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Andrew Billings eager to 'find my place' on Browns D-line after opt-out season

Billings returns to the Browns in 2021 after he opted out of the 2020 season due to the risks of the pandemic

Andrew Billings quickly grew tired of watching football games on TV early last season.

For Billings, one of the Browns' free-agent additions of 2020, it was the only way he could closely tune in to how his team was doing. He struggled with sitting on the couch while his teammates performed without him. The Browns started the season 4-2, which was one of their best starts in nearly two decades, and Billings couldn't be a part of it.

No practices. No meetings. No sitting on the sidelines.

Those were the guidelines Billings, a five-year defensive tackle veteran, had to follow as one of five Browns players to opt out of the season due to the risks of COVID-19. He'll be back with Cleveland in 2021, but it comes after a season he experienced from a different perspective than any of his previous seasons in the NFL.

"In the beginning, it was kind of hard to watch," Billings said Wednesday in an interview with Cleveland Browns Daily. "But after a while, you just miss it, so I'd go to NFL Game Pass and just watch and study the plays and see what we were doing."

Billings' decision to forego the 2020 season and start his first true season with the Browns in 2021 was made after consulting team personnel and other medical professionals, but it wasn't an easy call to make. He knew it'd be tough to miss a full year of football — he missed his entire 2016 season due to a torn meniscus.

With no access to the team facility or coaches, he knew an opt-out experience would be even more different, but he knew how to make it work. He kept his body in shape by going to the gym and kept his football IQ high by digging into game tape from the Browns each week. His contact with anyone on the team was minimal, but he said the Browns checked in on him to ensure he was still in good spirits.

"It was a long process and it took some time to figure out, but once I did, it was all good," he said. "They put a team together to reach out to COVID opt-out players, and that was really nice."

With a full year away from undergoing the grind of an NFL season, Billings believes he's in good shape to be a steady contributor in 2021. He'll be a part of a defensive tackle group that includes eight-year veteran Sheldon Richardson, 2020 third-round pick Jordan Elliott and Malik Jackson, who joined the Browns in free agency this offseason.

Billings was in the Browns' plans last season for their interior rotation after he accrued 80 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 47 games with the Cincinnati Bengals, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He knows he still must earn his spot on the team when training camp arrives, however, and while his body might've benefited from a season removed from the bangs and bruises at the line of scrimmage, he knows he can't afford to show any shortage of fitness and endurance when he returns to the field.

"I noticed the difference in not being beaten on, but I also noticed the difference of not taking any snaps, too," Billings said. "It's a bit of a give-and-take, but I'm planning on getting as many reps as possible to get ready for this season."

The success from the Browns in 2020 has served as even more motivation for Billings, and with the Browns devoting the first part of the offseason toward revamping the defense, he's eager to finally mesh with new and returning teammates he hoped to forge bonds with a year ago.

The view from the television never felt good enough when he thought about returning to the team and being on the field himself. Now, he's getting closer and closer to completing that vision and finally making a return.

"I wanted to be out there," he said. "I wanted to be out there in practice. I wanted to be in those meetings. I wanted to be in those games. Coming into next year, it's even more important for me to get out there and work harder because there's a team out there that I want to be a part of, so I have to find my place."