in their rematch in Week 18 before Chase was pulled from the game to rest, and he allowed Chase to catch two of four targets for 26 yards — which gave him 1,455 receiving yards, the most ever recorded by a Bengals receiver.
Get used to seeing more of Newsome vs. Chase in the future. Newsome called Chase the toughest receiver he faced this season, which makes his success against him (albeit still a small sample size) even more encouraging.
"He was a really good receiver," Newsome said. "I talked to him on the field and tried to get in his face, but he definitely has my respect. He's a very talented receiver."
Owusu-Koramoah's best game of the season was arguably Week 12 against the Ravens, when he recorded a season-high 13 tackles and was tremendous in stopping big runs from QB Lamar Jackson — six of his tackles were against Jackson, and Jackson's biggest gain against him as a tackler was just 4 yards. Four of Owusu-Koramoah's tackles limited Jackson to 1 yard or less.
But Owusu-Koramoah's season was full of big tackles, as he flashed the speed and instincts the Browns coveted so much from him in their pre-draft evaluation. He finished second among Browns defenders with 76 tackles and three tackles for a loss, a number he's hoping to increase in his second season.
"(I'd like to improve) my ability to see things faster and see plays faster," he said. "Just the ability to be able to uplift my team better, to be able to get TFLs and to be able to get up the field in terms of strength and setting the edges. Just really everything."
Berry would agree, all while still being encouraged by what he saw from both Owusu-Koramoah and Newsome.
"Both of those guys played well," he said. "They grew as the season progressed. There's still a lot each guy can improve. We've obviously had that conversation with both individuals as they enter the offseason. Good rookie year, but they're going off into the next several months with targeted areas that they can work on so they can take a step moving forward and be a big piece of what helps us get to the playoffs in 2022."
Schwartz (drafted 91st overall) and Hudson (drafted 110th overall) might not have had as visible production on the stat sheet but were still noticeable contributors.
Schwartz, possibly the fastest player on the roster, scored his first touchdown of the season in Week 16 against Green Bay and finished the year with 174 scrimmage yards in 14 games. He also averaged 21.5 yards per return with 15 kick returns, a role special teams coordinator Mike Priefer could explore more with Schwartz in the future as the Browns look to take advantage of Schwartz's speed in as many ways possible.
"The best thing for him is he battled a lot of adversity this year," Berry said. "He had the injury in camp, came back, fought his way into kind of a part-time role, had the concussion middle of the year that obviously kept him out for several weeks and really kind of battled his way back to get some meaningful snaps at the end."
Hudson, meanwhile, started four times for the Browns and took offensive snaps in six total games. The fourth-rounder from Cincinnati experienced the normal ups and downs most rookie offensive linemen experience, but his reliability noticeable grew as he accumulated reps, which became more frequent when starting RT Jack Conklin was shut down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 12.
"James really got baptism by fire throughout this year," Berry said. "I actually think he came along nicely and particularly ended his season in a really strong manner against Cincinnati. I think it's tough for a guy who is a former D-lineman, a fourth-round pick and played left tackle and right tackle for us, but it's good experience."
Any experience is good experience for a rookie, and each of the Browns' top four picks received plenty of it in 2021.