Eight months ago, the Browns were welcoming eight rookies to their roster with the expectation that most of them would take Year 1 to grow — and not necessarily absorb heavy snap counts — in their first taste of the NFL.
But as injuries and COVID-19-related transactions shuffled the roster, several rookies found themselves in big roles and moved up the depth chart. Some of them seized opportunities to show they're already prepared to contribute in a high-volume role, and all of them will certainly be expected to take a bigger jump in 2022.
For now, we're looking at how each rookie fared in their first season.
Round 1: CB Greg Newsome II
Newsome proved early to the Browns he could be a reliable defender worthy of starting games. He started in all but one of his 12 games and was third on the Browns with nine pass breakups, three of which came in Week 9 against Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and the Bengals' top-tier passing game led by QB Joe Burrow. That game was far from the only one where Newsome upheld consistent coverage, though, and that's perhaps the biggest reason why defensive coordinator Joe Woods is bullish on Newsome's future in the league.
"Just being a DB guy and coaching corners, it's always those games where you have those premium matchups," Woods said. "He played throughout the season with some really good receivers and made some plays against them … For him, the confidence is there because he has played against really good receivers and made plays."
Newsome is set to join Denzel Ward atop the CB depth chart again for 2022, and the group should have plenty of depth with Greedy Williams, Troy Hill and A.J. Green set to return, too. Newsome proved he can consistently handle tall assignments each week and appears poised to leave an even bigger footprint on the Browns' roster next season — both with his play and leadership.
Check out the best photos from the 2021 season by the Browns photo team
Round 2: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The Browns' decision to trade up seven spots to 52nd overall in the second round to grab Owusu-Koramoah was a good one. He received a first-round grade from the Browns in his pre-draft evaluation and certainly played at that level throughout the year, finishing second on the defense with 76 tackles and recording four pass breakups and three tackles for a loss.
Owusu-Koramoah was floated as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate early in the season before suffering an ankle injury that sidelined him for three weeks, and the Browns believe he'll become an even bigger difference-maker as he continues to adapt to the NFL. He's still only 22, so it's safe to assume his speed and instincts — his two top traits — will improve even more and could help him become a star.
Round 3: WR Anthony Schwartz
Schwartz's best game of the season was in Week 1 when he caught three passes for 69 yards, including a 44-yard catch, against the Chiefs. He continued to be used as a speedy gadget player, finishing the year with 10 catches for 135 yards and one touchdown while also rushing six times for 39 yards. The Browns expected Schwartz to need more than a year to fully harness his elite speed — he ran a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash — and will likely test him even more as both a pass-catcher and occasional runner next season.
Round 4: OT James Hudson III
Hudson wasn't expected to play a large load of snaps with Jedrick Wills Jr. and Jack Conklin entrenched as the top tackles, but injuries to both players resulted in Hudson joining the O-Line for six games, including four starts. Hudson displayed noticeable improvement toward the end of the year and will continue to be a work in progress, but he gained valuable experience toward becoming a possible swingman option for 2022.
"James really got baptism by fire throughout this year," Browns Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry said. "I actually think he came along nicely and particularly ended his season in a really strong manner against Cincinnati. I think it's tough for a guy who is a former D-lineman, a fourth-round pick and played left tackle and right tackle for us, but it's good experience."
Round 4: DT Tommy Togiai
Togiai didn't take his first official NFL snap until Week 10, but the Ohio State product quickly built a bigger role in the defensive tackle rotation to end the year and played in over 35 percent of defensive snaps in the last three games. He finished the year with 16 tackles and a half-sack and should have an opportunity to crack a starting role next season. Togiai and Jordan Elliott, a 2020 third-round pick, are the only defensive tackles currently under contract for 2022.
Round 5: LB Tony Fields II
Fields' season took an unfortunate start with injuries in minicamp and training camp, but he made his debut in Week 3 and played solely on special teams for 10 total games and recorded four tackles. The Browns were anchored at linebacker this season with Anthony Walker Jr., Owusu-Koramoah and Malcolm Smith, among others, but Fields will likely be given a chance to prove he can play on more than just special teams in 2022.
Round 5: Richard LeCounte III
LeCounte appeared in nine games and was also used primarily on special teams. He finished the year with three tackles but was mainly held to a backup role behind John Johnson III, Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Grant Delpit. Depending on who is in the safety group next season, LeCounte could have an opportunity to see more action in the secondary.
Round 6: RB Demetric Felton Jr.
Felton is listed as a running back but did most of his damage as a receiver, which is no surprise after the Browns made it clear last offseason he'd be used in both roles. Felton caught more passes (18) than rushes (7) and accumulated 205 yards from scrimmage with two receiving touchdowns. That's quality production from a sixth-round pick, and Felton could carry a similar role — one that features more usage in the pass game — with top RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt set to return in 2022 as one of the best running back duos in the game.