May is a time for teaching, learning, digesting and producing. It's about installing a team's system and tinkering with personnel.
A lot of 2019's personnel tinkering has included safety Jermaine Whitehead. The defender has been receiving regular reps with the first team since the start of OTAs, and on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks told us why: He sees Whitehead as a leader.
"Extremely smart, very intelligent, takes control when he's out there," Wilks explained. "Can really communicate and articulate a defense and get everybody on the same page."
Whitehead's career has included stops in San Francisco (as a training camp participant in 2015), Baltimore and Green Bay. He was seeing considerable playing time with the Packers last season before an unsportsmanlike conduct ejection resulted in his release from the team less than two days later.
That's how he landed with the Browns, where he appeared in seven games in a reserve role to finish the 2018 season. It's evident, Wilks said, he's making the most of his opportunity in Cleveland.
Check out photos from the fifth day of OTA practices
"Not surprised at all," Wilks said of Whitehead's offseason performance. "He's been in the league for a while, he's been on several teams. It just shows who he is as an individual. He puts a lot of time into his craft, studies the game a lot and it really shows on the field."
Second-year corner and 2018 first-round pick Denzel Ward echoed Wilks' sentiments Wednesday.
"He's shown a lot of range back there. A lot of communication," Ward said of Whitehead. "That's what you like as a corner, somebody that's gonna talk to you, get you in the right formation, right coverage and everything. I'm liking Whitehead back there as well."
The bit of praise for Whitehead might have gone overlooked in past years, with veteran Damarious Randall holding down one of the starting jobs and Morgan Burnett expected to take over at strong safety. But as Wilks said Wednesday, the Browns are looking at three-safety lineups fairly frequently, thanks to a league Wilks said Wednesday has become "pass happy." Whitehead, a player Wilks says is a "plug and play" type due to his intelligence, could help there.
"Where the game is today and how they try to spread you out quite a bit, you'd like to have the option to put those guys on the field so therefore you can be more athletic in space," Wilks elaborated.
Photos from Wednesday's workouts
Receivers battling for spots on bottom half of depth chart
Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway did not participate Wednesday, which some might mistakenly see as concerning when it's really a great opportunity for the rest of the receivers on the roster. The reason? Well, there are really only two or three spots at maximum open on this team, and a group of eight vying for those spots.
The group -- Blake Jackson, D.J. Montgomery, Damion Ratley, Ishmael Hyman, Dorian Baker, Jaelen Strong, Derrick Willies, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi and Rashard Higgins -- were all on the field Wednesday (Willies was off to the side working with the trainers). Higgins is essentially the fourth of the aforementioned four players with secure positions on the roster, but still got his work in as he has room for growth.
The rest of the group has been battling, and it has been a treat to watch. Jackson has looked very good in individual drills, Baker's length (he's listed at 6-foot-3 but looks taller than that) is intriguing, Montgomery made an excellent catch on a deep pass during group work, and Strong's experience as a professional is evident throughout. This is a position group that can produce at least a couple of receivers with potential to contribute. It's just a matter of whom, which we won't know for some time.
Scottish Hammer getting reps as holder
Jamie Gillan got another round of practice receiving and holding snaps for field goals Wednesday and appeared to do better after having a bit of a rough go with the whole "laces out" part of it.
"I have been there before with punters," Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said Wednesday of Gillan. "In the NFL, punters need to hold. As you guys know, because we do not get a lot of time with the backup quarterbacks or backup receivers, whoever else can hold. At the end of the day, he's a very good athlete, he's worked very hard at it. He has made amazing progress."
No exemptions from special teams
Priefer emphasized Wednesday the importance of getting the team's best players available on special teams, no matter their status as starters.
"I think that starts with the head coach," Priefer said, "and I know Freddie has done a great job at saying, 'Hey, Prief whatever you need and it's going to help you win. If you need starters on offense, starters on defense to help on some of the phases, then use them.' Use the backups, obviously the backups are going to be on everything.
"To be honest with you, it starts with the head coach. Freddie has done a great job giving us a time in all three phases to be. We are a lot further ahead than I've ever been at some of the places I've been because of the time that the head coach has given us on special teams and that is huge."
There's been an added focus on special teams already, with field goal practice coming in the middle of practice instead of at the end. Kicking isn't a throwaway final practice period, but a key part of it. After last season's kicking issues, that should be welcome news to Browns fans.
Return game heating up
Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi's path to the Browns is an incredible story, but that doesn't mean he'll just be handed a roster spot. The speedster is working hard in Berea and is definitely as fast as they come, but he faces competition from Dontrell Hilliard (who's had a great offseason), Callaway and recent signing D’Ernest Johnson.
For now, they're catching kicks off the JUGS machine and weaving through coverage without pads or tackling. That's the tip of the return game iceberg.
"We really have not identified the number one guy yet," Priefer said. "I think that is going to be a process. And really when we are allowed to practice more often and do more returns and that type of thing, stay with them after practice a little bit longer and work with the jugs, the punters and the kickers. We are going to identify who that guy is going to be. That's more of a training camp type issue. We are starting to get an idea of who those guys are."
Some have wondered whether Sheehy-Guiseppi's only chance to make the team is as a returner. He's getting plenty of OTA reps at receiver, attempting to make himself more valuable while he still can. Priefer offered another route Wednesday: Special teams ace.
"In Minnesota, we had Marcus Sherels, who did a great job for us for eight years," Priefer said. "But Marcus was also our best gunner, he was also on the kickoff team. If Damon is going to be the guy, then he has to play on more than just return phases. You got to be a guy that is going to help us in the cover phases as well."