Browns OTA observations: Za'Darius Smith stands out; Deshaun Watson, pass game finding rhythm (2023)

Notes, quotes and scenes from the Browns’ second organized team activity (OTA) practice Wednesday, the first open to reporters…

It’s optimism season. It’s 75 percent-speed football practice season, too, and being able to watch beats the alternative.

The two full-team periods appeared to be limited to half-speed, and thewhole practice had an instructional theme. That’s understandable given that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is installing a new scheme and that the Browns are just starting their nine-practice spring docket.


Deshaun Watson did let it rip in the 7-on-7 periods, but with little noticeable success on anything down the field. Watson hit Mike Harley Jr. on a deep crosser, but the ball was well behind Harley and Harley had to go to the ground to catch it. Real highlights of any kind were few, and that’s just fine right now.

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Rodney McLeod’s interception for what looked to have been an obvious touchdown was the defensive highlight. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said afterward that McLeod, an 11-year vet who previously played under Schwartz with the Eagles, could probably teach the defense to his new teammates.

All lessons welcome. All playmakers are welcome too, obviously, but the Browns are sticking to the basics. From a sideline observer’s standpoint, it’s much more about what you noticed than what actually happened in the 90 or so minutes with 75 or so players on the field.

Za’Darius Smith, the Browns’ new pass-rusher and presumed starting left defensive end, is a player I certainly noticed. Smith looks the part and seemed to be engaged and involved with his teammates throughout the practice. Another player I noticed was second-year cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., who uses his long arms to break up passes that the passer and pass-catcher probably thought would be completed.

No trophies will be awarded for any May conversions, and on the second day, it’s understandable that the pass game wasn’t exactly clicking. The flip side of that is that the structure of the practices makes it basically a passing camp, and it’s supposed to look better than it did in terms of completion percentage and the overall efficiency of the operation. The next practice open to reporters is the fifth of the spring, so it should look better then.

Either way, it’s early.

Watson hit free agent signee Marquise Goodwin on a flick to the back of the end zone in a red-zone drill, and the way Watson celebrated after that throw made it seem like that was one he really wanted. Emerson broke up the next pass, and the third of that session went off of Elijah Moore’s hands. It’s all happening fast here — overall and in the red-zone session, specifically — so we’ll keep tracking what we can and keep expecting improvement in the coming weeks and months. That’s what Stefanski seems to be expecting, too.


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“I don’t think it’s fair to compare (to last year),” Stefanski said. “I would just tell you Deshaun has done a really nice job throughout this entire offseason of being diligent about understanding the playbook, understanding his teammates every single day. (Tuesday) was a really good day. (Wednesday) was a really good day. There are always going to be things that you want to get back and do a little bit differently. That’s no different than every player at every position, but he’s right where he needs to be.”

Deshaun Watson during OTA workouts in Berea, Ohio, this week. (Matt Starkey / Cleveland Browns)

Donovan Peoples-Jones was kept busy in the pass game. Greg Newsome II was again the slot cornerback when the Browns’ first unit played its pass-down packages. When Ethan Pocic got sent to the sideline for one play after snapping the ball too early, Nick Harris replaced him. That’s notable because Harris suffered a torn ACL last August, an injury that led to Pocic getting the starting center job and eventually a new contract. Harris being cleared to participate in May practices is a positive sign for his progress.

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Who was (and wasn’t) on the field?

Absent were Nick Chubb, Joel Bitonio, Myles Garrett and David Njoku. Amari Cooper was in attendance but worked with members of the training staff on the side and did not participate in practice. That’s no surprise given Cooper’s experience level and his February core muscle surgery.

Stefanski deflected a post-practice question about whether it was disappointing not to have Garrett at practice, saying the Browns were focused on their work and that these practices are voluntary. Last year, Garrett was present for some OTA practices but not all of them. Bitonio was not present for any open OTA practices last year.

With Bitonio absent, Drew Forbes played left guard with the No. 1 offense. John Kelly got the first snap at running back in the first 7-on-7 session, and Jerome Ford got the first action (and first carry) in the first team drill. Chubb’s absence makes this an even bigger spring for Ford, who impressed the team’s decision-makers as a rookie but appears headed for a much larger role this season.


The first defensive line group for full team drills had Smith and Alex Wright at defensive end and Jordan Elliott and Maurice Hurst at defensive tackle. In the second group, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Isaiah Thomas played defensive end with Dalvin Tomlinson and Siaki Ika at defensive tackle.

The Browns are going to play a lot of defensive linemen, and they’re going to employ a lot of different defensive line combinations. When it counts, Tomlinson is going to play with the first group. Maybe he was playing with the second group so he could work more directly with Ika, who the Browns drafted in the third round four weeks ago.

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Joining Cooper in being dressed for practice but not participating were wide receivers Jakeem Grant and Anthony Schwartz, rookie defensive end Isaiah McGuire and three of the team’s rehabbing linebackers: Anthony Walker Jr., Sione Takitaki and Jacob Phillips. Walker was in for one walkthrough drill, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be a full-speed participant until training camp. McGuire wore a protective sleeve on his calf but walked through most of the drills 20 or so yards behind where his teammates took them on at full speed.

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The Browns’ three linebackers in the first full-team drill were Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tony Fields II and Jordan Kunaszyk. Matthew Adams, a March free-agent pickup, was first in line in some of the 7-on-7 drills.

Jim Schwartz coached the practice in a No. 51 jersey, Kunaszyk’s number. Stefanski said he would let Schwartz fully explain his thinking with that but said it was something Schwartz does to highlight and compliment a player he thinks has been a strong example to his teammates.

Early defensive standout

Stefanski had plenty of praise for Smith, saying the veteran pass-rusher acquired in a May 12 trade has brought “juice” to the Browns’ offseason program and has been a strong example to his younger teammates.

“He’s a game-wrecker,” Stefanski said of Smith. “He’s really difficult to defend in the run and the pass. He gives you an honest day’s work. He’s got heavy hands. He plays hard. He’s even made a few plays just in these drills, in these jog-throughs where you just watch his movement skills. He’s big and thick and can move, so he’s done a really nice job.”

Eventually, the Browns want Smith and Garrett to be their starting defensive ends and consistently win one-on-one matchups. Okoronkwo will be the pass-down specialty player off the edge, and Schwartz will get Wright and McGuire ready to play in different spots when called upon. Smith said he’s fully healthy and most excited to return to a traditional 4-3 defensive end role which will allow him to put rushing the quarterback ahead of any other priority.

From what we know now and what little we saw Wednesday, Schwartz is in the early stages of installing an attack-style defense. There’s still much work to be done for the defense, the offense and really every phase. The Browns have two more weeks of work here before their summer break, and only once training camp starts will we really see things start to come together.

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For now, just seeing a little football was just fine.

“I think we’re so early into our installation that we’re still scratching the surface,” Stefanski said. “I mean, there’s many more meetings and many more things that we’ll get to, but I think the energy is there.”

(Top photo of Za’Darius Smith: Matt Starkey / Cleveland Browns)


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