For the first time in his NFL career, Nick Harris has a clear path toward becoming a Week 1 starter.
Harris, a two-year veteran, is one of three centers on a roster that no longer includes JC Tretter, the longtime Browns center who was released in March. Harris was taking first team snaps Wednesday on Day 2 of Offseason Team Activities and will have a chance to win the starting job in starting camp, although he'll still need to earn the role in a competition that will include free-agent acquisition Ethan Pocic and 2022 seventh-round draft pick Dawson Deaton.
Despite the big change that could be coming in Harris' snap load, he isn't changing anything about how he prepares for a season.
"The main thing is just getting back into the swing of things and getting back with the whole offense, just refining all those details of the offense with all of the new guys that we got," Harris said. "It's nothing different personally for me, but it's good to get back out here, start running plays and get that cohesiveness in the unit."
Check out photos of players and coaches working throughout the offseason
Harris has started two games since he was drafted by the Browns in the fifth round in 2020, the second of which was against the Packers in 2021. The Browns allowed just one sack that game, and Harris was given a 70.0 grade from Pro Football Focus. His best trait out of Washington was his footwork, and he refined that and other areas of his game through the high amount of practice reps and tutelage he received from Tretter his first two years in the league.
"The amount of reps that I have taken against top-tier talent out here on defense, it has helped me tremendously," Harris said. "Then getting those couple of games that I've played, playing against Green Bay, it made me feel like I belong. It felt good to be playing center, getting out there and doing what I do."
Even though Harris' in-game experience has been limited, he still has kept himself locked into games on the sidelines by envisioning himself in the trenches, thinking about what he'd do on every play.
That mentality has helped Harris stay ready at a moment's notice. He took his first NFL offensive snaps in Week 15 of his rookie season against the Giants on Sunday Night Football and performed admirably, filling in for Chris Hubbard when he went down with a knee injury and keeping the pocket clean. He then stayed at the position the following week and attained more valuable, live reps to help him grow.
When a start in Green Bay last season arrived, Harris delivered a performance that the Browns certainly valued. The mental reps had clearly paid dividends.
"That's just part of being a professional," Harris said. "When you're not getting reps, you're still getting reps…you're going through the mental gymnastics at center, you're making the calls to yourself in your mind so that if you were in there, you'd know what to do.
"If I'm not taking physical reps, I'm still in the back learning from the guy who's in."
Harris learned from some of the best — guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller were each Pro Bowlers last season, while right tackle Jack Conklin was an All-Pro player in 2020. Tretter, of course, was a smooth operator at center since 2017 and missed only one game, the Green Bay game, his whole Browns career.
Harris believes he's elevated his game by learning something different from each of them, and he highlighted a few pointers in his interview.
From Tretter: "Learning how he is in the meeting and learning his tricks and his tools that he has learned over his career"; Bitonio: "I try to model my days after how he does with his extracurricular routines"; Teller: "How intense he is in practice, how intent he is in practice and how aggressive he plays the game; and even Hubbard: "How he approaches everybody from a personal aspect, how he can talk to everybody."
Watching and learning has given Harris a tool belt he hasn't had a chance to use fully in the NFL.
But now, the road is clear for Harris to go to work. A starting job is open, and he believes he can grab it if he continues to keep doing what he's always done his first two years in the league.
"I come here every day just trying to get better," he said. "I'm just trying to battle myself every day and compete with myself in the practice reps that we get … Whatever is presented to me, I think I'm ready for the opportunity."