Jason Tarver sees 'upside and ability' in young Browns LBs, ready to watch them in open competition

Jason Tarver has been preaching the same phrase to the Browns linebackers since the start of the virtual offseason.

"It's not bad. It's just different."

Players and coaches could certainly choose to view the offseason from an opposite, more pessimistic perspective about valid concerns. How much can a team really improve without on-field reps together as a team?

Tarver, who is in his first season as the Browns' linebackers coach, refuses to look at the unique offseason from that lens. 

Work from home? That means coaches can have more one-on-one time with players.

No team reps? Players should spend more time focusing on their individual technique and studying the playbook.

Video communication only? Tarver will have plenty of tape of workouts to break down from each player.

Tarver only sees ways to adapt. With a young group of linebackers, he couldn't afford to allow players to grow complacent in the vigor of their offseason plan, and his optimistic outlook on the linebackers hasn't changed since he was hired in February.

"Our linebacker group has attacked the offseason, and that's been great to see," he said Wednesday in a Zoom call with local reporters. "They competed and they worked in many different ways. In this offseason, we were really able to focus on how guys learned because we were able to do things on Zoom, be live and really get to know each other, and we could really give them a lot of feedback."

When Tarver speaks about the linebackers, he uses a demanding and confident tone that makes his goal clear: He wants the linebackers to contribute on every play. They don't always need to make game-changing plays, but there's always only one player with the football, and the linebackers should always know where they are and be prepared to pounce.

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Teaching that philosophy has been the easier part of the offseason. The Browns have had no shortage of time when it comes to team meetings and diving into a new playbook, but it's much more difficult for coaches to grade how well each player absorbs the education without seeing them together on the same turf.

Tarver realizes that. He hasn't made any decisions yet about how the Browns' linebackers depth chart will shape for Week 1, but he's done everything possible from a remote setting to ensure each linebacker knows their mid-play assignments and first-snap reactions. 

Over the last several weeks, Tarver has attempted to simulate live games and test first reactions when players see an offensive formation or hear a defensive play call. Each linebacker is also tested on what all other defensive players are doing on a given play.

"It was awesome because they all started correcting themselves, and that's what you want," he said. "This is what's been fun about the offseason. We're really getting to know these guys and seeing how quick they could see things and make calls. Obviously, you're not practicing, so you're trying to simulate everything you can to get better when you're not practicing."

In addition to tests in team meetings, Tarver has spent ample time breaking down videos of workouts from each player. Most of the video work is about technique — how a player shuffles as the play moves over to one half of the field, or how quickly a player reads a rushing play and attacks the line of the scrimmage — but it's all similar lessons usually given to players before training camp.

Tarver hopes the heavy amount of remote work will translate to faster learning in training camp. If players arrive back to Berea as mentally prepared as possible, then the Browns won't be too far behind their preseason standards in a normal, pandemic-less year.

"We've been training those movements so that when we do get to be on a practice field, their bodies are trained," Tarver said. "They'll know all the words so that we can really just focus on playing."

That missing piece — playing — will be crucial for the linebackers, and that's not meant as a cliche.

The position arguably has the most unknowns on the Browns, and it's anyone's call as to who will start where when the depth chart is finalized. On-field reps will carry immense value to Tarver when he and defensive coordinator Joe Woods evaluate a group that features second-year players Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki, rookie Jacob Phillips and the oldest member of the group, 27-year-old B.J. Goodson.

For now, Tarver can only coach his players through a laptop or iPad.

Different? Absolutely.

But to him, "different" can also lead to "better."

"With this group, you can see that upside and ability," he said. "We're excited about this mix, and we're going to see how it works."

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