The Browns' first-round pick has always found a way to become one of the best players on a football field. Now, he's looking to do it again in Cleveland.
Part 1 of 3
Greg Newsome II leaned back against the couch cushion and sat silently as friends and family members around him discussed the same question he had heard for months:
Where is Greg going to play in the NFL?
The 2021 NFL Draft had advanced into the final picks of the first round, and Newsome, the 20-year-old Northwestern prospect with hopes of being one of the first cornerbacks selected, was still on the board. Donning a black suit, silver cross necklace and curly haircut that grew from his head like a firework, Newsome was starting to feel the true anxiety of the draft for the first time all night.
"I was thinking I was going in the teens," Newsome said. "The nerves were just kicking in. I knew it was going to happen, but I was also like, 'Wait, what if it doesn't happen. What if I don't get picked?'"
Three cornerbacks had already been picked ahead of him. He thought he'd receive a call from the Indianapolis Colts, owners of the 21st overall pick. No call came, so he expected to hear from the Tennessee Titans at pick No. 22. They selected a different cornerback, Caleb Farley.
Newsome set his phone on the table and exhaled. At the beginning of his draft party, which took place in a luxurious VIP lounge of a fitness center in Oak Brook, Illinois, Newsome, a Chicago native, spent time chatting with nearly every person who attended his party.
Now, he was mostly silent.
Finally, at pick No. 26, Newsome's phone vibrated with a call. He sprung forward, picked it up and hushed the room.
"Hey, Greg," said Megan Rock, the Browns' Player Personnel Coordinator. "This is Megan from the Cleveland Browns. I'm going to connect you to a Zoom call with our general manager, head coach and ownership group. I'll hang up and text you the link."
Newsome tapped the hang-up button, perked his head up and told everyone in the now-silent room his new home.
The lounge erupted with yells and fist pumps while Newsome stared forward, placed his elbows on his knees and tried to hide his smile.
"Where I should have went is Cleveland," Newsome said later that night in his first interview with local reporters. "That's where I got picked, and God has put me in that position on purpose."
Newsome didn't feel as though he had time to celebrate, though. He certainly could've after completing his self-made path to Cleveland, one that included several experiences of ascending to the top of the competition, no matter where it took place. From youth football, to high school, to Northwestern, Newsome has always found a way to become one of the best players on the field.
Cleveland is Newsome's next setting, and he isn't done proving himself yet.
"I know a lot of first-round picks in the past feel like they've made it," he said. "I don't feel like I've made anything yet."
When Greg was 6 years old, he wanted to quit football.
He hated how heavy the pads were. He hated how long every practice felt. He hated how he was always one of the smallest kids on the field.
And he hated his position: tight end.
Crystal Newsome, Greg's mom, hated his position, too, but she wasn't going to let her son quit football before he even played a single game. That's what Greg wanted, but that's not how she was going to handle life with her third child and first boy.
"I don't raise quitters," she told Greg whenever he'd pout. "We started this, and we're going to finish.'"
Ms. Newsome was the type of football mom who wasn't afraid to be hands-on with her son's development. She planned on attending every practice and game and would keep an eagle eye on Greg. She knew he would never be the biggest kid on the field, but he always seemed to be the fastest.
So she didn't understand why he was playing tight end, a position in youth football that, unlike the NFL and higher football ranks, rarely allows for running or catching the football.
"You know how they ran their sprints during practice? He would run circles around them," she said. "He would beat people, and it wasn't even close. I was like, 'Why would he play tight end, and clearly he's the fastest kid on the team?'
After the final practice before the first game, Ms. Newsome pulled the coach aside and put in her request: "Just give him a chance."
When the play came, Greg fell in love with football.
He swept across the line of scrimmage to receive a handoff on a reverse play, then he tucked the football to his oversized chest pads, turned upfield and ran as fast as he could. No one touched him.
Touchdown. The play worked so well that it became one of the first plays his team called every game for two years. Greg found the end zone every time.
"From that day on, he was their starting running back because he was the fastest kid," Ms. Newsome said. "Now, he loves the game. Once he scored that first touchdown, he never complained about going to practice."
Newsome's speed made him one of the top players on both sides of the ball all the way through his high school career at Glenbard North in Carol Stream, Illinois, and by his junior year, he was one of the top players in the state. He earned All-Conference honors in both his sophomore and junior seasons and recorded nine interceptions in that span, which led to a commitment to Northwestern before he started his senior year.
But he wasn't done building his high school resume yet.
Newsome elected to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, for his senior year. The academy is a haven for the top youth athletes around the world, and Newsome fell in love with their program when his 7-on-7 team, Midwest BOOM, traveled to the facilities for the national championship.
"I just wanted to be challenged," Newsome said. "In Illinois, I had my spot solidified. At IMG, it made me compete even more. It allowed me to compete with the best of the best, and I just wanted to be the best player I could be going into college all the way."
One play at IMG Academy might've changed Newsome's football trajectory forever.
Newsome was never a full-time cornerback before IMG. He had always been a safety or wide receiver, but Antonio Banks, the defensive backs coach at IMG, wanted to insert Newsome at cornerback in relief of their starter, who was struggling against the opposition's top receiver.
Newsome lined up for his first play, read the fade route from the offense and leaped in front of the receiver to snag the interception.
"The rest was history," Banks said. "We wanted shut-down corners. He didn't blink. He got on the field and he took care of business."
Newsome finished the year with 17 passes defensed and two interceptions — numbers that drew attention from Arkansas, Minnesota, Iowa and Syracuse.
All of those schools made an offer to Newsome, but he had no interest to sway from his original commitment.
