BEREA — Jacob Phillips’ first job this season is to stay healthy.
In prime position to be the starting middle linebacker, Phillips has to avoid the injuries that interrupted his first two seasons. He missed six games as a rookie with a knee injury and the first 12 games last year with a torn biceps suffered in training camp.
He was a third-round pick out of LSU in 2020.
“This is a big, big year for me,” he said Wednesday before practice. “I’m just trying to gear myself up to have a healthy season. I know when I’m healthy, I’m on the field, everything’s going to fall into place and I’m going to be able to show everybody in Cleveland the player I am.”
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Anthony Walker Jr. is back on a one-year deal after starting last season in the middle but hasn’t practiced because of a groin injury. Phillips has taken all the first-team reps and impressed the coaches. The Browns would prefer him to emerge as the longtime starter.
“What we’ve been really proud of Jacob is how he’s built his body,” linebackers coach Jason Tarver said. “He has gained weight, he’s extremely powerful right now. He’s extremely fast. He’s learned how much he needs to stretch. He’s always in doing extra. Whatever it is, stretching, all our regeneration stuff that we do, being first.
“Just every thought is, ‘I’ve got to get my body right so I can perform today. One day at a time.’”
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With Walker due back “soon,” Phillips was asked if it’s his job to lose.
“The job in the middle is something that I’ve always done throughout my whole life and it’s the one job in the world that I would rather be doing than anything else,” Phillips said. “Everything that comes with it, it’s a lot. It’s more than meets the eye. It’s something that I’ve prepared for and I trained and I’m ready for the moment if it’s there.”
After two seasons with an incomplete grade, he believes his career’s still on track.
“I don’t think I’m playing catch-up,” he said. “Obviously I’m still a young player, only 23. This is Year 3 in the system. Even though I was hurt, I didn’t stop learning. I didn’t stop studying, I didn’t stop learning the techniques that Coach wants to apply to how we play. I wouldn’t say catch-up but I would say I’m ready for the moment.”
Amari Cooper’s absence lasted a day.
The No. 1 receiver returned Wednesday and participated in team drills early in practice. He didn’t practice Tuesday after rolling an ankle Monday.
That’s about the only good injury news for the receiving corps that’s still without rookie third-round pick David Bell (foot) and Anthony Schwartz (knee) and saw Isaiah Weston (knee) go on injured reserve. Pass game coordinator/receivers coach Chad O’Shea has found a silver lining in all the missed time.
“We’ve had a couple of guys in Jakeem Grant and Mike Woods who have made the most of their opportunities,” O’Shea said. “They made the most of their opportunities because they work hard and they go out there and perform and try to do the things we ask them to do.”
Grant Sr. is primarily a returner who’s shown he can get open and catch the ball in the passing game. Woods II is a rookie sixth-round pick who’s found himself catching passes from starting quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“His character traits are very strong,” O’Shea said of Woods. “He’s got tremendous work ethic. He’s very smart. He’s mature. He’s taking the coaching.”
O’Shea said he’s trying to keep Bell up to speed despite the lack of reps. Bell opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.
“Any time you’re not on the field, it presents a different type of challenge, but no different challenge than when you’re presented with other things,” O’Shea said. “We do enough with him from a walkthrough standpoint, we’re very intensive in a meeting room setting with him, so we spend as much time as we can to make sure we close that gap so when he does get on that field, he’s in position to know the information and go out there and try to execute.”
Right tackle Jack Conklin said former 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas could be a coach if he wanted.
“He’s got all the techniques, he has a very good way of explaining it, too,” Conklin said.
Thomas has been a visitor at camp the last several days and has worked some with the offensive linemen.
“It’s awesome to have a legend right here that is willing to take his time out of his day to come out and show us a few tips here and there,” Conklin said. “We try to soak that stuff in. As an offensive line it’s all about listening and being able to take lessons and take even just a little bit of something here and there to help your set or your run game. It’s awesome to have Joe, it’s awesome he’s able to come out here and talk to us.”
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Left-footed punter Corey Bojorquez (right foot) missed his third straight practice and hasn’t been on the field during the sessions.
** Bell, Schwartz, Wims cornerbacks Denzel Ward (foot) and Reggie Robinson II (core muscle), Walker (groin) and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (back).
** Defensive end Stephen Weatherly wasn’t on the field. He had missed time with a knee injury before returning Tuesday.
** Defensive end Myles Garrett and returner/receiver Jakeem Grant Sr. got the day off from practice and worked on the side. Garrett spent part of practice talking to owner Jimmy Haslam.
The Browns signed rookie receiver Daylen Baldwin (6-2, 212) to help carry the load. O’Shea told him what routes to run, and Baldwin caught a pass. He spent last year at the University of Michigan after spending time at Morgan State and Jackson State.
** Safety Nate Meadors was waived.
** The Browns hosted their annual Military Appreciation Day.