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OTAs & Minicamp

Za'Darius Smith believes the Browns' defense has unfinished business 

Smith re-signed with the Browns during the 2023 offseason

ZaDarius OTA feature

As DE Za'Darius Smith jogged out of the locker room and onto the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus for the beginning of organized team activities, one thing was noticeably different about the veteran defensive lineman.

He sported a new haircut. The dreadlocks are gone, replaced with a tighter new look.

"Just woke up one morning and thought I was ready for a change," Smith said of his new look. "I said that now that I'm 30, I want to go with a new look. I've been talking to my parents, my mom, and my kids, and they were like agreeing with me. So, I'm glad I did it. I look better. Look younger. Look slimmer. So, I'm happy about it for sure."

While he has a new look, the Browns brought back the three-time Pro-Bowler after his first season in Cleveland. He played an integral role for the Browns as an edge rusher opposite of DE Myles Garrett and a key piece in their overall defensive success in 2023.

Smith re-signed with the Browns during the offseason after he was traded to Cleveland in May 2023 and spent the 2023 season with the Browns. Smith finished the season with 5.5 sacks, 27 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hits. Smith had the second-highest number of sacks on the team, just behind Garrett.

"The culture, the chemistry with this team, man, everything," Smith said of re-signing with the Browns. "The brotherhood, the team camaraderie. I had a chance to go other places, but I felt like I didn't want that. I felt like we didn't get to where we wanted to last year. And we got something that we need to finish here. Hopefully, we can get that done this year."

The Browns had one of the best defenses in the league during the 2023 season, as they led the league in total defense – allowing 270.2 yards per game – and passing defense – allowing 164.7 yards per game. They also led the NFL in third down percentage at 29.1 percent. They gave up just 253 total first downs – 45 less than the Jets, who finished second in the NFL.

Yet, the defense fell short in the Wild Card round against the Texans and the Browns lost 45-14 to end their season. It was the most points a team had scored against the Browns in the 2023 season.

Check out the action from practice at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus as the Browns go through organized team activities

However, Smith and the Browns have moved past the loss. Instead, Smith believes with more time under their belts in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme, they will be more comfortable and just as dominant of a defense in 2024. The first year was a learning curve. The second year can bring familiarity.

"For myself, coming from a 3-4 system, I was always a guy who had to stand up," Smith said. "So just being down in the three point now, not really looking at formations was something new for me. But now I'm starting to get the hang of it. And as you can see this year, you see a better Z. I can tell you that much."

For much of the defensive line, it's the second year in Schwartz's system. Garrett, DT Dalvin Tomlinson and DE Ogbo Okoronkwo all return for another season with the Browns. Not only did the Browns bring back Smith, but they also re-signed DT Shelby Harris and DT Maurice Hurst II.

Yet, they also have new faces among the defensive line, both in coaching and new players. They brought in a new defensive line coach Jacques Cesaire, signed DT Quinton Jefferson and drafted DT Mike Hall Jr.

It's been a plus of OTAs to be able to work alongside the new additions to the roster and see what they bring to their group. Smith is entering his 10th NFL season, and after learning from other defensive players like OLB Terrell Suggs, LB C.J. Mosley and S Eric Weddle as he came up through the league, he's trying to pass along any information he can. Smith is also focused on being a leader both among the defense and the locker room.

"I'll say doing the little things, fundamentals," Smith said. "If you continue to do that before and after practice, you just (get) better in your craft. I got a coach who always told me, 'If you don't use it, you'll lose it.' So, for me to be able to come back out here and just get (to) work, we got a new D-line coach. We're learning new things. A bunch of young guys who want to learn. So, it's all good for us in our D-line room and hopefully we could come out and be a number one defensive line this year."

Smith believes there is more the Browns can do defensively. He saw their potential with their success in 2023 and wanted to be a part of the next step they take on that side of the ball. He believes they have the pieces and the talent to do so in 2024.

"I wanted to come back here because I see something in this team that a lot of people just don't see," Smith said. "For being in the locker room, and I was talking about the team camaraderie, if we keep that close and keep the togetherness, we can go far this year, hopefully."

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