BEREA, Ohio — The Browns made some of their rookies available to the media on Friday. It’s a fun day, talking to players shortly after they walk into an NFL locker room for the first time.
Consider Martin Emerson, a third-round pick and the team’s top pick last month.
“When did you find out you were in the NFL?” I asked.
“When I saw my locker,” the Mississippi State defensive back said. “It was in there with all these other great players.”
Emerson had previously texted with Denzel Ward, the Nordonia product who became a Pro Bowl cornerback. Emerson played in the SEC, which is like a farming system for the NFL. He made several all-league teams in this conference during his three years in Starkville, Mississippi.
He knew he would be drafted. But still, seeing your name and jersey in an NFL locker…it’s a dream come true for many of these young men, a day most will never forget.
HOW DO YOU WEAR A HELMET?
The Browns brought in Malik Smith for the weekend on a trial basis. He is the brother of Tyreke Smith, a star defensive end from Ohio State who was picked in the fifth round by Seattle. Both went to Cleveland Heights.
Malik Smith was a basketball player, averaging 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in high school. He was recruited by UNC-Asheville, where he averaged just 1.9 points as a freshman. He later transferred to Bryant and then to Fisk, where he earned a business degree. He only played basketball in first grade.
“Not since fifth grade,” Smith said. “I haven’t worn a helmet since. They asked me what size I wanted for the shoulder pads and the helmet – I don’t know.
There is a history of basketball players who became NFL tight ends. That’s the road the 6-foot-4, 267-pound Smith wants to travel. He was scouted by the Browns on Ohio State Pro Day. Tyreke fueled his brother’s football dream and convinced the Buckeyes to include Malik in the scout-controlled group.
The Browns love his raw athleticism. He looks in great shape.
“Everything is new to me,” Smith said. “They gave me the playbook and it looks like a bunch of squiggly lines. I got my business degree from Fisk. My brother thinks I can do it. I have to go.
I CAN HIT THEM
Jerome Ford could become more than a reserve running back. I realized this when I asked the Cincinnati product to play on special teams.
“I did,” he said. “I like it.”
“I can do that,” he said. “But I’d rather run at full speed (on kick cover) and crash into someone standing still. You slap them.
I remember Kent State product Joshua Cribbs entering the NFL with the same attitude after being an undrafted free agent. Ford began his career in Alabama.
“I walked into the running backs room thinking I was going to be the guy,” Ford said.
“I looked around and realized I wasn’t going to be the guy,” he said with another laugh.
Like Ohio State, Alabama is an NFL factory. In two years, Ford carried the ball 31 times for Alabama, averaging 4.9 yards and three touchdowns. This small sample size showed talent. Since Nick Saban took over as coach, Alabama is usually brimming with top-notch RB prospects.
Ford transferred to Cincinnati (which recruited him hard in high school) and became a star for the Bearcats. As a junior, he was on cover teams and emerging as a running back. In 2021, he rushed for 1,242 yards (6.2 yard average) and 19 touchdowns. He became a fifth-round pick by the Browns.
“I was getting a haircut (from a friend) at my house when I got the call that I got drafted,” Ford said. “I will do whatever they want. … I can catch the ball. I was a slot machine receiver in high school. Special Teams… you name it.
ANOTHER TYPE OF “CATCH THE BALL” RECEIVER?
In 2016, the Browns held a media event like this for their rookies. I spent time with Rashard Higgins. He was a fifth-round pick. He was the Fourth receiver drafted by the team that year.
“What kind of receiver are you? I asked Higgins.
“I’m a Catch-The-Ball type receiver,” he said.
At his best, Higgins has good hands. The Browns are hoping third-round David Bell has the same characteristics — even if he doesn’t have the NFL’s ideal speed.
“To me, catching the ball is our No. 1 job,” said Bell, who was the Big Ten receiver of the year at Purdue.
Bell’s statistics in 2021 are damning. He caught 93 passes, averaging 13.8 yards. He had huge games against good teams: Ohio State (11 catches, 102 yards), Michigan State (11 catches, 217 yards) and Iowa (11 catches, 240 yards).
With those numbers, one would expect him to be drafted higher.
“I don’t see it that way,” Bell said. “God put me in a perfect situation. The Browns have a great running game, great passing game.
With Amari Cooper being the only established receiver on the roster, it’s a great opportunity for the 6-foot-2 receiver to play a lot right away.
YES, HE CALLED PHIL DAWSON
It was new. I have never seen a kicker surrounded by a crowd of reporters on the first day the media was allowed to watch rookie camp. But that was the case with Cade York, the LSU kicker drafted in the fourth round.
He once traveled to FirstEnergy Stadium to practice kicking on the shores of Lake Erie.
“It was awesome,” York said. “Really, it was more windy when I usually kicked at LSU.”
York knows bad weather is coming. He had a 40-minute phone conversation with Phil Dawson, the Browns’ last great kicker. Weather and wind were part of the discussion. Dawson told York about a flag he watched above the stadium to gauge wind currents.
Since the Browns decided not to quit Dawson after the 2012 season, they’ve gone through nine kickers in nine years — including Cody Parkey twice (2016, 2020).
Dawson kicked from the team’s return in 1999 until 2012. Some fans want the Browns to hire Dawson as a kicking coach. He already has a job – head football coach at Hyde Park High School in Austin, Texas.
York quickly learns that kickers are a big problem in Cleveland. Dawson is revered. The Browns’ practice complex is on Lou Groza Blvd., named after the Browns’ first great kicker.
YOU CAN DO IT TOO
“Donovan Peoples-Jones,” said Michael Woods II. The sixth-round pick was about another sixth-round pick, a receiver like him. Peoples-Jones (DPJ) was caught in 2020. In his final season at Michigan, DPJ caught 34 passes averaging 12.9 yards.
Woods caught 35 passes for an average of 11.4 yards.
Receivers coach Chad O’Shea explained to Woods how DPJ “played 40% of the snaps as a rookie.” In fact, it was 34%. But being a sixth-round pick doesn’t preclude a rookie from being in the field.
“I’m big,” the 6-foot-1 Woods said. “I am a 3 level receiver. I can make it short. I can do it average. I can do this for a long time. …I can block.
All the recruits were delighted. They’ve met fans at the airport and hotel, and they’re oozing love for their men in the orange helmets. Everyone is excited right now in Berea.
“Everyone tells me the Dawg Pound is pretty crazy,” Woods said. “We’re going to give them a reason to be mad.”
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