BEREA, Ohio — As the Browns prepare for the upcoming season, the work begins against themselves in training camp practice sessions. For the defense, the work they are getting against the refreshed wide receivers room is something the team believes to be invaluable to putting a dominant product on the field.
Last season and in the offseason, the Browns saw the departure of receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. With Donovan Peoples-Jones the main receiver still on the roster (and still poised to take a leap this season), the Browns went out and acquired veteran Amari Cooper, whose route running hasn't diminished a bit.
Between Cooper and Peoples-Jones; Anthony Schwartz, Ja'Marcus Bradley and return specialist Jakeem Grant—and the rookie additions in Mike Woods II, Mike Harley Jr., Travell Harris, Derrick Dillon and Daylen Baldwin—the versatility of the room can be seen both in body sizes and skill sets. That's something offense leaders are more than happy to have.
“It’s something important to a great offense. If you have different type skill sets that they bring to your offense, I think that’s critical to success. It doesn’t always have to be big-small. It could be quick-fast or using play strength," said wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea. "But when you have a unique skill set you can bring to the table - and I think everybody is different - I think that only adds value to your team.”
But how does that value go beyond the team seeing open receivers and successful pass-catching? It's shaping the defense too.
For rookie cornerback M.J. Emerson, there's been one player in particular who has helped him really start getting up to speed as he prepares for his NFL debut. Emerson said he's been taking his college approach to learning the playbook and scheme—studying all the time and watching film, even when he's away from the facility—but it's that training camp work against Cooper that has really given him a boost.
"Cooper, man. He's a great player. He makes you stay patient and don't guess. I love going against him," Emerson said. "He's a real route runner. He's a great player. I mean, it's fun. It's a challenge so I just step up to the plate."
It's easy with the way Cooper runs his routes for the Browns secondary to get a little burned by the footwork, but they take it all in stride.
"That's his name is the route runner. Going against him every day has been so beneficial to me. Yeah, it's just that simple. He's the best route runner in the game," said cornerback Greg Newsome II of Cooper. "He can run any route on the route tree—slant, hitch, double moves—and he makes every route look the same. So it's hard to get a tail on him, but he’s just the best in the game. There's just certain things that you just can't teach him. And his route running ability, you just can’t teach that."
Newsome said that the skills that make Cooper such an offense threat can help him become an even stronger defensive one as they put the lessons learned against the receiver in the tank for when they see similar traits from the real opponents this season.
"It makes my job a lot easier. It makes me a lot better. Just because knowing going into games, I get to go against the best every single day. So going into the games, we always say we like to make practice harder, so going against him is definitely very difficult. But you know I think it will pay off in the end," Newsome said.
It's not just Cooper shaping the defense. For the guys who were here last season, it was the work against Beckham and Landry. For everyone else, its Peoples-Jones' toe-tapping catch ability, Woods' large body size, Harley's agility and maneuverability, Schwartz' raw speed—all traits that the defense is learning to play against during practice sessions.
"That's just going to help me in the long run, being able to obviously practice against O and Jarvis. And then being able to get Amari now and we’ve still got some other guys like DPJ and Schwartz, who are all different types of receivers. So being able to just go against all those different types of receivers has definitely helped me," Newsome said.
Like the old saying goes: "Iron sharpens iron"—and that's just what's happening each day on the fields of CrossCountry Mortgage Campus in Berea.
"They’re helping us out a lot, giving us different routes, different releases, different body types, so it’s good to go against some of those new guys instead of going against guys that I’ve been going against for a year now," Newsome said. "They’ve been doing a great job and that receiver group is looking good."
And with the receiver group looking strong—the Browns' defense, and team as a whole, can only benefit.
"For our players to get really good competitive work against each other, I think there's a way to do that. Certainly, when you are talking about the offensive players going against some talented defensive players, you have Amari Cooper who is a bigger body, a different skillset than say a Demetric Felton, for instance," said head coach Kevin Stefanski. "I think that it's really good that those guys get to work against different people throughout this camp.”
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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