Drew Petzing's NFL journey began in Cleveland just seven years ago as a football operations intern. Now, he's back as the tight ends coach on Head Coach Kevin Stefanski's first Browns staff.
It's a reunion on two fronts. Petzing showed his coaching versatility over six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, and Stefanski got an up-close look at Petzing's adaptability.
"I think he's one of the smartest coaches I've been around," Stefanski said. "I say that because he coached defense in college, he's moved to the offensive side of the ball, been in the running backs room, the wide receivers room, the quarterbacks room. I think that type of breadth of experience is really important as you're developing as a young coach. I think anybody who has been around him sees somebody that has a great knowledge of the game."
Stefanski was the Vikings tight ends coach when Petzing was hired in 2014 as an offensive assistant. His title came into more focus in 2016 when he was elevated to assistant wide receivers coach before he became Stefanski's assistant quarterbacks coach in 2017. This past season in Stefanski's first full year as offensive coordinator, Petzing was the Vikings' wide receivers coach.
"(Stefanski) had been in a lot of those similar roles. He was great in terms of taking me under his wing and showing me the ropes, showing me what was good, what was bad but also giving me the freedom to do things my way," Petzing said. "He wasn't overly demanding in terms of 'You've got to do it the way that I did it.' It was, 'Hey, here's what needs to get done. I trust you to do your job and take it the way you see fit,' which was kind of unique I think.
"Being here in 2013, seeing how the organization works, seeing how passionate the fanbase is, that type of stuff makes it easy to make a decision like this. On top of that, having a great relationship with Kevin, really believing in him and his process and what he's about, I think those two things among other things were really deciding factors for me."
This past season, Petzing oversaw a Vikings wide receiving corps that was led by Stefon Diggs, who set a career high with 1,130 receiving yards, giving him back-to-back 1,000-receiving yard seasons for the first time in his career. The group overcame the loss of Adam Thielen, who missed six games with a hamstring injury, and helped power the Vikings into the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs. Thielen went from an undrafted free agent to a Pro Bowler who finished fifth in the league in receiving in 2017 during Petzing's time as an assistant wide receivers coach.
Petzing said tackling a new position group will require the kind of prep work he's done before every new season as an assistant coach.
"You're calling good people that maybe you know or have a connection to through other people and asking how you coach certain things and certain techniques," Petzing said. "This season's going to be no different. I'll reach out to some tight end coaches that I have loose connections to or that I have a lot of respect for and try to see how they do things, see what they teach, see how they teach it -- if they're willing to give me some takes on stuff like that, and then I'll try to incorporate it into ultimately, my belief on how I think it should be done.
"Tight ends are huge. Obviously, every position out there is critical, but when you're going to be a run, hard play-action type of team that can do a lot of different things, those guys are the focal point of that."
Petzing grew up in Massachusetts and attended Wellesley High School before moving on to Middlebury College, where he was a defensive back. His playing career was cut short after multiple, season-ending injuries, and his focus immediately shifted to becoming a coach.
He primarily moved up the ranks on the defensive side of the ball, first serving as a volunteer assistant at Middlebury (2007-08) and Harvard (2009). He was a graduate assistant at Boston College from 2010-11 and an outside linebackers coach at Yale (2012) before landing his internship with the Browns.
"Essentially they were looking for interns that they felt were hungry, wanted to get into the NFL and were willing to do anything, which was definitely what I was looking to do," Petzing said. "I actually came out of my interview and I got snowed in here for three days. So basically I got stuck and they had to hire me.
"I had only been on defense and they were giving me all kinds of projects. As we got into the season they let me jump around. My first week of offseason meetings I got to sit in on offense, defense and special teams. When we started getting close to the field, I started with the tight ends. In OTAs I was able to sit in the with O-line the entire time and be with them on the field. Whatever I was willing to jump at, they were willing to let me do it and I took."
That kind of versatility shined through early in his career, and Stefanski is excited to see how Petzing attacks his newest challenge in 2020.
"I know what it's like to move to different positions. I know how important that is and how valuable that is," Stefanski said. "Sometimes we get stuck in a rut and we say, I'm only going to coach this position. I think the versatility he's shown wearing a couple different hats will only help him as he becomes a better coach."
Drew Petzing's Coaching Background:
2007-08: Middlebury College, volunteer student assistant
2009: Harvard University, volunteer assistant
2010-11: Boston College, graduate assistant
2012: Yale University, outside linebackers coach
2013: Cleveland Browns, football operations intern
2014-18: Minnesota Vikings, assistant wide receivers/quarterbacks coach
2019: Minnesota Vikings, wide receivers coach
2020-: Cleveland Browns, tight ends coach