CLEVELAND, Ohio — With the Browns’ opener in Kansas City less than three weeks away, the overhauled defense — with as many as nine new starters — has barely taken any reps together this training camp or preseason.
It began at the start of training camp when second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list for 10 days, including the first full five days of practice. Owusu-Koramoah is still listed third on the depth chart behind Mack Wilson and Malcolm Smith at weakside linebacker, but he’s slated for a big role as soon he’s ready. With Wilson battling a recent shoulder injury, that could be sooner than later.
In the first few days of camp, the Browns lost defensive end Takk McKinley to a personal issue, starting safety Ronnie Harrison Jr. to a hamstring injury, and starting middle linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. to a knee injury that, fortunately for the Browns, proved to be nothing serious.
As camp went along, defenders left the field one by one with soft-tissue injuries, including safety Grant Delpit, who has missed most practices with a hamstring injury and re-aggravated it last week. Myles Garrett and Sione Takitaki have also tweaked their hamstrings, and Denzel Ward has been sidelined most of camp with soreness and a sleeve on his right leg. Cornerback Greedy Williams, battling back from his shoulder injury, left the Giants game Sunday with a strained groin, which could hurt his chances to beat out first-round pick Greg Newsome II for the starting job.
On occasion, half the starting defense was on the sidelines in bucket hats while younger players such as safeties Javonte Moffatt and Richard LeCounte III, the fifth-round pick out of Georgia, got the bulk of the work. But some of that is by design. The Browns made it high priority to keep their starters healthy during preseason, and they’ve rested players such as Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Ward when they would’ve been healthy enough to play in a real game.
While other teams are suffering season-ending injuries in preseason games, the Browns have emerged unscathed for the most part.
They did lose backup linebacker Jacob Phillips possibly for the season to a torn biceps tendon, and backup linebacker Montrel Meander possibly for the season to an Achilles injury, but they’ve otherwise been fortunate with most of their big-name players. With so much at stake this season, they’re not taking any chances, which is why the majority of starters will likely rest again in the preseason finale Sunday in Atlanta.
And although it’s not ideal for the new starting defense to debut against the Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and the Chiefs on Sept. 12, there’s plenty of reason to believe that defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ unit will rise to the occasion.
For starters, the Browns have added plenty of accomplished veterans with Pro Bowl ability. Starting free safety John Johnson III and starting nickel back Troy Hill played for the Rams’ No. 1 defense last season, and have played in a Super Bowl. Johnson was the Rams’ defensive captain and had the “green sticker” on his helmet as the signal-caller for the unit. Every day in Browns training camp, he can be seen and heard leading the secondary.
Starting defensive tackle Malik Jackson, a 10th-year pro, has played in 126 games and started 73 since 2012, including starting every game for the Broncos during their 2015 Super Bowl campaign. In fact, he scored the Broncos’ first TD in their 24-10 Super Bowl victory over the Panthers when he fell on a fumble. Woods was the Broncos’ defensive backs coach at the time, and hasn’t forgotten how good a healthy Jackson is. He’s the wise, old sage that youngsters such as Malik McDowell and Jordan Elliott turn to for help.
Then there’s three-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney, who often looks like a man among boys. His elite athletic ability jumps off the field, whether he’s punching violently through the bags or putting a swim move on All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin. A healthy Clowney is a scary Clowney, and he looks reinvigorated and happy. Some of the more memorable moments in camp have been watching him and Garrett exchange pass-rush secrets and develop a close bond. Like Jackson, Clowney is a go-to guy for younger players seeking pass-rush tips.
As for Walker, he’s such a great leader even at the age of 26 that he shares his copious notes on opponents with his teammates, and serves as almost another coach on the field. Now the Browns’ green-sticker guy on defense, he put his leadership on display Friday when asked about the post-practice fight between Hill and Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, during which punches were thrown. Walker said it was horseplay and not real. It was, of course, but the veteran closed ranks and protected his teammate. The look on Walker’s face while Hill had his dukes up was also priceless and meme-worthy:
With each passing departure from the lineup for however long, whether Delpit’s hamstring or Phillips’ torn biceps tendon, it’s seemed that the defense is running out of time to jell for one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and for the pivotal first quarter of the season.
But the Browns are girded by the fact that they’ve added experienced veterans and leaders at every level of the defense, which will help compensate for the lack of time on task. They’ve also added committed gym rats who do whatever it takes. Even when Owusu-Koramoah was quarantined at home, he participated in walk-through virtually using fruits and dumbbells. He’s bolting up the learning curve so fast, he’ll either start in Kansas City or play a lot.
While Delpit and Harrison stood on the sidelines with their sore hamstrings, they took every rep mentally and engaged with the younger safeties after reps.
What’s more, the injury outlook looks good. Delpit should be back in another week or so, and Williams may have suffered only a slight groin strain. McKinley, slated for the No. 3 defensive end role, should be back on the field sooner than later, and possibly be ready for duty in K.C. Ward is expected to be full-go for the Chiefs, and Garrett’s prolonged rest is mostly precautionary. After the Falcons game on Sunday, they have almost two full weeks to ramp up, and Woods — who held the unit together with smoke and mirrors last season — will have them ready to play.
The all-star band will mostly be back together soon, and although they’ll need some rehearsal, they should be able to make plenty of noise even in the opener.