BEREA, Ohio. On Friday, the Browns released some of their rookies to the media. It's a fun day, chatting with players shortly after they first enter
BEREA, Ohio. On Friday, the Browns released some of their rookies to the media. It’s a fun day, chatting with players shortly after they first entered the NFL locker room.
Consider Martin Emerson, the third round pick and the team’s top pick last month.
“When did it dawn on you that you were in the NFL?” I asked.
“When I saw my locker,” the Mississippi defenseman said. “It was there with all these great players.”
Emerson had already corresponded with Denzel Ward, a Nordonia product who became a Pro Bowl cornerback. Emerson played in the SEC, which is similar to the farming system for the NFL. During his three years in Starkville, Mississippi, he brought together several major league teams at this conference.
He knew that he would be called. But still, seeing your name and your jersey in an NFL locker… for many of these young people is a dream come true, a day most of them will never forget.
HOW TO WEAR A HELMET?
The Browns brought in Malik Smith for the weekend as a tryout. He is the brother of Tyrek Smith, an all-star defenseman from Ohio State who was drafted by Seattle in the fifth round. Both went to Cleveland Heights.
Malik Smith was a basketball player who averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in high school. He was recruited at UNC-Asheville, where he averaged only 1.9 as a freshman. He later moved to Bryant and then to Fisk, where he earned a degree in business. He only played basketball in his freshman year.
How about football?
“Not since fifth grade,” Smith said. “I haven’t worn a helmet since. They asked me what size I need for the shoulder pads and helmet – I don’t know.”
There is a history when basketball players were getting tight ends in the NFL. This is the path Smith wants to take at 6’4″ and weighing 267 pounds. He was spotted by the Browns at Ohio State Pro Day. Tyrek fueled his brother’s football dream and convinced the Bakeevs to have Malik be part of the scout-tested group.
The Browns love his raw athleticism. He looks in amazing shape.
“Everything is new to me,” Smith said. “They gave me a textbook and it looks like a set of wavy lines. I got a degree in business from Fisk. My brother thinks I can do it. I have to go for it.”
I CAN TAKE THEM
Jerome Ford could be more than a backup runner. I figured this out when I asked a Cincinnati product about playing on special teams.
“I did it,” he said. “I like it.”
“I can do it,” he said. “But I would rather go full speed (when covering with my foot) and crash into someone who is standing still. You spank them.
I remember Kent State product Joshua Cribbs coming into the NFL with the same attitude after being an undrafted free agent. Ford began his career in Alabama.
“I went into the back room thinking I was going to be that guy,” Ford said.
“I looked around and realized I wasn’t going to be that guy,” he said with a new laugh.
Like the state of Ohio, Alabama is the factory of the NFL. In two years, Ford carried the ball for Alabama 31 times, averaging 4.9 yards and scoring three touchdowns. This small sample size really showed talent. Ever since Nick Saban took over as coach, Alabama has generally been brimming over with top RB prospects.
Ford moved to Cincinnati (where he was active in high school) and became the star of the Bearcats. As a junior, he was on cover teams and also became a runner. In 2021, he rushed for 1,242 yards (averaging 6.2 yards) and threw for 19 touchdowns. He became the Browns’ fifth-round pick.
“I was getting a haircut (at a friend’s) at my home when they called me and they called me,” Ford said. “I will do whatever they want. … I can catch the ball. In high school, I was a slot machine recipient. Special Forces… whatever.”
ANOTHER RECEIVER “SHALL CAPSE THE BALL”?
In 2016, the Browns had a similar media event for their rookies. I spent time with Rashard Higgins. He was selected in the fifth round. He was fourth receiver compiled by the team in the same year.
“What receiver are you?” I asked Higgins.
“I’m a catch-the-ball receiver,” he said.
At his best, Higgins has good hands. The Browns are hoping that third-seeded David Bell has the same qualities, though he doesn’t have NFL-perfect speed.
“To me, catching the ball is our #1 job,” said Bell, who was the Big Ten Receiver of the Year at Purdue.
Bell’s stats in 2021 are staggering. He caught 93 passes for an average of 13.8 yards. He had great games against good teams: Ohio State (11 catches, 102 yards), Michigan State (11 catches, 217 yards) and Iowa (11 catches, 240 yards).
With numbers like that, one would expect him to be picked higher in the draft.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Bell said. “God has put me in the perfect position. The Browns have a great move, a great pass.”
Since Amari Cooper is the only wide receiver on the list, this is a great opportunity for the 6-foot-2 wide receiver to play a lot right away.
YES, HE CALLED PHIL DAWSON
It was new. I never saw a kicker surrounded by a crowd of reporters on the first day the media was allowed to watch the rookie camp. But that was the case with Cade York, LSU’s fourth-round kicker.
He has already made a trip to FirstEnergy Stadium to practice kicking on the shores of Lake Erie.
“It was amazing,” Yorke said. “Indeed, when I used to kick LSU, there was more wind.”
York knows bad weather is coming. He had a 40-minute phone call with Phil Dawson, the Browns’ last great kicker. Weather and wind were part of the discussion. Dawson told York about the flag he had seen over the stadium to judge wind currents.
Because the Browns chose not to fire Dawson after the 2012 season, they changed nine kickers in nine years, including Cody Parki twice (2016, 2020).
Dawson competed from the team’s return in 1999 until 2012. Some fans want the Browns to hire Dawson as their hitting coach. He already has a job as head football coach at Hyde Park High School in Austin, Texas.
York quickly realizes that kickers are a big deal in Cleveland. Dawson is revered. The Browns training facility is located on Lou Groza Boulevard, named after the Browns’ first great kicker.
YOU CAN DO IT TOO
“Donovan Peoples-Jones,” said Michael Woods II. The sixth-round pick spoke of another sixth-round pick, a wide receiver just like him. Peoples-Jones (DPJ) was taken in 2020. In his final season at Michigan, DPJ caught 34 passes with an average of 12.9 yards.
Woods caught 35 passes with an average of 11.4 yards.
Receiver coach Chad O’Shea told Woods that DPJ “played 40 percent of the snaps as a rookie”. In fact, it was 34 percent. But the choice in the sixth round does not prevent the newcomer from being on the field.
“I’m big,” said Woods, who is 6ft 1in. “I get 3 levels. I can short. I can do it on average. I can long. … I can block.”
All newcomers were delighted. They’ve run into fans at the airport and hotel, and they exude love for their orange-helmeted men. Now everyone is excited in Berea.
“Everyone tells me that Dawg Pound is pretty crazy,” Woods said. “We’re going to give them a reason to go crazy.”
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