Nate Orchard prided himself on his durability.
Never missed a game in high school. Pulled off the rare feat of going wire to wire in college, appearing and starting in most of his 50 games. Didn't miss a game after being inactive for the season opener in his rookie season.
And then, a "freak thing," as Orchard describes it, completely derailed his second NFL season.
The former second-round pick went down with a severe ankle injury on the final play of Cleveland's Week 3 overtime loss at Miami. Already limited in bodies at Orchard's position of outside linebacker, the Browns had no choice but to place him on injured reserve. Orchard could have returned for the final few games of the season but was officially ruled out for the year in late November when the team selected quarterback Robert Griffin III as its one player for the season to return from IR.
"It was the longest time ever," Orchard said. "I really had some down time to think about myself, analyze my game and where I wanted to be and improvements I wanted to make going into next year.
"I also had some downtime with my family, was able to go to church on Sunday and go back home to watch the game. It was cool but definitely would have much rather been out there with my teammates."
The smile on Orchard's face was hard to miss throughout OTAs and minicamp. And the reason behind it went beyond simply being back on the field.
After two years at outside linebacker, Orchard is back in his comfort zone as a 4-3 defensive end. It's the spot he occupied throughout a college career that saw him rack up 25 sacks, including a nation-leading 18.5 as a senior.
With the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Orchard's move back to defensive end -- much like Cam Johnson's -- seemed inevitable. Orchard just didn't leave anything up to chance. As soon as he could, Orchard acquired Williams' phone number, dialed him up and expressed his desire to play defensive end.
"I told him I was the D-end for him and this is the perfect system. He agreed with me," Orchard said. "I've just got to come out here and prove to these guys this is my home and that's where I should be."
Orchard showed off that comfort during the Browns' offseason workout program. During OTAs and minicamp, he often lined up behind Emmanuel Ogbah with the second group. On a number of occasions, Orchard looked like the guy who piled up sack after sack at Utah, peeling around the edge to apply immediate pressure on the quarterback.
"Nate has made a lot of progress," defensive line coach Clyde Simmons said. "He is like Emmanuel – I have been moving him around to a lot of different places just to see what he can do, and I think he has a lot of upside because he is back to a natural position for him playing defensive end."
For Orchard to truly come full circle from last season, he'll have to emerge from a crowded group of talented defensive ends that includes No. 1 pick Myles Garrett.
Ogbah is coming off an impressive rookie season that ended with him as the team's leader in sacks. Johnson, who took Orchard's place on the roster one week after his injury, worked with the first team on the opposite side of Ogbah throughout the offseason workout program. Carl Nassib, a third-round pick in last year's draft, drew praise from Simmons, who said Nassib would "play for me a lot."
"You look over the past couple of years, it's no secret we've got a lot of high picks at that defensive end position, a lot of guys that can come in and make an impact," Orchard said. "Like any other business, it's no different and it's going to be competition. At the end of the day we're brothers and we're going to push each other in a healthy competition and we all want each other to succeed."
Healthy is the key word for Orchard, who has been itching to get back on the field for much longer than the players he's competing against.
"Being able to play outside linebacker my first two years, it was good to get that experience under my belt," Orchard said. "Now that I'm back to my original position I've been playing since I was a little kid, it's fun to be able to do that."