Xavier Cooper remembers his first AFC North game like it was yesterday.
"We played Baltimore at Baltimore and I remember looking around like 'OK, this is football right here' and this is downhill football and these guys aren't going to lay off you," said Cooper, the defensive lineman who is entering his second season with the Browns.
"When I got out there versus Pittsburgh and Baltimore last year, it was a different switch you had to turn on those games. And I think our rookies will find out how it is in division play and you'll either rise or you'll fall."
With that sort of knowledge and experience gained, Cooper said he wants to play a bigger role on a new-look Browns defense in Year Two under first-year coach Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
"I think there's three things when I talked to coach Horton about when he asked me what my goals are. One is to become a starter. Two is I want to help the team win. And three is to be a dominant player in this conference," he said Tuesday on Cleveland Browns Daily.
Cooper, the 24-year-old from Washington State who saw his playing time steadily increase last season, appeared in 14 games and finished with 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks. And after learning from veterans last year, Cooper said he's learning how to take the next step with Horton and new defensive line coach Robert Nunn at the helm.
"I just learned about different offensive sets and I think it's helped me this year. And then Coach Nunn coming in has really taught me to focus on my technique — there's a lot of things I can do with my athletic ability — but if I focus on my technique I can be that much better of a player. And then we've got John Hughes and Danny (Shelton)," he said. "It's a good feeling in that D-line room, for real."
The Browns took to the field as a part of the team's Organized Team Activities.
Cooper said the group is also doing its best to impress Nunn, who comes to Cleveland after six seasons with the New York Giants and a Super Bowl ring in 2012.
"He's coached on some really, really good defensive lines. One of them being the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. So I think him coming in, that gives us some motivation because we're like, 'Hey we can play, too, so you're coming into to coach some great guys, too,'" he said.
"But I think right now there's not a lot to be said because we've got to go put in on film. The guys in our room know the expectations and we've got to go out and meet them."
And for Cooper, who lauded the coaching staff for their attention to detail and discipline, that means mastering the finer points of playing defensive line — especially in the rough-and-tough AFC North.
"Like Hue said the other day, this is the best conference in professional football so if you can dominate here you can dominate in the other conferences," he said.
"So that's definitely a goal of mine, to be a dominant player."