Day 3 of #BrownsCamp meant another holiday for those of us who are obsessed with the leather-covered oblong ball that so captivates this nation: First day of pads.
The Browns got after it early and often, with linemen hitting in their individual drills and plenty more contact coming during group and team. Defense again led the day, though the offense had its say toward the end. All the while, the sun kept things hot while Browns fans hydrated and attempted to find shade (there isn’t much) within the confines of the team’s facility.
Heat or not, it’s great to be here when football returns. Saturday was the first taste of the sport in its truest form.
Here are our five observations from Saturday’s practice:
Check out photos from the third day of Browns Camp by team photographer Matt Starkey
1. Just when you think they're down...
For the third straight day, the Browns defense appeared to hold a clear lead on the offense. Run plays were largely stuffed, passes didn't always go as planned and the unit in general felt disjointed, so much that on a play in which Baker Mayfield was forced to scramble to his right, some of his targets stopped running. Mayfield aired his frustrations immediately after, calling on his teammates to finish their routes and play through the whistle.
"I expect my quarterback to get everybody on the same page, that's what I want," head coach Freddie Kitchens said of the outburst.
If the final offensive period of the day, a two-minute drill, served as any indication, they sure heard him.
After not doing much of anything offensively, Mayfield and Co. took the field at their own 40 and covered 60 yards in three plays. First, Mayfield hit Odell Beckham Jr. on a short pass to the left, to which Beckham added 10 yards with his weaving through the defense. Quickly, Mayfield and the offense approached the line. The quarterback dropped back and fired a pass to Jarvis Landry for a gain of close to 20 and a first down. Then, on the third play of the drive, Mayfield dropped and fired a bullet to Landry down the seam for a touchdown.
Just like that, the Browns' much-hyped offense was alive.
Training camp is used to work out the kinks, and the Browns' offense has seemed to have a good amount of them as the new additions adjust and also attempt to overcome a ferocious defense. When Mayfield erupted earlier, linebacker Christian Kirksey turned to the fans in attendance and shouted "that means the defense is doing good!"
The issues could be concerning, perhaps if they were later in the preseason. But the 2-minute drill's efficiency and accuracy was so impressive, those worries disappeared into the warm Berea air.
2. 3-safety looks are causing problems
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks made it clear early on that he'd like to use more than the traditional two safeties in his defense in Cleveland, and so far, we're seeing plenty of the three-safety looks. Saturday, Damarious Randall and Eric Murray manned the back end, while Jermaine Whitehead played down in the slot in a role traditionally reserved for a nickel corner. It was an interesting approach, especially when the defense bailed out of pre-snap looks and rolled coverages to confuse the offense. It was also effective.
“It is a versatile role," Whitehead explained of his third safety position Saturday. "One that plays in the box, run fit versus two tight end sets, 21 personnel, especially in pass situations. Just a dual-threat guy, one that has seen a lot in the pass and run game.”
Whitehead was a story of OTAs and minicamp because of his unexpected ascension to the first team. It would be fair if one expected Whitehead to fade back to the second team once camp arrived, but he's done just the opposite -- he's thrived as a third safety.
He said Saturday it has happened because he saw the opening for such a role, based on what Wilks has done with his previous teams.
“It is a defense (defensive coordinator) Coach (Steve) Wilks has ran before," Whitehead explained. "He used (Panthers LB) Shaq Thompson in it, and he used (Cardinals S) Budda Baker in it. He was looking for another safety that can fit in those roles. After watching the film, I figured out that is probably my quickest way to stay on the field so I found out what to do in that role and have just been trying to progress ever since.”
The three-safety approach makes roster cut-down day intriguing, because it's definitely possible the team keeps five safeties instead of a traditional four. That could mean a cornerback spot could be lost as a result. That's weeks away, though, but it's fun to consider at this point.
3. More of the right guard rotation
As expected, the rotation at right guard continued through the first day of pads, meaning Saturday was Eric Kush's turn to run with the ones. He took advantage of the opportunity, looking very reliable at the position against a Browns front four that has caused plenty of headaches through camp so far. His veteran experience is proving to be an advantage early.
