Every NFL club relies on the younger players to one day become the trusted veteran. But it starts in that first preseason game of their career.
For many on this Browns roster, that game occurred Friday night in Jacksonville. How did the newest players do?
Several rookie players really shined in their very first NFL contest. Where to start?
There are three units on this Cleveland team that are some of the best in the league: offensive line, cornerback and running back. Thursday night, Browns fans got a glimpse at what fifth round pick Jerome Ford can do.
D’Ernest Johnson started the game. Cleveland’s first three drives ended with two punts and a Johnson fumble. In the meanwhile, Jacksonville was able to drive up the field to which they scored a touchdown plus two field goals. Two of their possessions were 12 play drives.
Ford entered the game in the second quarter and his first NFL rushing attempt was around right end for minus two yards. Not exactly something to call his mom about, but it gets better. After two short passes from QB Josh Dobbs to WR Javon Wims and TE Miller Forristall, Ford ripped off a 41-yard gain through a gaping hole on the rightside that ended at Jacksonville’s 17-yard line.
Five plays later, it was Ford through the leftside of the defense by a hole provided by C Ethan Pocic and LG Michael Dunn for his first NFL touchdown.
On Cleveland’s next possession which ended in yet another punt, Ford was utilized more as a receiver. In the third quarter, it was Ford again on the field along with John Kelly. Ford completed the game with 10 carries for 57 yards plus four receptions for an additional 45 yards including a 14-yard touchdown pass on the Browns second possession in the second half.
Ford led the running backs with a 73.5 offensive grade. He did have the costly fumble with 11:35 to go in the game on Jacksonville’s 14-yard line after making three Jaguars miss after a 10-yard gain. The question at this point is where will Ford play with the RB room stuffed to the gills already.
On the other side of the ball there were two rookies who played exceedingly well.
Who could forget Cleveland’s first draft pick this year Martin Emerson, Jr. shagging that interception for 74-yards? The pass was intended for WR Jeff Cotton just past the right flats. First off, at no time was Cotton open on his button hook route. The fact is, Emerson was all over him and when Cotton turned towards the quarterback, so did Emerson.
As the pass from Jaguars’ backup QB C.J. Beathard sailed towards the inside shoulder of Cotton, Emerson went for the pass as the ball hit Cotton’s left shoulder pad and bounced up a bit. As Cotton was struggling to grab hold of the football, at the same time Emerson had corralled the loose karoom and was about to grab it with both hands.
Cotton’s efforts now had him falling backwards to which Emerson took control of the ball. His next action was a bead towards the end zone. Jacksonville RB Snoop Conner reached out but Emerson stiff-armed him like the running back he always wanted to be. All that was left was a juke of Beathard and the rookie had his first NFL score and a fireplace mantle piece for his parents.
Emerson finished with three tackles and showed great presence on the defense. DC Joe Woods absolutely loves this kid. If these Browns cornerbacks can remain healthy, it is going to be a good season for the defensive secondary.
Another defensive rookie who showed out was undrafted free agent safety D’Anthony Bell. Known as a fierce tackler in college, Bell, Jovante Moffatt and Richard LeCounte played all four quarters at the safety positions.
Early in the second quarter Jaguars’ Conner took a handoff and attempted to find a hole in the middle gaps. Conner is a bruising back and the TV commentator called him “a hammer.” Instead of daylight, Conner found Bell instead for a five-yard loss in what would be described as a “de-cleater” (photo above). Bell had lined up on the line of scrimmage and when he saw run, he rushed and crashed into Conner for the minus yardage.
Hammer, meet the “Hitman” as Bell was called in college.
In Quarter 3 Jacksonville had punted twice while the Browns had scored a touchdown plus a field goal to go ahead by nine. The Jags had a decent drive going. Facing a fourth-and-one at Cleveland’s 44-yard line, backup QB Jake Luton hit TE Luke Farrell for the apparent first down. After a nice nine yard gain, it was Bell who took his left hand and in a tackle/punch mode was able to cause a fumble to which LeCounte pounced on it.
The Bell fumble coupled with Emerson’s pick six were both game changers. You could hear a collaborative sigh ring out by the home crowd in the stadium. It appears the coaching staff is going to have find a spot for both of these young aggressive defenders who each played on kickoff and punt coverage teams.
Undrafted free agent rookie DT Glen Logan is going to be a hard guy to cut or expect to clear waivers to land a practice squad spot. This guy is just a gap plugger and when he gets his mitts on the passing runner he doesn’t lose any grip. He only netted two total tackles and a fourth quarter batted pass, but his deflection of running backs into other holes was his game and it worked.
Undrafted free agent DT Roderick Perry did not register any tackles but had two hurries including one towards the end of the third stanza that had Luton backpedaling for quite a few yards before tossing a bad pass.
DE Isaiah Thomas had a sack on the Jags’ last drive which basically killed any notion that the Browns 24-13 advantage would be tightened. It was Thomas’ second sack of the game and a very busy night for the seventh round pick out of Oklahoma. While everyone was expecting third round selection DE Alex Wright to become that rotational defensive end, it was Thomas who had a tremendous effort. Wright heard his named called in the second quarter on a ticky-tacky roughing the passer call.
Along with the the two sacks, Thomas had three tackles along with one hurry plus three tackles for loss. This guy seemingly was in the backfield consistently for the amount of snaps he had. He recorded the highest pass-rush win rate beating his blocker on 17.6% of his 17 snaps. Thomas definitely has the skills to succeed and become quality depth along the defensive end rotation.
Thomas’ athleticism was on full display in the second quarter with Jacksonville driving. On a second-and-six from their own 41, Jags QB Trevor Lawrence handed off to RB Travis Etienne who was sweeping towards the left end. The left tackle simply left Thomas alone which forced Etienne to run deeper than he wanted. As Etienne was about to turn up field, he met Thomas who nailed him for a six-yard loss. This kid is a player.
DT Perrion Winfrey played sparingly and had a single tackle plus knocked down a pass at a crucial time. He was pushed aside more than he was able to man his gap. This aspect will need to be worked on.
Of the five rookie receivers in camp, only Daylen Baldwin had any catches. He caught all three of his targets for 25-yards and led all receivers with an 89.7 grade. Undrafted rookies Travell Harris and Mike Harley played but did not register any stats although Harley played 30 snaps. There was mention that perhaps Harris would be utilized in the return game since he had a ton of college experience in this area coupled with his elite speed, but he was not used in either kickoff nor punt returns. He did make a terrific tackle on the second half kickoff.
K Cade York looked very good and shows not only a strong leg, but confidence. He was 3-3 on extra point attempts plus nailed his 31-yard field goal attempt to score six points. His kickoffs were a plus-four, plus-six, and two touchbacks.
Rookie tight ends Marcus Santos-Silva and Zaire Mitchell-Paden played well and showed their blocking abilities but did not have any statistics. Snaps counts were just three for Santos-Silva with 20 for Mitchell-Paden.
C Dawson Deaton played just one snap on a evening that the center position was the main topic. The other rookie center, undrafted Brock Hoffman, played quite a bit with 27 snaps in relief for the new starter Ethan Pocic.
OT Ben Petrula looked fair and then looked great then looked lost. The offensive line, especially the tackle position, is extremely hard to digest from one level to another. The coaching staff wanted to see what this young man had to offer and kept him in the game for 46 snaps at right tackle – more than any other player regardless of offense or defense.
Petrula had two holding calls, including the Kelly touchdown run midway through the third quarter. That drive ended in a field goal instead of a touchdown. He graded out at 30.7, the lowest of all offensive linemen.