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Browns rookie class flashes promise in preseason debut

Several members of the 2021 Browns rookie class were key contributors in the 23-13 win, and now they’re looking to improve 

When head coach Kevin Stefanski announced Thursday the majority of the Browns starters would sit out of their first preseason game, he mentioned his excitement to see how the young players stepping up would handle the spotlight. That meant several rookies would not only play in their first NFL game, but also would all be active for a considerable amount of snaps and have plenty of opportunities to make plays.

"I look at it as a great opportunity for young and old players to go out there and compete against a different color jersey," Stefanski said at the time. "It's always fun to see the guys out there, making plays and seeing their teammates get excited about it."

Six drafted rookies — those who were healthy — made their debuts and were among the biggest contributors to the Browns' 23-13 win over the Jaguars. CB Greg Newsome II, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, DT Tommy Togiai, OT James Hudson III, S Richard LeCounte III and RB/WR Demetric Felton all donned a Browns uniform for the first time, and they all fulfilled Stefanski's hopes of maximizing their extended time on the field.

Newsome, the first-round pick, started the game and primarily lined up against 10-year veteran receiver Marvin Jones. With the exception of one big play, a 35-yard completion in which Jones made a terrific leaping grab over the 21-year-old Newsome, the cornerback played well against the sure-handed receiver. 

Also of note: Three plays after Jones' impressive catch, Newsome held Jones to a 7-yard gain on a third-and-8 and brought the receiver down with a solo tackle by Jones' legs after he made the catch. 

"I was a little mad already," Newsome said with a laugh. "I was ready to make that next play. I was just ready to go, and it was a good play by me."

Check out the best photos from the Browns win over the Jaguars yesterday by the Browns photo team

Owusu-Koramoah, meanwhile, entered in the second quarter and immediately made a difference. He stuffed running back Carlos Hyde for a 1-yard gain and then recorded his first professional sack two plays later after he blitzed through the line of scrimmage, evaded a block from Hyde and wrapped his arms around QB Gardner Minshew. 

By the end of the night, Owusu-Koramoah had amassed eight tackles, three tackles for a loss and a quarterback hit. His speed, which the Browns believe will help him become a key player on their defense sooner rather than later, was immediately evident.

"If you watched it live and then even watched it on tape, he did make splash plays," Stefanski said Sunday. "He made good tackles along the sideline."

Newsome and Owusu-Koramoah were already candidates to possibly win starting jobs come Week 1 and further added to their case Sunday. The other rookies have a few veterans ahead of them on the depth chart and won't need to be pressed into heavy action any time soon, but they still took advantage of their playing time in their debuts.

Felton, for instance, was primarily used as a receiver and recorded a few impressive gains, including a 25-yard pickup after he caught a deep pass from Kyle Lauletta. 

"I feel like I'm really good at being able to catch the ball and stop on a dime and make people miss," he said. "That's a little bit of something I wanted to be able to show with more reps, just getting my feet wet. I'm excited to do more."

Hudson also earned a start at left tackle and helped keep the pocket clean for starting QB Case Keenum. None of the Browns' normal offensive line starters were in the game, but Hudson, as well as the other second string O-Linemen, showed a similar level of cohesion and protection.

"James did a nice job for his first night out there," Stefanski said. "It was not perfect. It was pointed out to him that it was not perfect. (Offensive line) Coach (Bill Callahan) does a great job of being very clear with those guys of what he expects in terms of technique. James had some nice moments and some moments I know he wants back. He played both sides of the line for us. He is somebody who we are going to continue to grow. The kid wants to work, and he really wants to be coached so that is always a good thing."

On the defensive side, LeCounte, a fifth-round pick, joined Owusu-Koramoah as one of the top standout players and registered an interception, two passes defensed and two tackles. One of LeCounte's deflections was almost an interception, too, and it was clear his reads and instincts were sharp and signaled he's ready to make more big plays in the future.

"It was a great feeling to finally get the ball back in my hands," he said. "I feel like I'm getting back in the groove of things, just being out with my injury last year, and it's been a sigh of relief."

Stefanski was undoubtedly impressed with what he saw from each rookie, but he knows it was just one game on the calendar. More impressive performances will be needed from the class to continue to prove they're ready to contribute in their first season in Cleveland.

But as far as starts go, Sunday couldn't have been much better. More promising performances lie ahead, and Stefanski will continue to reinforce to the group that there's plenty of progress to be made.

"All of these guys as we continue to progress through training camp, we will continue to meet as coaches and discuss those type of things," he said. "With all of our rookies, as you know, we bring them up all on different timeframes. Some guys are ready for more. Some guys are not. We will make that on a case-by-case basis."