Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped his shoulders, tilted his head and made an abrupt stop from sprinting as he saw the football hit the grass.
Peoples-Jones, a rookie sixth-round pick from Michigan, had recorded his first NFL drop. It happened midway through the first quarter of the Browns' Week 13 game against the Tennessee Titans, but he wasn't going to let the error detract him the rest of the afternoon.
"There is always the next play and next play mentality," Peoples-Jones said Thursday in a video call with local reporters. "Obviously, I try to be perfect on every play, but that is not realistic."
His next target, however, couldn't have been more perfect.
He was wide open again on first-and-10 from Cleveland's 25-yard line and caught a 30-yard pass from quarterback Baker Mayfield. No defenders were in front of him, and he completed the easy 45-yard run to the end zone for his second touchdown of the season.
Ever since that drop, Peoples-Jones has been as reliable as it gets for a rookie wide receiver. He followed up his 92-yard performance in Nashville with a three-reception, 74-yard game — which led all Browns receivers — Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. His role with the offense has steadily grown, and his connection with Mayfield has ascended as the Browns' passing attack continues to heat up each week.
"He is all about his business," Mayfield said. "He shows up and does his job. He wants to be coached. He wants that tough love."
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Peoples-Jones has waited patiently for his opportunity all season. He originally started the year in the mix as a Browns kick and punt returner but was slotted on the depth chart behind the talents of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. He showed potential for a bigger role with some quality plays in training camp, but the Browns were going to wait for the right opportunity to let Peoples-Jones play.
Then, Beckham went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 7. During that game, Peoples-Jones caught a game-winning, 24-yard touchdown catch with 16 seconds left. His name was officially on the radar of the Browns' playmakers each week.
"He is Mr. Reliable," head coach Kevin Stefanski said after the game. "He can line up anywhere, a very intelligent player. To see him go make a play with the ball in the air was outstanding. There are going to be opportunities for him moving forward just like that."
Those opportunities have steadily arrived for Peoples-Jones, but it hasn't always been easy. The Browns opted to go with D'Ernest Johnson instead of Peoples-Jones at kick returner in Week 12. He averaged 21.6 yards per return on kickoffs, but special teams coordinator Mike Priefer opted to give Johnson — who's averaging 24.8 yards per return — a heavier load.
Peoples-Jones, however, was still unfazed. His confidence never took a hit, and he was going to be patient for his next big role with the Browns.
"He has a quiet confidence about him," Priefer said. "He is very intelligent, so he understands the game. He understands situational football. He understands what he brings to this football team as a receiver and as a returner."
Recently, Peoples-Jones has found his new role. He hasn't been needed to catch several targets per game, but he has been called to make big plays in key moments.
Last week, he made a 37-yard catch that moved the Browns into Ravens' territory. Two plays later, the Browns tied the game with a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, he made a superb catch on a two-point conversion attempt that ricocheted off the hands of Kareem Hunt. And in the final minutes of what was becoming the most thrilling game of the NFL season, he caught a 30-yard pass that helped set up the Browns for another game-tying touchdown.
He's pulled through in big moments and hasn't dropped a ball since his first-quarter drop in Tennessee. The trust among Stefanski, Mayfield and Peoples-Jones is growing, and he's already fulfilling the expectations normally given to a sixth-round rookie.
"He is striving to be better, and you can see that," Mayfield said. "He is a quiet guy, but you appreciate that."
Peoples-Jones might not know how much will be asked of him Sunday night in New York. But no matter when his name has been called this season, he's been ready to make plays. Mistakes, which are always common for rookies, haven't shaken him, either.
His trust with the Browns has only grown. He's always been ready when his name is called, and recently, those calls have started to translate into big plays.
"I just keep continuing to do what I am put here to do," he said. "Whatever it is and whatever my role is at any given time, I am going to be there for the team."