If you were told three months ago to pick a Browns rookies who would stand out in the early days of training camp, the answers likely would've varied from Duke Johnson, Danny Shelton and maybe Cameron Erving. The Browns feel good about this deep rookie class, and early practices have validated it.
The name that probably wouldn't have come up is fullback Malcolm Johnson, but it is now.
On Saturday, the sixth-round pick from Mississippi State made two contested catches 20 yards down the field. The 6-foot-1, 231-pounder appeared faster than some linebackers expected and is showing early flashes of why the Browns targeted him on Day 3 of May's NFL Draft.
The surprise factor in Johnson is that this is his first time ever playing fullback. As a Bulldog, Johnson played tight end and H-back, but he never truly lined up in the backfield on every snap. Linebackers are fooled when they see Johnson run crisp routes in the intermediate portion of the field.
"He does have that unique skill set," coach Mike Pettine said Saturday. "We always talk about having hybrid type players at certain positions, whether it's on defense or offense. He is a guy that can do a lot of things."
"If we can get the ball to him and create mismatches that way, it helps our offense," quarterback Josh McCown said.
What's really helping Johnson is there aren't many players like him on the Browns' 90-man roster. Luke Lundy is seeing some repetitions at fullback, but is also splitting time at running back.
By no means has Johnson been flawless during camp, but he's figured out a key to success at fullback: communication. It's the rare position where he needs to be in constant lock-step with both the running back and the offensive line.
"It is not so much the playbook itself; it is just the terminology," Johnson said. "Football is football, but you learn the terminology and communicating with the players and learning from the vets, knowing what to expect from the defensive looks and the fronts and different things like that."
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has mentioned versatile Raiders fullback Marcel Reece fullback as the kind of player he covets in his offense. It's too early and unfair to compare Johnson to the a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Reece just yet, but the early returns from Johnson are eliciting plenty of optimism.
"We are hopeful he can do a lot of things well," Pettine said. "He was a capable blocker in college, so there is no reason to think he won't be in the NFL. He is a guy that is a mismatch for a linebacker or can cause some problems for a defense based on the variety of places we can line him up."