BEREA, Ohio -- It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. After days of non-contact drills and walkthroughs in shorts, the Cleveland Browns finally were cleared to don full pads and turn up the physicality meter last week. The occasion offered the first real chance to see how the new personnel pieces acquired in the offseason might fit together and whether the optimism that permeated the building during the spring was warranted.
It was quickly established that the afternoon would belong to the defense, which repeatedly made life hell for the celebrated offense. In the big picture, it meant little; this was one practice during the infancy stage of training camp. But privately, it was significant because it hinted at the possibility of what could be. If a unit on which players are still learning each other's names, with potentially nine new starters from a season ago, can dominate an offense that returns every significant player from a group that scored 32 or more points in eight games (including the playoffs), with 41 or more in four of them, perhaps the talk of being a legitimate Super Bowl contender represents something more than hyperbole.
"Everything the offense gets right now in camp, they're working for," second-year head coach Kevin Stefanski told NFL.com the following day. "That's a great sign of a defense -- make life hard on the offense, don't give up the easy one."
If replacing so many starters on one side of the ball seems dramatic, particularly for a team coming off its first playoff appearance in 18 years, it shouldn't. This was part of the master plan Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry laid out after being hired in 2020, though maybe not this dramatic. The duo wanted to address the offense in Year 1, with the focus on providing complementary parts to help develop QB Baker Mayfield, the first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. They signed right tackle Jack Conklin (three-year, $42 million contract) and tight end Austin Hooper (four-year, $42 million deal) in free agency, then used the 10th pick in the draft on offensive tackle Jedrick Wills. The results were positive. Mayfield played with greater efficiency: his completion percentage rose as his interception rate fell.
The hope is that the focus on defense this offseason will show equally positive results on that side of the ball. The unit was statistically average in most areas last year, ranking 17th in yards allowed, 21st in points allowed, 18th in takeaways, 15th in sacks and 23rd in third-down efficiency. But the additions of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley, safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Anthony Walker via free agency, along with the arrivals of first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II and second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, have many believing the defense will no longer have to play in the shadow of the offense.
"We've got a lot of dynamic playmakers," said All-Pro DE Myles Garrett, one of just two returning starters (along with CB Denzel Ward) who are locks to run with the first team. "It only takes a couple of guys on our side [to cause problems for opposing linemen], and when you do that, you create circumstances and situations that are beneficial to us."
The excitement of what can be is evident in Garrett's body language as he goes through practice. There is a sense of contentment and anticipation. He bobs his head to the music that blares from the speaker system, but the vibe is that he would move the same even if there were silence. Because for the first time in his five-year career, he has help -- impactful help. Like Garrett, Clowney is a former No. 1 overall pick who can destroy blocking schemes. He has never had more than 9.5 sacks in a season since entering the league in 2014, but statistics alone do not reflect his ability to disrupt offenses. He must be accounted for, which will make it more difficult for opponents to slide their protection to Garrett, who has averaged nearly a sack per game over the past three seasons. Jackson, a 10th-year veteran whom coordinator Joe Woods knows from their time together in Denver, also provides a pass-rush threat from the interior.
"I'm always optimistic about the year, and with the acquisitions that we've picked up, I definitely feel we can do something great this year, something that they haven't done in a long time here: go to the playoffs and make a run," Garrett said. "Knowing I have all these dominant guys around me -- everybody's healthy, everybody is in a good mood and everybody is coming in with a positive attitude -- I'm just excited to be out here with these guys. I feel great, my body feels good and I'm able to pretty much give it my all every single play. So if everything is as it should be, why shouldn't I go out there and look like I love the game on every single down?"
The beauty in what the Browns have done can be found on every level of the defense. At linebacker, Walker provides speed and experience, having averaged more than 100 tackles the past three seasons while starting for the Colts. Owusu-Koramoah is an outstanding athlete who should be able to provide some rush ability, but whose real value could be in defending opposing tight ends.
In the secondary, the Browns have an abundance of riches after luring Johnson and Hill from the Rams' top-ranked defense. Pair them with Ward and Newsome, while adding Greedy Williams, a 2019 second-round pick who missed all of last season because of a shoulder injury, and Cleveland appears much more equipped to lock down receivers.
"We have to go out and show it," Ward said. "It's a lot of talk right now. Everything looks good on paper, but every year you've got to prove yourself in this league."
The man most excited about the defensive additions might be Woods, though you'd have a hard time telling simply by looking at him. In his 18th year as an NFL coach, with recent stints as the Broncos' defensive coordinator and 49ers' secondary coach/passing game coordinator, Woods moves across the practice field with purpose, using breaks between drills to offer more in-depth instruction. Many of those who know the 51-year-old use the term "grinder" when discussing him.
"He is the hardest-working coach I've ever been around," said Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who hired Woods in that role while coaching the Broncos. "If you track him, everywhere he goes, it is instant progress. He is a great teacher, and players play good early for him. As my coordinator in Denver, no one talks about the job he did. Our first year, we were top five in pass and run. That's hard to do."
Woods was in a tough position last year. The Browns did bring in a half dozen free-agent defenders, but none had the pedigree of this year's class. Plus, Williams and safety Grant Delpit, a 2020 second-round pick, missed all of last season because of injury, while tackle Andrew Billings was a COVID-19 opt-out. Ward, Garrett and safety Karl Joseph also missed time because of injury. Consequently, Woods was not able to fully open a playbook that is varied because of the lessons he has learned from working in multiple systems. Last season, he relied on a lot of Cover 3 concepts, but in training camp this year, he has mixed things up, incorporating more man coverage.
"It was one thing after another during (last) season," Stefanski said. "But whether injuries or COVID, Joe and our defensive staff had this 'can do' attitude and just wanted to solve problems and not complain about said problems. That was an impressive lesson in leadership from Joe. They were ready to defend any blade of grass you asked them to defend and not complain about what they don't have."
A smile creeps across Woods' face when discussing this year's group, particularly when asked about how he'll use Garrett and Clowney. He said he "absolutely" will move them around to create mismatches. And the more disruptive they are, the less time quarterbacks will have to throw the football, which means a talented secondary can be even more aggressive. Piece it all together and the ingredients are there for a potentially special season.
"I welcome it," Woods said of the focus on the defense. "I'd rather be in a situation where I have a bunch of good players and have high expectations than to not have them and have high expectations. To be honest with you, I try to block out the noise. I really don't watch TV or read a lot of articles. I focus on, How can I get these guys better every day? How can I put these guys in positions to make plays every day? That way, when you get to game day, it's easy. I know on game day that when the guys are prepared and we have a good plan, I'm calm and I just trust that they're going to do their job."
One practice. It meant nothing -- and yet, it meant everything.