Jack Conklin had done his job, keeping defensive end Myles Murphy away from quarterback Deshaun Watson. The ball was still in the air and Conklin had yet to reset his feet when the blow came out of nowhere.
Conklin, the two-time All-Pro right tackle, suffered torn left anterior cruciate and medical collateral ligaments Sunday early in the second quarter of the Browns’ 24-3 opening win over the Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium, a league source confirmed Monday. He’ll have surgery and be placed on injured reserve.
Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson looped around from the other side and reached back to tip the ball as Watson threw it while left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. pushed him. Hendrickson went down directly into Conklin’s knee.
“Very, very disappointed for Jack,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “Spent some time with him yesterday, spent some time with him today. He’s a huge part of this team, and when he gets this surgery and when he’s ready, he’s going to be back in this building helping us because he’s just a big part of that offensive line room.”
Recovery time for an ACL is usually nine months, so Conklin, 29, will have time to decide if he wants to devote the time and energy to making another comeback. He has dealt with a variety of injuries during his career, including a torn left ACL during a playoff game in 2018 with the Titans. His right patellar tendon ruptured in November 2021 after he had missed time that season with a dislocated elbow.
Conklin is beloved by coaches and teammates, and the sight of him going down and being driven off the field in a cart was painful.
“Jack is a great player. He’s a great guy,” defensive end Myles Garrett said Sunday. “My heart breaks for him just because he’s been dealing with injuries and aches and pains for a while now and made the decision to come back and continue playing. I know it was kind of up in the air for him for a while and for a setback like this, I know it doesn’t just hurt him, it hurts us as a team because we feel for him, and regardless of what his plans are, what the road to recovery looks like, we’ll be with him.”
Rookie Dawand Jones, a fourth-round pick out of Ohio State, replaced Conklin and will remain the starter. The coaches went with Jones over James Hudson III, who had filled in for Conklin the previous two seasons.
“There are no redshirts in the NFL so you never know when that opportunity is going to come,” Stefanski said. “It happened in the first half of the first game and you have to be ready. He will continue to get better.”
The Browns had taken comfort in the entire starting offensive line returning for this season. Conklin signed a four-year, $60 million extension in December that included $31 million guaranteed.
“It’s really exciting. Couldn’t be more happy to have my family stay here and be a part of this organization for a lot longer,” Conklin said at the time.
He was the No. 8 pick of the Titans in 2016 and was an All-Pro as a rookie. He was a free agent in 2020 and signed a three-year, $42 million deal with the Browns.
He was an All-Pro in his first year with the team, but his second season was derailed by the elbow and patellar injuries. He rehabbed all offseason and returned to the lineup in Week 3 last season, starting 14 games before being inactive for the finale. He was voted a Pro Bowl alternate and the team’s Ed Block Courage Award winner for his comeback.
“We got a short window to play this game and I’ve realized that and I want to make the most of it,” Conklin said last season. “And that’s what I’m willing to do, I’m willing to do that every year. Injury or not, I’m going to be here working and doing everything I can to play as long as I can.”
Watson was among those devastated by Conklin’s injury.
“Super tough,” he said. “He worked so hard to get back healthy and feel like himself again, and he was coming in very positive, very confident. We’re going to be right behind him, support him, sending our prayers and our love to him. We’re going to stick right there with him, and hopefully he can pull through and get better.”
Jones will face his toughest test of the season Monday night in Pittsburgh against outside linebacker T.J. Watt. He’s a three-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler and was Defensive Player of the Year in 2021, when he led the league with 22.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and added five forced fumbles.
“He did a really good job,” Watson said of Jones. “He held his own. He did what he needed to do, and he has a full week now to prepare for a big task with T.J. Watt. But I think he can handle it because, like were mentioning in the locker room, I think whenever he has that challenge and that big task, he steps up and he likes that challenge for him to be able to prove people wrong.”
Jones is 6-foot-8, 374 pounds and has good feet developed from his high school basketball days. He’s come a long way since showing up out of shape for rookie minicamp in May.
“I’ve got to really thank Coach Callahan, he got me to the point I am right now,” Jones said of veteran line coach Bill Callahan. “I’m just getting started. I’ve still got work to do, still improvements.”
He said his head was “on a string” after being told during the week he’d fill in if Conklin went down. He said he had a couple of missed assignments but played “OK.”
“Felt prepared,” Jones said. “Honestly, it’s really the vets. They make sure I know everything when I leave the meeting room. Also, our coaches as well, one coach, Jon Decoster, he helps me out a lot in my free time when I have downtime, just go over the plays, make sure I have everything down to the T.”