Steve Wilks was talking leadership last week before the Browns’ fifth of nine OTAs, and the usual suspects from Cleveland’s defense rattled off his tongue.
There was Myles Garrett, a Pro Bowler who nearly set the team’s single-season sack record last season. There was Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie who has looked every bit the part of the lockdown corner every defense covets.
And then there was Jermaine Whitehead, who is on his fourth team in as many years and boasts two career starts. A waiver claim midway through last season, Whitehead has impressed his new defensive coordinator despite playing just six snaps on defense thus far in his time with the Browns.
It’s a new year, and Whitehead is making the most of it.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Wilks said. “He has been in the league for a while, been on several teams. It just shows who he is as an individual. He puts in a lot of time into his craft. He studies the game a lot, and it really shows out on the field.
“You don’t have to be that quote on quote guy that everybody looks at. I want all those guys to be leaders when they are out there on that field because we need everybody communication, talking being on the same page.”
Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes on a football team, especially when the rosters are at 90. At the back end of Cleveland’s defense, it’s coming from, among other places, two voices who are relatively new to Browns fans.
Along with Whitehead, veteran Morgan Burnett has been lauded for the presence he’s provided since signing with the team last month. Entering his 10th season, Burnett appears to have plenty left in the tank and looks to be the frontrunner to replace Jabrill Peppers, who was dealt to the Giants in the trade that landed All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., at strong safety.
The Browns return Damarious Randall at free safety but are otherwise poised to count on a handful of new faces at the position. On a team with lofty expectations, Burnett stands out as one of the few who has real, extensive playoff experience.
“He is a definition of a leader,” Kitchens said. “He kind of gets those guys together. He has been through the fire. I like guys that have been in fights – like been in the fight, not in fights.
“I like guys that have been in the battle or battle tested. Coach (Bill) Parcells used to say all the time that he wants to leave training camp and his team be battle tested. That is what we want to get to.”
Burnett, who played eight of his nine seasons in Green Bay -- a familiar place for some of the highest-ranking members of Cleveland’s front office -- has been through enough OTAs to know the optimism flowing through the Browns facility is not unique. Even in places where the rosters aren’t brimming with as much talent as Cleveland has acquired in the past two years, expectations are high at this point of the offseason. Everyone’s undefeated.
It’s how the team responds when the games matter, and Burnett has played in plenty of those.
“All 32 teams feel like they have what it takes,” Burnett said. “That’s why we come out here and work every day. It’s all about stacking success and slowly working that arrow upwards and keep finding a way to get better each day and not get ahead of ourselves.”