The Browns practiced for the first time this week Friday afternoon once the NFL allowed them to open the facility in Berea. It had been closed since Tuesday following a COVID-19 outbreak.
All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin (illness) and starting cornerback Terrance Mitchell (not injury related) didn’t join their teammates, were listed as questionable on the official injury report and their availability for the playoff game Sunday night against the Steelers was in doubt.
That’s only part of the roster uncertainty surrounding the Browns before their first playoff game since 2002.
Eight players are on the COVID-19 reserve list. Left guard Joel Bitonio, safety Ronnie Harrison and receiver KhaDarel Hodge tested positive this week and are out for the game, as is safety Jovante Moffatt, who was identified Friday as a close contact.
Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson, linebacker Malcolm Smith and tight end Harrison Bryant went on the list last week and potentially could return in time to play, but coach Kevin Stefanski didn’t rule them out or update their availability.
“I’ll just let the protocols be what they are,” he said. “When you’re on the list, you’re on. And when you’re off, you’re off.”
If they’re going to play, they must be activated by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Conklin was named first-team All-Pro for the second time Friday but didn’t practice. The league protocols stipulate if someone has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, he must isolate. If Conklin continues to test negative for COVID-19 over the weekend, he could be eligible to play.
“We’ll just follow the protocols,” said Stefanski, who tested positive Tuesday, wasn’t at practice and won’t be at the game. “In this day and age, you have an illness and you’ve got to be safe with that.”
Kendall Lamm would start for Conklin.
Defensive end Myles Garrett (shoulder), who joined Conklin on the AP All-Pro first team, and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (neck) were listed as questionable, but Stefanski expects them to play.
“I’m confident about those two guys,” he said.
He sounded less sure about Mitchell.
“I don’t have a sense,” Stefanski said of Mitchell’s availability.
Ward, Mitchell and Johnson are the team’s top three cornerbacks, so the secondary could be severely short-handed against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson.
“Uncertainty’s been the name of the game,” Stefanski said of the cornerback situation. “So we’ve got plans and we’ll adjust as need be.”
Rookie receiver/punt returner Donovan Peoples-Jones cleared the concussion protocol and practiced after getting hurt Sunday in the playoff-clinching win over the Steelers. He was listed as questionable.
Nickelback M.J. Stewart Jr. (calf) and right guard Wyatt Teller (ankle) were also listed as questionable.
Practice squad center Javon Patterson was activated from the COVID list.
After receiving permission from the NFL, the Browns practiced at 4:30 inside the field house. Reporters weren’t permitted due to COVID protocols.
“It was good,” Garrett said. “We needed at least a day under our belts to get everything refined and make sure we look sharp.”
Practice Wednesday and Thursday was canceled, and all the preparation was done virtually. Quarterback Baker Mayfield said Thursday he hadn’t thrown a ball since the 24-22 win over the Steelers last Sunday.
Stefanski said the organization, led by general manager Andrew Berry, worked hard with the league office to make sure the team could safely return to the field.
“After some discussion, it was agreed upon to get out there and get some work in but, again, safety being the No. 1 priority,” Stefanski said.
To make up for the missed time, the Browns had a walkthrough before practice and added a couple of periods. The Saturday walkthrough was likely to be extended, as well.
SHUFFLING THE DECK
Stefanski announced pass game coordinator/receivers coach Chad O’Shea was back at practice after testing positive for COVID-19 last week and missing the finale. His return allows chief of staff Callie Brownson to coach the tight ends, as Drew Petzing is out after testing positive Tuesday.
Coaching assistant Ryan Cordell will lead the offensive line for the second straight game. Line coach Bill Callahan and assistant Scott Peters are out after testing positive. Peters was identified as a close contact of Callahan last Saturday, then tested positive Friday — the organization’s only positive of the day.
With Jeff Howard out, Brandon Lynch will coach the defensive backs.
** The Browns changed plans and will fly to Pittsburgh on Saturday because the medical experts consider that safer than traveling by bus given the COVID situation.
Garrett was chosen first-team All-Pro for the first time after being the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. Conklin also made the first team. He was selected as a rookie in 2016 with the Titans and signed with the Browns in March.
Bitonio and Teller were second-team selections.
“It is nice, but we have bigger things in front of us,” Garrett said. “I could not have done it without the guys on the line with me and the seven behind me.”
The All-Pro team is selected by a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the NFL.
Garrett got 36 votes, trailing only Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt (47) among edge rushers. Conklin received 18 votes. Bitonio (16) trailed Quenton Nelson of the Colts (24), and Teller (10) finished behind Washington’s Brandon Scherff (23½). Center JC Tretter and Charley Hughlett got a vote apiece.
Michael Dunn is expected to start in place of Bitonio. Dunn was undrafted in 2017, spent time in the AAF and XFL, didn’t appear in a game until this year and has played one snap on offense.
Stefanski was glad Dunn got practice time between Tretter and left tackle Jedrick Wills.
“That is the benefit of getting on the field today is for players to get into different spots and have some of those communication things going on,” Stefanski said. “Michael is like a lot of players, we may be counting on him Sunday so we trust in their preparation. He is somebody who is always on point in what we are doing, gives a great look and can fill in at multiple spots on the offensive line. So versatility is key in a season like this.”
Stefanski plans to watch the game from his basement. He’s allowed by NFL rules to communicate with the coaches and players in the locker room until kickoff. He can’t communicate with anyone on the field from 90 minutes before kickoff through the end of the game.
“I will address the team the night before the game like I normally do,” he said. “Once it is gametime and in that locker room, Coach (Mike) Priefer will be serving that role. I have a ton of faith in him. The guys know the message. They do not need a Zoom call from me before the game to understand what they need to do.”