Practice won’t start until Aug. 12. Pads won’t come on until Aug. 17. Fans won’t be allowed to attend.
Training camp for the Browns will look drastically different than in the past, which is to be expected as the NFL tries to play a full season during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the basics of the game remain. Coaches must have sound plans and provide steady leadership. Players need to improve and approach their potential. Building chemistry and dealing with expectations are critical.
Here are six things to watch as the players have begun returning to Berea. Their journey to training camp begins with virus tests and will transition to strength and conditioning before the first practices of 2020.
FIGHTING FOR A REBOUND
Quarterback Baker Mayfield’s third season falls between pivotal and make-or-break on the pressure spectrum.
His regression in 2019 soured some on the No. 1 pick of the 2018 draft and erased many of the positive vibes generated by an NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes.
Mayfield acknowledged during his one offseason interview with local reporters that Year 3 is critical, pointing to rookie contracts. The Browns can begin negotiating an extension following 2020 — defensive end Myles Garrett recently signed a record five-year, $125 million extension before his fourth season — and although new general manager Andrew Berry and new coach Kevin Stefanski have expressed confidence in Mayfield, committing to him long term will likely depend on his performance this season.
“I’m not going to put any added pressure on myself,” Mayfield said in May. “If I play better, our team’s going to do better. So I put that pressure on myself. So it doesn’t matter what year it is, I have to be way better each year.”
Stefanski has yet to work with Mayfield in person but has begun to set the expectations. He wants Mayfield to make better decisions on and off the field.
Mayfield threw 21 interceptions compared to 22 touchdowns a year ago and knows he must cut down on the turnovers. Stefanski believes he can put Mayfield in better positions to not only avoid disaster but thrive.
Mayfield also drew criticism last season for putting on weight, contentious interactions with media members and publicly calling out the medical staff for its handling of receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s core muscle injury. Mayfield has been much quieter this offseason — life in a pandemic makes it easier — and looks in good shape after appearing to have dropped weight.
Mayfield has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about a third-year turnaround. He’s been impressed with Stefanski, should benefit from the play action-heavy scheme, has an improved line and is surrounded by playmakers.
Beckham and Jarvis Landry at receiver, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at running back and Austin Hooper at tight end have all been to the Pro Bowl. That type of supporting cast is enviable, but it also brings expectations.
What’s one more source of pressure?
A LOT TO HANDLE
Stefanski is Ivy League-educated and well-organized. He probably had the training camp schedule figured out before he interviewed for the Browns job — in 2019.
He’s likely still adjusting it following the NFL-NFL Players Association agreement Friday that tweaked the collective bargaining agreement. Changes will abound this season because of the virus, and an early obvious one is the structure of camp.
The biggest difference is the elimination of the preseason. The four games have seemed like too many for years, but they served as landmarks in a coach’s preparation.
While Stefanski deals without facing another team until the Ravens in the opener Sept. 13 in Baltimore — the joint practices he’d planned with the Packers were previously canceled — he’ll also have two weeks less of practice time. The acclimation period agreed to by the league and union features more than a week of strength and condition and walkthroughs before practice can begin Aug. 12. Pads are then expected to come on Aug. 17. That leaves only three weeks of hitting before Week 1.
The lack of practice time figures to hinder a new coaching staff as it tries to learn the players and install new offensive and defensive systems. The walkthroughs will help after the entire offseason program was held virtually, but the last three weeks of August will feel like cramming for a big test.
The schedule upheaval is just the latest on the pile of unique challenges facing Stefanski in his first year as a head coach at any level.
He still hasn’t met a majority of the players and might go all season without addressing the team as a whole in person, given the strict safety guidelines. He’ll have to help the team manage the expectations that come with a quality roster and the emotions of playing during a pandemic.
And that’s without possibly having to play without key contributors or a chunk of the roster if the virus strikes. Stefanski hired Kevin Rogers last week as senior offensive assistant to help with the entire offense and serve as a sounding board.
GETTING UP TO SPEED
When the Browns drafted Alabama’s Jedrick Wills with the No. 10 pick in April, they were convinced he’d be able to make the transition to left tackle in time to start Week 1 despite playing right tackle in high school and college. That loud sound in Berea is the clock ticking.
Wills has been working on the switch since the draft, sending videos to line coach Bill Callahan for critiques. But working on footwork by himself isn’t the same as creating chemistry with left guard Joel Bitonio and the rest of the line or honing technique while trying to block Garrett.
Having Garrett as a practice partner should speed Wills’ development, as long as it doesn’t shatter his confidence. If Wills can consistently slow down Garrett, he’ll have a shot against the rest of the league.
The Browns love Wills’ work ethic, physicality and athleticism. The three traits should allow him to convert to left tackle. The immediate question is if he can do it quickly enough to protect Mayfield when the games begin.
On one hand, the pressure on Garrett has been lifted after signing his record extension.
On the other hand, it’s never been heavier as he tries to live up to being the highest-paid defender in NFL history while resurrecting his image after a six-game suspension to end last season for ripping off the helmet of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph and hitting him on top of the head with it.
Garrett entered the league talking about becoming one of the all-time greats, so he welcomes expectations. He recently said the extension means he needs to assert himself as the “top dog” across the NFL.
There’s no time like the present.
Garrett’s rare physical gifts are undeniable. But since being the No. 1 pick in 2017, the brilliance has come in flashes rather than sustained dominance. If the Browns are going to make a jump in the standings and begin to fulfill their collective potential, Garrett needs to live up to his.
SHARING IS CARING
It may be a ways down the to-do list, but devising a plan to involve all his playmakers is going to be crucial for Stefanski.
Chubb figures to get a steady diet of carries as Stefanski is committed to the run. And everyone knows his love for tight ends, which means Hooper won’t be ignored.
But there’s still Beckham, Landry and Hunt, three immensely talented players who won’t be satisfied being afterthoughts. Stefanski will continue to preach a team-first approach but acknowledged it will be important, and challenging, to find ways to maximize the talent and keep everyone happy.
Stefanski needs to excel not only as a game planner, and potentially the play caller, but also as an ego manager.
DEAL OR NO DEAL
Tight end David Njoku asked to be traded before training camp starts. While there’s still time before he’s scheduled to take the field, he’s due to report to Berea on Tuesday for his first COVID-19 test.
Despite the request, the Browns aren’t looking to deal him. They insist Njoku, the No. 29 pick in 2017, can be a productive member of the team.
If the Browns don’t bend to Njoku’s wishes, it will be worth watching how he handles himself. Does he report on time — the new collective bargaining agreement makes holding out a huge financial risk — and if so, does he sulk?
Stefanski’s reliance on two-tight end sets would give Njoku a chance to grow as a player and put a miserable 2019 season in the past. But first he must accept his role, acknowledge his shortcomings, reduce his inconsistency as a receiver and commit to blocking better.
Njoku isn’t good enough that the Browns can’t live without him. He’s also not good enough to force his way out of town.