On the other side of the line, Greg Robinson often matched up with Myles Garrett, a tall task for any human on this planet. He struggled at times, though he was much improved during one-on-ones against Garrett during individual sessions. During their team session battles, Garrett's helmet came off once while rushing, illustrating the physical nature that was missing prior to the addition of pads.
Plenty of pads were cracking Saturday.
Linemen got the day started by working double teams with chips to second-level defenders, then moved to footwork drills, including maintaining hand placement while moving laterally. Beyond the usual starters, Kyle Kalis looked stout in these sessions, and later spent group and team periods at second-team center, with Austin Corbett serving as second-team right guard.
Corbett had some blocks that should make him grin a little with pride on Saturday. The most notable was when he put practice into action, chipping off a double team of a three technique to create an inside seal on a Dontrell Hilliard run. The opening created by Corbett's vision, quickness and ability to sustain a block was more than enough for Hilliard to trot into the end zone from less than 10 yards out.
Though they had pads on, we only gleaned a little bit of information from the session. From that, we found that the linemen did receive a bit of a boost from the pads, as JC Tretter predicted Friday, with the defensive line not getting as much penetration as the two previous sessions. We also learned that false starts will earn linemen a jog to the fence and back, even in the middle of practice. Kalis and tackle Brad Seaton each had to do so on Saturday.
We'll continue to monitor this battle, as the rotation should flip back to Corbett for an early important practice on Sunday.
4. Blake Jackson's big day
Blake Jackson spent much of his offseason tagging along with the marquee Browns. On Instagram, you'd often see a photo of Mayfield or Landry, and somewhere within the group would be Jackson, who was on the practice squad last season.
Maybe the whole saying about the company you keep influencing your own development is true, because Jackson had a heck of a Saturday. The wideout was seemingly everywhere with the second unit, making catch after catch at a variety of difficulties. He was a standout and looked more like Landry than a player who didn't crack the 46 last season.
As we've highlighted, there are a couple of receiver jobs open right now. Jackson is definitely making his best case for one of them.
5. Buzz isn't slowing anytime soon
Saturday's crowd was robust, but wasn't the loudest in history.
Kirksey noticed in an early team period, and in between plays, he took a moment to walk toward the bleachers along the sideline of field 3. He stopped, leaned in a little and shouted "DAWG CHECK!"
At once, the crowd awoke, responding in kind with a series of barks that some meant to resemble Beckham's Building the Browns moment. Others were just the traditional Dawg Pound bark that originated in the mid-1980s.
Either way, the fans were engaged from that point on.
They picked a good day for it, the first in pads. The team's first full-blown contact session, an inside run drill, commenced with a playing of Sheck Wes' hit song "Mo Bamba," which got a healthy amount of Browns dancing on the field. Even Joel Bitonio flashed some moves, as did Chris Smith. Meek Mill's "Dreams and Nightmares" followed, which elicited a similar reaction and also brought some sense of time and place to the whole scene.
The opening lines are as follows:
I used to pray for times like this,
To rhyme like this
So I had to grind like that,
To shine like this
Garrett ended team stretching by hopping up from his place on the field, putting on his helmet and trotting around the edge, high fiving as many fans as he could before everyone broke off to individual work. Perhaps Garrett embodies the Browns' journey more than anyone. It's season three for him, but it at times feels like he's seen it all. He has, somewhat, having been selected first overall by a team that went 1-15 and was so devoid of talent, it went 0-16 in his first season. He was one of the few faces of hope at that time.
But then, things turned quickly, and it seems as though he appreciates where the team is at this point, taking in the moments to interact with fans. They're equally as appreciative and shout his name and others as if it were their loved ones. These are their Browns, after all, and though it's only training camp, it's great to see the unity surrounding a fan base that has been through plenty. It was a base that used to pray for times like this, so Garrett and many others associated then had to grind like that, to shine like this.
Here's to hoping they'll be able to bask in the glow for quite some time ahead.