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Notes: Za’Darius Smith explains new haircut, decision to come back

BEREA — Za’Darius Smith is trying something new as he enters Year 10 in the NFL: short hair.

The three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher got rid of the dreadlocks he’d worn going back to his days at the University of Kentucky.

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“Just woke up one morning and thought I was ready for a change,” he said Wednesday after an organized team activities practice. “I said that now that I’m 30, I want to go with a new look. I’ve been talking to my parents, my mom and my kids and they all was agreeing with me. So I’m glad I did it. I look better, I look younger, I look slimmer, so I’m happy about it.”

Smith will turn 32 on Sept. 8 — the same day the Browns open the season vs. the Cowboys on the lakefront. He said with the fresh look he no longer fits as “Unc,” as his teammates refer to him.

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“Oh, man, they didn’t know who I was, but a lot of people had jokes, but it’s all love,” he said. “This is the brotherhood. You can come in how you want to and be yourself here, so just happy to do that and just excited about the new haircut.”

Smith had the opportunity for another major change in the offseason when he hit free agency. He chose to re-sign with the Browns on a two-year, $23 million contract.

“I had other options to go to Miami, to Washington,” he said. “I could have went anywhere, but I wanted to come back here because I see something in this team that a lot of people just don’t see, from being in the locker room. And I was talking about the team camaraderie, if we keep that closeness, keep that togetherness, we can go far this season.”

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Smith was acquired in a trade from the Vikings last year at this time. He had 5.5 sacks and 20 quarterback hits in 16 games as the Browns had the league’s top-ranked defense overall and against the pass. It didn’t hold up in the playoffs, as the Texans won 45-14 in the wild card round.

“I felt like we didn’t get to where we wanted to last year and we got something that we need to finish here, and hopefully we can get that done this year,” he said.

Last season was the first under coordinator Jim Schwartz, so the defense is determined to be even better. Smith was eager to return to end in a 4-3 scheme last year and believes he can take another step.

“Everybody can now get a little more comfortable,” he said. “For myself, coming from a 3-4 system, I was always a guy who had to stand up. So just being down in the three-point now, not really looking at formations was something new for me. But now I’m starting to get the hang of it. And you’ll see a better Z, I can tell you that much.”

INJURY REPORT

Right tackle Dawand Jones and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. are coming off torn medical collateral ligaments that sidelined them for the end of last season. Jones practiced, while Wills worked on the side as he nears a return.

Veteran right tackle Jack Conklin, whose anterior cruciate ligament tore in last year’s opener, wasn’t on the field and is expected back during training camp.

“They’re all doing really well in their rehab,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I don’t know when the exact moment’s going to be when those guys are ready to practice, but they’re all doing great.”

** Running back/returner Nyheim Hines (torn ACL), who was signed as a free agent, continues to rehab following surgery Aug. 8. He’s targeting training camp for a return.

“Goal is to be ready right around Aug. 1 or end of July, depending on how my leg comes around,” he said. “But goal is to be out there for Week 1.”

** Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (hip), linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (undisclosed) and receiver Ahmarean Brown (undisclosed) joined Wills and Hines on the side.

IT’S VOLUNTARY

Several big-name players weren’t on the field for practice. Until mandatory minicamp in June, all of the offseason program is voluntary.

Left guard Joel Bitonio, 32, attended meetings but didn’t practice. Defensive linemen Myles Garrett, Dalvin Tomlinson, Shelby Harris and Alex Wright, receivers Amari Cooper and Elijah Moore, tight end David Njoku, safety Juan Thornhill and kicker Dustin Hopkins were among the notable absences.

Stefanski said Hopkins has recovered from the torn hamstring sustained Dec. 24 against Houston that sidelined him for the rest of the season and the playoff loss.

Smith said he’s talked to his D-line buddies and looks forward to them rejoining him.

“Hopefully everybody will be back soon to where this thing can really get going,” he said.

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

Practice ended with an end zone interception by rookie linebacker Nathaniel “Bookie” Watson, a sixth-round pick out of Mississippi State. He and the rest of the defense gathered in the opposite end zone to celebrate.

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Tyler Huntley threw the pick in a seven-on-seven red zone drill.

“He’s electric,” said cornerback Martin Emerson Jr., who was college teammates with Watson. “He’s a very hyper guy. He comes and plays every day and he’s very physical and that’s what we play. Cleveland Browns defense, we are very physical, fast, badassery. I feel like he brings all that to the table. So I’m excited to have Nathaniel part of the defense.”

Rookie linebacker Nathaniel Watson ready if called on, has skills to be leader on defense

YOUNG BLOOD

Rookie guard Zak Zinter, a third-round pick out of Michigan, made a good first impression on Pro Bowl right guard Wyatt Teller.

“Great kid,” Teller said. “Coming off an injury, can’t tell, which is good. He’s tough. I love that. I commend him on that.

“There’s a lot to learn and I know he’s going to work hard.”

Zinter’s senior season ended with a broken leg against Ohio State in November.

EXTRA POINTS

Avon coach Mike Elder and former Avon Lake coach Dave Dlugosz were among the many high school coaches who attended practice on an invitation from the Browns.

** Receiver Matt Landers (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) signed Tuesday and practiced. He was undrafted in 2023 out of Arkansas and spent part of last season on the practice squads of the Seahawks and Panthers.

** Cornerback Denzel Ward and his family’s Make Them Know Your Name Foundation was set to host a free youth football camp Wednesday night at Bedford High School for 300 kids in the Greater Cleveland area.

Browns writer for The Chronicle-Telegram and The Medina Gazette. Proud graduate of Northwestern University. Husband and stepdad. Avid golfer who needs to hit the range to get down to a single-digit handicap. Right about Johnny Manziel, wrong about Brandon Weeden. Contact Scott at 440-329-7253, or email and follow him on and Twitter.

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