Alex Van Pelt knows there's not many more secrets that can be revealed about the Browns offense, its identity and how it plans to attack opponents in 2021.
Van Pelt, Browns offensive coordinator, was at the helm of the group's offensive efficiency last season, when it ranked 14th in the NFL and thrived off the league's third-ranked rushing attack. Play-action passes were abundantly used, and WRs Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. — before he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 7 — were likely to receive the bulk of targets.
The challenge for the Browns this season isn't to change how their offense operates, but rather finding ways to keep a defense guessing. Van Pelt, as well as head coach Kevin Stefanski and quarterback Baker Mayfield, devoted part of the offseason doing just that, making minor tweaks to the playbook to refine what worked well and eliminate what didn't.
"Our foundation has been set," Van Pelt said Thursday. "We're just trying to grow in our system. It's been really nice to have everybody back."
Check out exclusive photos from Thursday's practice at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus
That foundation is one of the strongest in the NFL. Its lifespan was extended Aug. 2, when RB Nick Chubb signed a contract extension through 2024 and solidified Cleveland's Pro Bowl backfield tandem of Chubb and Kareem Hunt through the 2022 season. Beckham and Landry are back and hungry to build a big season together, their third as a duo in Cleveland. The offensive line is also back in its entirety with all five starters from last season eager to stake another claim at being the best in the league.
The biggest returnee — and perhaps the one most primed for their biggest season yet — is Mayfield. He garnered praise in training camp for how smoothly he operated the huddle and took command of the offense, a sign he's ready to benefit from playing under his second consecutive season with Stefanski and Van Pelt.
"He's done an outstanding job getting his body ready," Van Pelt said. "He did that last year as well. It shows up in his quickness and his conditioning and (ability) to go through all the drill work and not be winded. His footwork right now has improved over the last year. He's made leaps and bounds."
In addition to a smooth and improved Mayfield, the offense will certainly be capable of taking a step above last season with the return of Beckham, who suffered a knee injury before the Browns bye week when the offense used the rest period to re-tool and position themselves for a dominant second half of the season. Mayfield's numbers — 15 touchdowns and two interceptions — provide all the evidence that the work was fruitful.
How will that look with Beckham back? That remains to be seen, but the predictions can certainly be high. Beckham participated in only individual drills in training camp and took his first seven-on-seven reps Wednesday during an indoor practice. That's the schedule the Browns have outlined for him since he arrived for training camp, and the goal has always been to keep him healthy so he can be fully unleashed for the regular season.
A healthy Beckham will help the Browns incorporate several new wrinkles to their playbook.
"Any time you can add an elite player, it's going to help you," Van Pelt said. "We're doing a lot of work on the side. I know we're not getting the timing in team settings, but there's a lot of timing work going on between periods with special teams work when he's on the side. We've done some things with game scripts where we've actually scripted some plays to get him in conditioning, and the individual routes on air with Baker will continue to help us."
The Browns might have one other receiver capable of giving the offense considerable contributions each week: Donovan Peoples-Jones.
"DPJ," a 2020 sixth-round pick, was perhaps the biggest standout player from training camp and benefited from the Browns opting to give ample recovery days to Beckham and Landry. He completed athletic catches in nearly every practice and has continued to shine in the few series he's been given in preseason games.
Peoples-Jones was targeted 20 times last season and totaled 14 catches for two touchdowns and 304 yards. But if he continues to make athletic catches, the same kind of plays that have taken Beckham and Landry to Pro Bowls, the Browns will have to find ways to keep him on the field.
"I think last year early on, he was still trying to learn the system and learn what his role was," Van Pelt said. "But he's a guy who has great position flexibility. You can plug him in at all three spots, and he knows exactly what to do."
Peoples-Jones is just one more weapon — and one more reason — why the Browns believe they'll win the game planning battles that are ahead of them. Sure, the entire league might have a better understanding of how the Browns will try to beat them, but that doesn't mean the offense still can't find an edge.
They have the talent, intelligence and experience to still come out on top.
"It's all counter-punch and punch," Van Pelt said. "You choose your poison defensively. We're ready. We have the punch ability, and we have the counter-punch ability."