Browns Spring Practices Seek Delicate Balance

The NFL landscape is showing how many different approaches teams are taking with organized team activities and the Cleveland Browns have taken their own approach to be productive while avoiding unnecessary risk.
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As the NFL continues to deal with COVID-19 and having a unique situation where they are coming off of a season where teams did not have minicamps and offseason team activities, teams like the Cleveland Browns are taking truly individual approaches in the scope of what they are trying to accomplish, the speed and intensity.

Perhaps partly a product of who is participating in voluntary OTA practices, head coach Kevin Stefanski has focused on a deliberate, slower paced set of practices fundamentals, teaching and using this as a means to incubate newer and younger players into what is to come later.

At least publicly, they haven't scrimmaged. They aren't doing competitive one-on-one style drills. That appears indicative of how all the practices have been run. The Browns want to help prepare their players for the season, but they don't want to subject them to unnecessary risk in the process.

Other teams are taking decidedly different tactics. The Baltimore Ravens, for example, have done some competitive drills. They are practicing at a higher intensity than the Browns.

Conversely, the Houston Texans have opted to cancel their mandatory minicamp entirely. 

"Our attendance has been great for us here," Culley said. "We’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”

Part of this practice time is about getting better, but it's also about avoiding getting worse, which takes place in the form of injuries. Whether a product of the types of practice they are running, something with their strength and conditioning piece or just awful luck, the San Francisco 49ers have suffered a pair of season-ending injuries.

Offensive tackle Justin Skule suffered a torn ACL and defensive back Tarvarius Moore ruptured his Achilles' tendon.

Regardless of how it happened, two players for the 49ers are done for the year. So as much as the team would like to push to improve as much as possible by ramping up the competition, this is a real concern.

Between this news and a violation of league rules that occurred in their rookie minicamp, Shanahan has cut the rest of the offseason program short, ending it. The team won't get together again until training camp at the end of July.

The Browns have been extremely conservative with players on this front. Rookie Anthony Schwartz has been out on the sideline of multiple OTAs open to the media with a wrap on his leg. Myles Garrett and Malik Jackson were two players who did not participate in practice on Wednesday.

It's easier said than done to have the restraint to want players to be out there with the goal of being productive and in some cases simply hoping to see what these players can do. It's important to have that discipline while also making sure there's a real value in these practices. Otherwise, they are just going through the motions.

It's also worth noting that the Browns have yet to cancel anything. They have mandatory minicamp from the 15th to the 17th, so it at least looks unlikely the Browns will cancel anything between now and then.

It's important that the Browns have last year as a reference point. Despite being a first year front office and coaching staff with a limited amount of practices related to the pandemic, the Browns were able to be extremely productive in virtual meetings. The team went 11-5 and Stefanski was named Coach of the Year.

Anything they weren't doing physically, this team was able to make up mentally, which is something they will have to continue this season.

It has been argued that the Browns are theoretically falling behind due to the fact that players aren't all there. And perhaps some of those same people would argue the Browns practices during OTAs aren't physical enough. 

Which team is better prepared? The team where everyone is healthy or within range of being totally healthy or teams that may have already lost players for the season?

The Browns may not be as intense in their practices, but they are taking advantage of more of their opportunities in the form of practices than some other teams. Even if they are simply taking what they did last year and adding a small physical component, largely for the sake of teaching, that may be perfect not only for this team but also for where the league is headed in the future.

Coincidentally, it makes it less problematic when players choose not to attend because so much of the practice is geared towards individual or small group teaching. It's baked in, showing that Stefanski was prepared for the reality the team wouldn't have full attendance and designing practice sessions to avoid it as an issue.

So as easy as it is to get caught up in what other teams are doing, Stefanski should only be focused on what he sought out to accomplish with the Browns. That's the only team he needs to be worried about at this point on the calendar.

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