Grant Delpit has never taken a chance to play football for granted, and he learned that lesson even more after he spent nearly an entire year without playing the game.
Delpit, a 2020 second-round pick, didn't have a chance to take a snap in his rookie season after he suffered a torn Achilles in training camp. The injury placed him into a long grind of rehab rather than the typical work of the regular season, which Delpit finally experienced in full capacity in 2021.
Unfortunately, his first full NFL season won't end with a trip to the playoffs. The Browns were eliminated from postseason contention in Week 17, but Delpit still isn't taking the opportunity to play the game for granted in a matchup that doesn't hold any playoff implications for the Browns and possesses only fractional playoff implications for the Bengals.
"I'm just blessed to be here," Delpit said. "Last year was a crazy year for me. I did a lot of rehab and a lot of work in order to come back. To reach the end of the season healthy is great."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Steelers yesterday by the Browns photo team
For someone who missed several months of important on-field rookie work and game experience, Delpit's second season was a good one.
He'll head into the final week with one interception, one forced fumble, three pass breakups and 63 tackles, which is third on the Browns and leads all secondary players. Delpit has been the useful, versatile resource the Browns expected when he became the 44th overall pick in 2020 and has taken pride in being available for 15 of the Browns' 17 games one year after he was unable to play at all. He was briefly looked at by trainers for a knee bruise Monday after a collision with a teammate but only missed one snap all game.
"I feel as healthy as I can be," he said. "Getting this year under my belt was good for me. The game is slowing down a little bit, so it's going to be a good stepping stone for next year."
Delpit's acclimation to the NFL level was one of many variables that has helped the Browns defense become one of the league's best in the second half of the season. After struggling to find consistency in the first six games of the season, Cleveland has held opponents to 20 or fewer points in six of the last 10 games and ranks sixth in the NFL in total defense.
The coverage in the secondary has been a huge part of the success, and Delpit, who has played in all but three defensive snaps in his last three games, has provided a boost with his sound tackling skills and instincts. His emergence, as well as the significant improvement in the defense, is perhaps one of the biggest positives the Browns can take away from 2021.
"It was just gelling together as a team and as a defense and knowing what each other's strengths and weaknesses were and playing around that," Delpit said. "Obviously, we didn't do enough to win and have a successful season, so we're going to build off this year and get ready for next year."
The Browns, of course, have one final game to play against the Bengals before they turn into offseason mode. Cincinnati has dominated opponents in the last two weeks with the success of their offense, but Cleveland limited the Bengals to just 16 points in Week 9.
Delpit played a role in the win with three tackles and one pass breakup. Matchups against the Bengals will always be special to him — it's a chance to play against his former LSU teammate and close friend, Ja'Marr Chase, who was held to only six catches for 49 yards in his first game against the Browns.
Chase, however, now ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,429 receiving yards and has solidified himself as one of the league's best prospects. The fifth overall pick in 2021 amassed 266 yards last week against the Chiefs, which is the highest single-game total in the league this season and highest ever by a rookie receiver.
Delpit, though, is looking forward to the challenge of trying to stop Chase for the second time this season.
"I think he knows that he left a couple of plays out there, but also, our defense was on one, we were creating turnovers and getting after the ball," Delpit said. "With those two factors playing in, we were able to get the best of him. I know he's feeling it, and he's in his groove right now, so we have to come with it again."
Delpit, of course, would be looking forward to the game no matter the opponent or significance of a win.
It's another chance to play an NFL game, and that's enough to motivate him.
"It's a blessing to be out there," he said. "It means a lot to make it through and finish the season off right."