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Cup of Joe: What Jedrick Wills Jr. can expect during his rookie season


Catch Joe Thomas TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. when he co-hosts “Browns Live” powered by FirstEnergy with Nathan Zegura. The 100 percent fan-focused show, which will stream on all of the Browns social platforms, will feature multiple segments with Coach Kevin Stefanski, interviews with players, film breakdowns and more.

Each game week, Joe will share his insights, memories and more in this weekly column, "Cup of Joe."

I don't remember much about the first of my 10,363 NFL snaps. My brain was going too fast to register every detail.

I know where I was (FirstEnergy Stadium), who we were playing (Pittsburgh) and who was lined up across from me (James Harrison). I also remember that day did not go very well for us. We lost by a lot, QB Charlie Frye got benched at halftime and ended up getting traded the next day. It was a "Welcome to the NFL" wakeup call for sure, right off the bat.

Four years at Wisconsin, where I played in front of big crowds and in big games, got me ready for an NFL Sunday, but there was no amount of preparation that could slow my heart rate during those first few snaps and games. You are overwhelmed because there are so many things happening and you are trying to make corrections on the sideline. When bad things happened, it's like you don't even realize it because the game is just going so quick. That's really the big struggle during the first year — getting the game to slow down a little bit so you can actually make any corrections to try to improve or try to be able to keep up with a defense that is maybe doing some things that are different than you expected.

Players all across the league will experience those same moments this week when the NFL kicks off the 2020 season. One of them, Jedrick Wills Jr., will be taking over at my old spot and dealing with a few more challenges than I did 13 years ago.

By the time I reached that day against the Steelers, I'd gone through about 25 practices before training camp even started. Then I had the preseason. Even still, you weren't able to reduce the amount of nerves all that much because you are still a rookie playing in your first game, but at least you had confidence in the game plan. You had some confidence in the guys you were playing with because you had been practicing next to those guys for a while.

One of the many challenges Jed is facing being a rookie in this pandemic shortened, unusual offseason is he has never had an opportunity to go through a game plan against another opponent other than his teammates. He has never played against another NFL player besides somebody wearing a Cleveland Browns helmet. And so, his process hasn't even had any opportunities to get fine-tuned the way mine did. 

I know that they are doing everything they can to try to do mock games and kind of prep themselves for a game-like situation by practicing at the stadium and scrimmaging and putting them in situations that are sort of live. There is just nothing like going and walking through the tunnel on a real NFL game for the first time and experiencing things when tangible and big things are on the line: wins and losses in an NFL season, potential playoff berths, conference and division championships.

Still, there's so much I like about Jed, who I've gotten to know over the past few months.

I love his mental approach to the game. I think he is a really bright player who understands how to get better, and that's vital for a rookie in the position he's in. It is all about getting better at one thing each day because you can't get better at everything at once. He's a very analytical player, too, and seemed like he was a real student of the position and student of the game. That is what it takes to be great if you want to be a great offensive tackle in the NFL.

Physically, he is so explosive, has the ability to drive people off the line of scrimmage and the ability to change direction and react. When he is beat initially, he is able to recover which is really important because no matter how good you are as an offensive tackle, you are going to get beat from time to time. The ability to recover and make a bad play not as bad is really important. You see some guys who maybe make a bad step and they get beat and all of a sudden they are laying on the ground and the guy is killing the quarterback. You want a guy who maybe gets beat but is able to recover and kind of get that last shove and push a guy past the quarterback. He might go to the sideline and the coach might yell at him. He might get a minus on the play, but at least he gave the quarterback or the running back enough space and time to get the play off successfully.

There's another big thing Jed has that will help him along the way: a veteran in Joel Bitonio right beside him guiding him every step of the way. Eric Steinbach was similarly valuable to me during my rookie season, when we opened with two division teams just like Jed and the Browns will this year with the Ravens and Bengals.

Joel is going to be enormously important for Jed. He'll help him understand the X's and O's and give him comfort that he doesn't have to know every single call on the line of scrimmage. When Joel was a rookie, he could focus on his own player and the play in the snap count while Alex Mack and I would help him out with calls on the line of scrimmage if the defense did something different or if we had a change of protection or a blocking scheme. Joel has had a great career, been around a long time and can be that steady influence where you know things aren't going so well. He can tell him, "Hey, take a deep breath, you got this," and kind of be that confidence booster and get him back to planet Earth if he wants to go jump off the moon after a couple bad plays or maybe if the game is not going the way he expected.

The good and bad thing about being a rookie is you start pretty low on the quality scale because you are just not very good. You just have so many things that you still need to learn but the things you are learning are very basic. If you get better at basic things that makes you a much better player. 

For a guy like Jed, he is getting better at all the basics. He is laying the foundation for a great career. Getting better at 10 things right now is going to make him leaps and bounds better, and it is really easy to see yourself get better at 10 things from Game 1 to Game 2. For me, thinking about my first preseason game, and how much better I was in my second preseason game, and then to think how much better I was in my second regular season game, that gives me a lot of encouragement that no matter where Jed starts, the improvement is going to be significant, especially in that first half a season.