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Browns Mailbag: Which rookie is poised to make the biggest impact in 2021?

Senior Writer Andrew Gribble answers your questions every week

The players and coaches may be off for the summer, but we're in the midst of "two-a-weeks."

Behold, the second Browns Mailbag of the week, as we dive into three of your questions on this lovely Friday in Northeast Ohio.

Which rookie do you think will have the most on-field impact for the Browns in the 2021 season and why? — Michael D., Bellbrook

This is a tough one for a couple of reasons. One, this isn't the Browns of recent years. It's a roster loaded with talent at all positions that might not need to rely on rookies in the kind of ways it did in the past. Second, the way I see it, the Browns essentially landed two first-round players when they took CB Greg Newsome with the No. 26 overall selection and then moved up to nab LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah midway through the second round. Both were impressive throughout the offseason program and caught the eye of defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who also views them as "two first rounders." They're my 1A and 1B answers to this question, and Woods made it clear each one has made a strong first impression.

"Greg and JOK, those guys are very smart players, and they are very competitive players," Woods said. "They come out there and they just go hard all the time. They are trying to learn as much football as they can."

In a few weeks, they'll find themselves in the throes of a competition at their respective position group. Both have the shot at legitimate playing time, but they'll have to earn it. Nothing will be handed to them.

For Newsome, he'll have to battle with the likes of Greedy Williams, who started 12 games as a rookie before missing all of 2020 with a shoulder injury. Williams, a former second-round pick, appears to be fully ready to give Newsome a challenge for the job, as they'll both be looking to earn playing time on the opposite side from Denzel Ward. If Newsome wins the job, he's in the best position between himself and Owusu-Koramoah to see the field on an every-snap basis. There's also a possibility of Newsome being a part of a deep cornerback group, which also includes veteran Troy Hill, that could find its strength in its numbers, allowing Woods to deploy a variety of looks from the position. Newsome getting some reps in the slot during minicamp only adds to the possibilities on Woods' plate.

"During the offseason is when you really want to put guys in those positions to see what they are capable of doing in terms of playing inside and outside so we expose him to it so he knows the coverages and the techniques we are asking him to play," Woods said. "When we come back in training camp, we will see how he progressed and for him to keep moving in that direction or just focus some more outside at corner. Right now, I believe he is capable of playing both positions."

As for Owusu-Koramoah, he's capable of playing all over the field, and that's what enticed the Browns to move up to select him at No. 52. Woods, though, was quick to mention how the team will need to guide him along slowly because he is, after all, a rookie. That doesn't mean he won't be a key figure in Cleveland's defense in 2021. It just means the future holds even more for him as he gets more and more acclimated with the NFL game.

"You can see the speed, the quickness and the change of direction," Woods said. "He will be able to match up well against tight ends. The thing we have to be careful of and I have to be careful of is you look at him, and you want to do a lot, but coming in as a rookie, you do not want to put him in those situations. You want to gradually bring him along, and as he gains experience and understands the defense more and more, then you will start to expand it. 

"There are some things drawn on the whiteboard I want to do, but we probably will not get to all of them this year."

Have the Browns given any thought to using the speedy rookie WR as a punt or kickoff returner? It usually takes time for most rookie wideouts to get acclimated to the pro game. Using him as a returner could provide additional impact. Your thoughts? — Craig R., Prescott Valley, Arizona

Anthony Schwartz, as we've mentioned in previous editions of the Mailbag, did not return punts or kicks at Auburn but did a bit of both in high school. He certainly has interest in it with the Browns, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said last week he believes Schwartz could have a future in the league as a returner, specifically on kicks, and also as a gunner. It just won't happen overnight, as Priefer acknowledged Schwartz understandably struggled a bit with fielding punts during the early part of the offseason program. 

"He has explosive speed, as you guys know. He has a lot of confidence in his speed," Priefer said. "I was joking with him that we could actually have someone catch it and then we could hand it to him and let him take off with the ball. I would like to teach him to get to the point where he is comfortable catching kickoffs out there."

What are the chances that Demetric Felton is able to dethrone D'Ernest Johnson for the 3rd running back spot on the 53-man roster? — Owen S., Columbus

That's what training camp is for, but Johnson won't concede that role without a fight. He's been a valuable member of the Browns running backs room for the past year and is also a major contributor on special teams. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said it was "no secret" that Felton and Johnson were competing against each other, but stressed there was a ton of time before any decisions needed to be made.

It should also be worth noting Felton's path to the roster doesn't necessarily require this to happen. For starters, Felton spent the bulk of his time at minicamp working with the receivers, and he brings a unique element to the offense after catching 99 passes during his career at UCLA. He was also mentioned as someone competing at punt returner.

"There have been times he is a running back for that day and a wide receiver the next day," Stefanski said. "It does speak to his versatility. It speaks to his ability to mentally handle that. Versatility is a big deal."

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