Joe Woods took a look at the defensive players stretching around the practice fields Monday in Berea and felt refreshed.
Three guys were preparing to take their first practice reps since training camp — and all three of them figure to carry significant roles on Woods' defense when they're back to full health.
LB Mack Wilson and CBs Greedy Williams and Kevin Johnson have all been sidelined for the first two weeks of the season after they suffered injuries in August. All of them, however, returned Monday and have been limited participants in practice with the hope of making their respective season debuts as soon as Sunday against the Washington Football Team.
For Woods, the Browns' defensive coordinator, all of the returning players are needed. They're among the most talented guys on his defense, and their presence has been missed.
"It's good to see those guys back out there," he said Thursday in a Zoom call with local reporters. "It really shows how committed they are to the team. To see Mack back out there, Kevin, Greedy. We're taking it day-by-day, but we're working our way back to getting those guys on the field. There's just more things we can do."
Wilson was preparing to hear the worst possible news after he went down with a knee injury a few days into training camp. The pain he suffered after landing awkwardly in a seven-on-seven drill was too much to bear, and Wilson, who was carted off the field and left with his head in hands, dreaded the four words he thought he'd hear next: "Your season is over."
Instead, the recovery time was a long — but still manageable — six-to-eight weeks. Wilson worked to return as fast as possible, and now he's back on the practice field and ready to lead the linebackers as a second-year playmaker.
"I've been working extremely hard every day with treatment and doing all of the right things so that I can come back," he said Monday. "As far as me playing, that will be up to the coaches. That is their decision. I'm just going to continue to take it one day at a time, let them evaluate me as I practice and things like that. We're just building up every day."
Check out exclusive photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Washington Football Team
Woods would love to have Wilson back Sunday if he's ready. Wilson's speed provided a big boost in the defense's overall tackling abilities last year, and he has helped fill some of the leadership gap the group felt with the departures of longtime LBs Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey, who both left Cleveland in free agency last offseason.
"Mack's a highly competitive player," Woods said. "He brings that toughness to the defense. When he's out there, he's going 100 miles per hour, and I think guys feed off that energy. I think getting him back in the fold will be critical for us defensively just because of what he brings to the entire team."
Johnson's return comes after much uncertainty in the weeks after he suffered a liver laceration during a collision to the ground midway through training camp.
The scary injury briefly put Johnson in the hospital before he was released and made his way back to the team. He's watched practices from the sidelines since he rejoined the Browns, but coaches have been eager to see Johnson participate again after he became an early standout player in training camp.
Johnson, who is one of the most versatile players in the secondary, made most of his big plays in camp from the slot CB position. He'll likely be asked to help in that role again when he returns to in-game action.
"I feel blessed that I'm able to be back out there and practice," Johnson said Monday. "I'm so excited to be a part of this team and getting to work, continuing to work."
When Williams makes his season debut, the Browns starting CBs will be at full strength for the first time all season. Williams was expected to play alongside Denzel Ward as the top two corners on the roster, but he missed the final half of training camp with a shoulder injury.
Williams was a formidable starting CB last season and made 47 tackles and two pass deflections. At 22 years old, Williams has plenty of growth left in his game, and his and Johnson's return should provide a much needed spark to a secondary that has allowed 555 passing yards through two games.
"It's definitely a big boost," Woods said. "Both of those guys, they're young guys, but they're guys that have been starters in the league who have proved they can play at a high level. Kevin has the ability to play in multiple positions. We just have to be smart moving forward with those guys, not putting anything hard on them in the beginning and easing them back into it."
It's too soon to tell if all three players will be available for Sunday's Week 3 matchup at FirstEnergy Stadium, but their returns alone are great news for the Browns after they entered the season with an injury-depleted defense.
When everyone is back to full health, Woods is confident the defense will only get better.
"We can be more versatile and create some different packages," he said. "I think that's the biggest boost. For the guys who have been playing, now they're gaining confidence. They're out on the game field making some plays, so I think the thing overall for the whole defense is to give us more depth and confidence at each position."