The work for players in the first weeks of the offseason program is always light — activities are limited to only meetings and strength and conditioning workouts — but Kevin Stefanski still sees the value in what the voluntary program brings to the Browns as he begins his fourth season as head coach.
"It's no fun when this building is half empty," Stefanski said to local reporters Tuesday. "This building is meant to have players in it, so it's exciting to walk down and see guys. There's players in the locker room, carrying on, playing basketball and doing whatever else they're doing."
Those will be the sights and sounds Stefanski hears for the next eight weeks as players prepare for the 2023 season. In two weeks, the Browns will enter Phase Two and begin working out on the field for the first time since last season. They'll close the last three weeks of the program with organized team activities, the first time players from the offense and defense will be allowed to practice against each other this year.
It's the baby stages of a new season, but it's all important work toward fielding the best team possible at the end of training camp.
"We start with meetings," he said. "It's onboarding meetings. It's not just jumping right into football. We want to talk to them individually and talk about what they can get better at, and then dive into the nitty gritty. That's what we're doing this time of year."
Here's what else Stefanski discussed in his first media session of the offseason program:
Expects Watson to be 'a better player'
A huge point of emphasis for Stefanski during the offseason program will be to prepare the offense for a full season with QB Deshaun Watson. That wasn't the case a year ago, when uncertainty over Watson's playing status in 2022 was clouded by the possibility of discipline from the NFL for Watson's violations of the league's personal conduct policy.
Stefanski's job will also be to implement adequate tweaks to the playbook to better fit the offense to Watson's strengths, and he's confident everything will come together well over the course of the program now that Watson has spent a full year with the team.
"For every player, when things change year to year and teams change year to year, you have new faces in this building, so year to year, it just feels so different," Stefanski said. "Certainly for Deshaun, to have that season under his belt and learn everything that's happened last year and in the past, he'll be a better player for it and I think we'll all be better for everything."
Watson, who also spoke to the media Tuesday, said the first season felt like a "whirlwind" and has felt more comfortable entering Year 2. He's already worked out with multiple Browns receivers in Texas and will have plenty of more opportunities in coming weeks to throw more passes to them.
While Watson was allowed to work out with teammates, he wasn't allowed to talk football with coaches, per rules in the collective bargaining agreement, until Monday when the offseason program officially began.
"Every day is an open conversation for all of us," Watson said. "Today's meetings, we were the same way. Getting to know how (Stefanski) thinks, how I think, studying defenses, studying this offense and what we want to do this season. We had plenty of talks from when I came in the building last year to now. We want to continue to build that relationship and continue to build our trust in each other. If all three of us are on the same page, I think we can be very successful."
Stefanski certainly thinks so, too.
Join the Season Ticket Member Waitlist
Purchase a Cleveland Browns Season Ticket Deposit to reserve your spot on the Waitlist.
Condolences to family of Chris Smith
Stefanski opened his press conference by sending his condolences to the family of former Browns defensive end Chris Smith, who passed away Monday. Smith played 25 games for the Browns from 2018-19.
"Ok, first of all, my condolences to Chris Smith's family. That was tough news to hear today. I didn't know the young man, but I know a lot of people in this building did. I know players played with him, so that's just way too young. That's a tragedy. Definitely thinking about his family today."
Browns players arrived at the facility Monday morning for the start of offseason workouts
'Take it slow' with Cooper
WR Amari Cooper revealed Tuesday that he underwent surgery in February for the core muscle injury he suffered in the last month of last season. He's in the building for voluntary workouts and will continue his recovery, which hit its eighth week this week, with the Browns.
"We'll take it slow with him," Stefanski said. "He's feeling good, but I'm not on the field with those guys for another couple weeks. OTAs aren't until May. We will not rush him back to the field. We're going to make sure that we take our time and utilize all these days to get his body right, get his mind right. When that is, I can't say exactly."
While the Browns will look to roll out a 2023 playbook that will further maximize Watson's talents, Stefanski isn't necessarily creating a playbook from scratch — or creating a heavy load of new plays.
He provided some insight into how the playbook-building process works, which is more about selecting plays that have already been constructed and are most comfortable among players rather than constantly creating new plays.
"Honestly, there's no shortage of plays," he said. "You'll never run out of plays. I think for us as coaches, you spend so much time in the offseason studying other teams, studying yourself, studying college football. Great ideas come from all levels of football, high school, college. They all have good plays. I think it ultimately becomes what can your players own? What can your quarterback own? What can your receivers own? What becomes second nature for them?
"While we could draw up 1,000 plays, and we have, it's important that you try to drill down for your players and give them things that they can go practice, things that they can go get really good. You look around the league, and sometimes there's beauty in the simplicity of what people do, so you don't want to bog your players down with X's and O's."
Jakeem Grant recovery update
One player who could help elevate the Browns' return game and serve as an offensive weapon is Jakeem Grant Sr., who missed all of his first season with the Browns last year after suffering a torn Achilles injury in training camp.
Grant shouldn't be forgotten among other first-year players who could significantly help the Browns. He was a Pro Bowler as a returner in 2021 and has four career punt return touchdowns, and he could still provide a big boost to the Browns' special teams if he's able to regain the same speed he showed prior to his injury.
"Disappointed for Jakeem last season and that injury," Stefanski said. "He has rehabbed like crazy. He is determined. He is doing a great job in the training room to get better. He is of one mind, and I appreciate that. He's a pro. We'll see. You can't rush those things. An Achilles, you just have to make sure that we're being safe and appropriate in his rehab, but he is doing a really nice job."