CLEVELAND — As the Browns 2021 season approaches, new names are being added to the roster while the team’s core players from last season remain almost entirely intact. But with the hopes of a more normal training camp and the potential for preseason games to return, other players — like fullback Johnny Stanton — are ready to show what they’ve got and make a name for themselves in Cleveland.
Coming to Cleveland
Stanton signed a reserve/futures contract with the Browns in January 2020 after spending some time with the Minnesota Vikings. Stanton was training for the XFL when he got the call from Cleveland.
“I was in the middle of training camp for the XFL and I got a phone call asking if I could come up and have my physical be done in order to get signed, like there wasn't going to be any workout. And I told them, I appreciate it, I think it's awesome, but I am under contract right now. There's nothing I can do,” Stanton said. “So I asked them to keep me in mind and watch me watch me in the NFL season.”
Two days later, as if it was fated to be, Stanton was cut from the XFL.
“I called my agent and said 'Hey, get back on the phone with the Browns if you can.' And we set up a date for me to come to Cleveland about a week after that. I think I spent two nights there and signed the thing on my last morning there. And it all went well,” Stanton said.
Stanton spent most of last season on the practice squad but played in the Week 11 matchup against the Eagles. This season, however, Stanton is looking to make a bigger impact and is hopeful that with vaccines increasing and the lessons learned about the COVID-19 over the last year, he will finally get his shot to prove himself.
Hard work, no quit
“This year, with a lot of people getting their vaccines—and hopefully it's able to increase even more once the summer comes and once we start going into training camp—I'm going into it thinking that it's going to be a normal year,” Stanton said. “I know that there will have to be some changes. I know it's going to look closer to this past season, the 2020 season, then it will to the 2019 season. But I think you just have to adapt to and expect that everything is going to go forward on its normal time frame. Until then, just keep on working hard and adapt to changes.”
Although it's the offseason, Stanton’s grind continues—working out and training to be in the best shape possible when it’s time to report to camp and show his coaches what he’s got.
“We have our workouts with a whole bunch of other NFL guys in Irvine, [California]. We've got this great big open field where a lot of workouts are happening at the same time where if you want to catch passes, you can. If a quarterback is there, you can just ask him to throw you the ball a little bit,” Stanton said. “A lot of us are kind of focusing on our speed work, on our athleticism, on our agility. Not a whole lot of position-specific work going on, kind of more general athleticism kind of stuff.”
This year, Stanton said he’s working on areas of his game that will help him open up running lanes for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt anytime he’s given the opportunity to do so on the field.
“I know that I want to be able to work on my agility and be able to turn fast, because one thing that Andy [Janovich] does a really good job of and something that I want to do a better job of is being able to turn on a dime once you get in that hole and kind of turn and be able to get on your man to block him rather than driving him backwards, kind of keeping him out of the play altogether. I know that that's what Nick and Kareem love, and I want to be able to get better for them,” Stanton said.
Helping Chubb and Hunt in the run game is something Stanton is looking forward to, and the fullback sees this upcoming season as an opportunity for dominance from the most explosive backfield duo in the league.
“When you have Kareem and Nick in our backfield, pretty much anything is possible in the run game. And we were exceeding some of those lofty goals that we were setting,” Stanton said. “I don't think that a thousand-yard season from both of them is out of the question. Based on last season you can see exactly what those guys can do and how explosive they are.”
New year, new players, new number
Browns General Manager Andrew Berry has been busy himself this offseason, signing a slew of new defensive players to help take the team to the next level, including cornerback Troy Hill, defensive end Takkarist McKinley, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety John Johnson III.
“I think we have a lot of guys coming down on the defensive side of the ball that are going to make a big difference. And they're ball hawks, and they're relentless, and I'm excited to see them in action,” Stanton said.
While Stanton plays on the other side of the ball, he said adding these new defensive players will help him during camp as he goes against them on the Browns practice fields.
“The better competition you can go up against, the better you'll be,” Stanton said. “And it's not always about going against the better player, it's also going against different players. I think that's one of the things that I learned in my one game against the Eagles was all of my plays, all of my practice, and all of my techniques were based on going head to head with Sione Takitaki at outside linebacker. And that dude hits hard. And a lot of the defensive guys on the Eagles were avoiding me because I am expecting to have a big hit with Tak in the hole.”
While Stanton prepares to prove himself this season, he’ll be doing so in a new number. Johnson, who has worn No. 43 his whole career will be keeping his number in Cleveland, while Stanton will switch to No. 40.
Giving up his number for Johnson was something Stanton was happy to do.
“Absolutely take your number, it's your number, man. You know, you're the one who's attached to it,” Stanton said of the number switch.
‘I want to be everything the coaches want me to be and more.’
In a single conversation, it’s easy to tell how important this upcoming Browns season is for Stanton and how ready he is to show the team and the fans what he’s made of. His expectations for himself are high and he hopes fans keep an eye on him and all of the hard work he puts in this year.
“Assuming we do get a full preseason slot of games, which I hope to God that we do, I know the coaches are going to test me. I'm going to test myself. I'm going to gain a lot of experience. And I'm hoping to bring that into the next season, becoming a better player and somebody the coaches can really count on and can think of as a consistent guy,” Stanton said. “I want to be everything the coaches want me to be and more. My expectations are the highest and I think that preseason is really going to allow me to learn. I've already learned a lot about what I need to work on, but I think that preseason is really going to allow me to kind of test how I did with my offseason training and what I've done mentally to prepare for this upcoming season.”
The mental preparation heading into the 2021 season is something that Stanton said the team has rallied around, refusing to let the past perceptions of the Browns carry any weight as they blaze forward to a future full of promise and consistent postseason success.
“When you put it into four words—we've really taken our own spin on it—when we heard the ‘Browns is the Browns,’ we kind of just took that and took that as our own and took advantage of it. The team kind of rallied around what everybody still thought of us as underdogs,” Stanton said. “We know what we are. Let's prove it. Let's show everyone. And we took that underdog mentality and took it to a win in the playoffs, which I know that Cleveland hadn't seen in a long time.
“And you say that Cleveland had that perception—when you were talking about it at first, I didn’t know what you're talking about because when I was thinking of Cleveland I was thinking of hard working. I was thinking of: snub nose, trying to put your axe to the grindstone and really push through things. And that's honestly the perception that I think Cleveland should have around the country.”
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.