He was going to Northwestern, and he had plans to be great.
Check out photos of Browns 2021 first round pick Greg Newsome II
Pat Fitzgerald didn't hesitate to tell Newsome, Northwestern's junior cornerback, his honest opinion when he asked him a question about foregoing his final year of eligibility and declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft.
"What do you think I should do?" Newsome asked Fitzgerald, who had been his head coach for the last three years in Evanston and watched him blossom from a three-star recruit to one of the top cornerbacks in the nation.
"If you were my son, I'd tell you to leave," Fitzgerald said. "You need to leave."
Newsome was going to become the first true junior at Northwestern to declare for the NFL Draft since Darnell Autry in 1996 and Fitzgerald, of course, was going to miss having him in his defense. At 6-foot and 192 pounds, Newsome was a constant pest for opposing receivers ever since he started four games as a true freshman in 2018, and he was one of the biggest reasons why Northwestern advanced to the Big Ten Championship Game two times in the last three years.
No season was greater for Newsome than 2020.
Despite playing just six games due to the pandemic, Newsome entrenched himself as arguably the best cornerback of the Big Ten by registering 11 pass breakups, which led the conference, and one interception — his first and only college takeaway.
Yes, Newsome recorded just one interception in college, but Fitzgerald never believed NFL scouts should hold that against him.
"He could've played receiver for us," Fitzgerald told reporters in a video call after Newsome was drafted. "He's got great ball skills."
Dan Zegers, a Browns area scout, agrees. He saw Newsome, who was injured for the first three games of the 2020 season, play for the first time in Week 4 against Purdue, where he recorded two pass breakups and was the best secondary player on the field.
The next week against Wisconsin, Newsome grabbed his first interception. He followed the receiver stride-for-stride up the sideline, pivoted as soon as he saw his opponent stop and stepped in front of the pass to make the catch.
From then on, Zegers was hooked into watching Newsome's tape.
"It just got you a little excited," he said. "He wasn't even targeted that much this year. He had a three-game stretch where he wasn't even thrown at. His movement skills and what he flashed when the ball was thrown his way, that's what stood out to me."
When the offseason began and scouts and front office personnel reviewed the tape of each potential prospect they held interest in for the 2021 draft, Newsome's highlight reel was full of difficult plays. The footwork matched that of a starting cornerback in the NFL, and his ability to follow receivers like a magnet endeared the rest of the Browns building toward boosting Newsome's name to the top of their draft board.
"Everyone was kind of like, 'Woah,'" Zegers said. "You can feel his confidence out there. He was a difference maker for his defense, and it was obvious they rallied behind him.
"We all thought there might be something there."
Jeff Howard banged his fist on his table with excitement as he learned of the big news inside his front office at the Browns headquarters in Berea.
The Browns were getting their guy. It was Newsome, a player at the top of their draft board whom Howard, the defensive backs coach and pass game coordinator, fell in love with in the pre-draft process. Fist bumps and high-fives were exchanged from coaches and front office personnel throughout their offices as Cleveland added yet another key playmaker for its drastic defensive overhaul of the 2021 offseason.
"He really stood out when I pulled some of his tape and we talked about the things he was doing," Howard said. "I'd ask him questions like, 'You're playing press technique — talk to me about it,' and he was very sharp. You could tell he had a plan and was able to execute that plan."
Howard remarked on how Newsome could recall the reasoning and techniques behind every play they reviewed together in a pre-draft Zoom call. They dissected plays that ended with Newsome deflecting a pass, as well as plays that resulted in a catch or big gain. When Newsome reviewed his errors, he was spot on with where he could make corrections, whether it be with positioning, technique or first reads.
In other words, he was tough, smart and accountable, the three words that rang throughout the Browns front office several times when they analyzed their picks in the 2021 draft.
"We thought he was one of the more well-rounded corners in the class," Executive Vice President and GM Andrew Berry said. "He has the size, length and speed that we bet probably every team wants at the position. There was not a major discernible hole within his skill set, and he has a high level of competency across all areas that we value with the cornerback position."
Cleveland caught a glimpse of the talent and energy that radiates from Newsome on the final day of minicamp earlier this month.
The Browns were concluding the practice with 7-on-7 red zone drills, and the energy level on both sides was as high as it'd been at any point throughout the week. The defense exchanged trash talk with the offense, and any big plays led to jumps, yells and playful sprints around the field.
On one of the final plays of the drill, quarterback Baker Mayfield attempted to zip a pass to the back of the end zone. Newsome read Mayfield's eyes, bursted over to the passing line and snared the interception.
The sideline went nuts. Players raised their arms and galloped down the field in pursuit of Newsome, who had just made his first big practice play as a member of the Browns.
"He's looking like a player," veteran cornerback Denzel Ward said. "He's looking real good and looking like a good pick."
With Newsome, the Browns believe they have a cornerback capable of becoming the next cornerstone player of their defense. He'll be surrounded by a cast of other secondary talent, too, with cornerbacks Troy Hill, Greedy Williams and Ward and safeties John Johnson III, Ronnie Harrison Jr. and Grant Delpit.
But it doesn't matter who's on the field with him or what team he's on — Newsome was always going to have the confidence to become the best player he can be.
That's why he pushed himself to play at IMG Academy. That's how he rose to be one of the best cornerbacks in the country at Northwestern.
And now, that's why he believes he can become one of the league's top cornerbacks in Cleveland.
"(My confidence) comes from my skills," he said. "It's just something I've developed over the years, just always believing I'm the best whenever you step onto the field.
"It's how you have to play the game. If you're not going to play cornerback like that, you're not going to make it."
Part 2: Heart On His Sleeve