BEREA, Ohio – The Browns made some of their rookies available to the media Friday. It’s a fun day, talking to players not long after they walked into an NFL locker room for the first time.
Consider Martin Emerson, the third-round pick and the team’s highest selection last month.
“When did it hit that you are in the NFL?” I asked.
“When I saw my locker,” said the defensive back from Mississippi State. “It was in there with all those other great players.”
Emerson already had been texting with Denzel Ward, the Nordonia product who has become a Pro Bowl cornerback. Emerson played in the SEC, which is like a farm system for the NFL. He made several all-league teams in that conference during his three years in Starkville, Mississippi.
He knew he’d be drafted. But still, seeing your name and your jersey in an NFL locker … it is a dream for many of these young men, a day most will never forget.
HOW DO YOU WEAR A HELMET?
The Browns brought Malik Smith in for the weekend as a tryout. He is the brother of Tyreke Smith, a star defensive end from Ohio State who was a fifth-round pick 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 only 1.9 points as a freshman. He later transferred to Bryant and then to Fisk, where he graduated with a business degree. He only played basketball as a freshman.
What about football?
“Not since the fifth grade,” said Smith. “I haven’t worn a helmet since then. They were asking me what size I wanted for shoulder pads and helmet – I don’t know.”
There is a history of basketball players becoming NFL tight ends. That’s the road the 6-foot-4, 267-pound Smith wants to travel. He was spotted by the Browns at the Ohio State Pro Day. Tireke fueled the football dream for his brother and convinced the Buckeyes to have Malik be part of the group checked out by scouts.
The Browns like his raw athleticism. He looks in tremendous shape.
“Everything is new to me,” said Smith. “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 for it.”
I CAN SMACK ‘EM
Jerome Ford could become more than a reserve running back. I realized that when I asked the Cincinnati product about playing special teams.
“I’ve done it,” he said. “I like it.”
“I can do that,” he said. “But I’d rather run down full speed (on kick coverage) and slam into someone standing still. You smack ’em.”
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 at Alabama.
“I walked into the running back room thinking I was going to be the guy,” said Ford.
“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 scoring three TDs. That small sample size did show talent. Since Nick Saban became coach, Alabama is usually bubbling over with prime RB prospects.
Ford transferred to Cincinnati (which had recruited him hard in high school) and became a star for the Bearcats. As a junior, he was on the coverage teams along with emerging as a running back. In 2021, he hit for 1,242 yards (6.2-yard average) and 19 TDs. He became the fifth-round pick by the Browns.
“I was getting a haircut (from a friend) at my house when I got the call I was drafted,” Ford said. “I’ll do anything they want. …I can catch the ball. I was a slot receiver in high school. Special teams… you name it.”
ANOTHER “CATCH THE BALL” KIND OF RECEIVER?
In 2016, the Browns had a media event like this for their rookies. I spent time with Rashard Higgins. He was the 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 kind of receiver,” he said.
At his best, Higgins has good hands. The Browns are hoping third-rounder David Bell has the same traits – even though he doesn’t have ideal NFL 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 stats in 2021 are overwhelming. He caught 93 passes, a 13.8-yard average. He had huge games vs. good teams: Ohio State (11 catches, 102 yards), Michigan State (11 catches, 217 yards) and Iowa (11 catches, 240 yards).
With those numbers, you’d expect him to be drafted higher.
“I don’t look at it that way,” said Bell. “God put me in the perfect situation. The Browns have a great running game, a 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 DID CALL PHIL DAWSON
This was new. I’ve never seen a kicker surrounded by a mob 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 already has made a trip to FirstEnergy Stadium to practice kicking on the shores of Lake Erie.
“It was awesome,” York said. “Really, there was more wind when I was usually kicking at LSU.”
York knows bad weather is coming. He had a 40-minute phone conversation with Phil Dawson, the last great Browns kicker. The weather and wind was part of the discussion. Dawson told York of a flag he watched over the stadium to judge the wind currents.
Since the Browns decided not to resign Dawson after the 2012 season, they have cycled through nine kickers in nine years – including Cody Parkey twice (2016, 2020).
Dawson kicked from when the team returned 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 is quickly learning kickers are a big deal in Cleveland. Dawson is revered. The Browns’ training complex is on Lou Groza Blvd., named after the first great Browns kicker.
YOU CAN DO IT, TOO
“Donovan Peoples-Jones,” said Michael Woods II. The sixth-round draft pick was talking about another sixth-round pick, a receiver just like him. Peoples-Jones (DPJ) was taken in 2020. In his final season at Michigan, DPJ caught 34 passes for a 12.9 yard average.
Woods caught 35 passes for an 11.4 yard average.
Receivers coach Chad O’Shea told Woods how DPJ “played 40 percent of the snaps as a rookie.” Actually, it was 34 percent. But the point being a sixth-round pick doesn’t prevent a rookie from being on the field.
“I’m big,” said the 6-foot-1 Woods. “I’m a 3-level receiver. I can do it short. I can do it medium. I can do it long. … I can block.”
All the rookies were excited. They have run into fans at the airport and the hotel, and they ooze the love for their men in the orange helmets. Everyone is excited right now in Berea.
“Everybody tells me the Dawg Pound is pretty crazy,” said Woods. “We’re gonna give them a reason to be crazy.”
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