INDIANAPOLIS — Tyreke Smith wants to come home.
Smith, a Cleveland Heights native, would welcome an opportunity to start an NFL career in Cleveland and play for the team he grew up watching for as long as he can remember. Smith is a Browns fan at heart, and he'd love to take his first NFL snaps in an orange helmet after wearing a scarlet and gray one as an edge rusher at Ohio State for the last four years.
"I loved the Browns growing up," Smith said at the NFL Combine. "My dad had (the house) decked out in all Cleveland stuff. Browns, Indians, Cavs. I've been a Browns fan."
The Browns need an edge rusher, and that need could grow even more if Jadeveon Clowney, who will be an unrestricted free agent on March 16, joins another team in free agency. Smith seems more likely to land as a Day 2 or Day 3 draft pick after he accumulated eight sacks in four seasons with the Buckeyes, but the Browns could still take a hard look at him — even if Clowney remains on the roster in 2022, Cleveland could use depth and youth on the edge. Myles Garrett is the only DE under contract for next season.
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Donning a Browns hat on his draft day would be a dream come true for Smith. He was born in Cleveland and spent most of his childhood in California, but that didn't stop him from watching games — his dad purchased a cable package solely to watch Browns games.
And yes, they still watched every week even as the team endured a difficult 18-year playoff drought. Cleveland sports was instilled in the Smith family, and that meant watching the team no matter what.
"I was always watching them, going through the pains of being a Browns fan," he said with a smile. "But I love that team."
Smith primarily played basketball when he lived in California and jumped back into football for the first time since seventh grade when he was a junior at Cleveland Heights. Under the tutelage of Mac Stephens, one of the prominent high school coaches of the area, Smith became a rising star and one of the top prospects in the state when he totaled 70 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks in his senior season. That production led him to win 2017 Cleveland.com Defensive Player of the Year and all-Ohio Division I Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Smith's ascension in Columbus was partially slowed by injuries in his sophomore and senior season, which forced him to miss a total of eight games. He believes he has plenty of room to grow in the NFL and has yet to come close to his full potential.
"I didn't start playing until my junior year of high school, so I still feel like I'm getting better every day," he said. "I feel like when I get to the NFL, I can really hone into what I'm capable of."
Smith would no doubt cherish the mentorship he'd receive from a player like Garrett, a two-time Pro Bowler who broke the Browns' single-season sack record with 16 sacks in 2021. Garrett has become a vocal defensive leader for the Browns and is four sacks away from breaking Clay Matthews' all-time sack record (62 sacks), an achievement he's certainly capable of breaking early in 2022.
"I just always want to be dominant and expand my game," Smith said. "I'm always trying to be a better player and always expand, whether it's sticking onto a veteran and asking them questions, I'm always trying to get to that upper echelon."
Maybe Smith can reach that upper echelon with a familiar team.
And even if his first destination isn't Cleveland, his fandom isn't going to change.
"I know if I don't get picked (by the Browns), I have to turn into a regular…" he said before cutting himself off with a laugh. "I'm still going to be a fan."