Cleveland Browns Rookies Shine in Week 1 Debut at Kansas City

Rookies Greg Newsome, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah entered the 2021 NFL season with massive amounts of fanfare, but it was another rookie who unexpectedly made the most impact to open the season at Kansas City
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It's Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season, and as part of the weekly dissection and over-analysis of every team, we want to keep close watch on the rookie contributors from Andrew Berry’s 2nd draft as youngest GM in the league. As the Browns move forward in their pursuit of solid footing as a perennial contender in the AFC North, draft picks should begin to make less and less of an impact in their rookie seasons. That being said, the Browns are not quite at that level as of yet, and so we knew that the team would be asking several rookies to contribute in 2021.

CB Greg Newsome

Browns 1st Rd pick Greg Newsome, after winning the starting CB role opposite Denzel Ward over 3rd year CB Greedy Williams, drew a tall task facing Pat Mahomes and company to begin his NFL career. Playing 63 snaps including 44 snaps in coverage, he exceeded expectations, being targeted just once for a reception of 4 yards. 

This understated stat line is the hallmark of quality cornerback play, even more so considering the opponent ,and given how NFL offenses will exploit a weak link once they find one. Instead, Kansas City saw extensive coverage on the outside from a rookie cornerback and concluded he was not the soft spot they were looking for. This fact alone would be a fine substitute for any film review you might conduct. 

Newsome’s overall grade of 72.6 was good enough for 2nd among rookies (1st in coverage grade) and 17th overall in the NFL. Simply put, the Browns couldn’t have asked for a better start from their 1st round pick. 

Looking forward, after testing Newsome extensively in the slot during camp, he logged only 1 snap in slot coverage against Kansas City. Texans WR Brandin Cooks may present the Browns with an opportunity to try Newsome here against quality NFL competition in a less competitive game in week 2. 

LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

2nd Round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah found the field a bit less than expected against Kansas City, but it was a solid debut nonetheless, grading out as the #3 rookie LBer at 69.5, behind Dallas #12 Overall pick Micah Parsons (71.9) and Arizona #16 Overall pick Zaven Collins (72.5). 

JOK played 25 snaps, 20 in the box and 5 in the slot. In 6 rush defense snaps he graded at 78.3 and registered 1 stop (tackles that constitute a "failure" for the offense”.) In 15 coverage snaps he graded at 55.2, was targeted once and gave up one reception for 9 yards. He also rushed the passer 4 times and registered 1 pressure, though is should be noted these were poor uses of pass rush by Joe Woods, where JOK rushed Mahomes from depth with little chance at getting home. All told this was a solid debut.

It's understandable that Joe Woods may not have wanted to expose JOK extensively against the complex KC offense. Cleveland wants to allow him to read and react as he gets his feet wet in the NFL and KC wasn't likely the best opportunity for that. The next few opponents in Houston, Chicago and Minnesota should allow coach Woods and Tarver to provide a smoother runway for increased snaps doing what JOK does well right now, which is to use his aggressiveness and do less thinking in the moment. This stretch of opposing offenses should present less risk of exposure as they slowly reduce Mack Wilson's snaps to zero and get JOK ready for the more challenging portion of the schedule from week 5 on.

DT Malik McDowell

Originally drafted at the top of the 2nd Rd in 2017 by the Seattle Seahawks, Malik McDowell made his NFL debut Sunday after a checkered off field past kept him out of the league for 4 seasons. Considered a long shot to make the roster when the Browns invited him to training camp, McDowell came on strong in the preseason in a crowded DT room and simply wouldn’t be denied a spot in the Browns’ 53.

Not only did he earn a roster spot, Malik entered Sunday’s game in Kansas City named as a starter DT and rewarded Andrew Berry and the Browns’ faith with an excellent first game, grading out at 83.0 overall registering a pressure, 3 tackles and 3 stops on the day behind only Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Calais Campbell among Defensive interior players for week 1. The 6’6” 300lb DT was a serious problem for the KC interior line for most of the afternoon, and if this represents expectations moving forward the Browns will have found a gem at position of great need following the departure of Sheldon Richardson this offseason.

WR Anthony Schwartz

Given extended missed time in camp and preseason, expectations for the Browns 3rd round pick Anthony Schwartz in year one were low. Where his world-class speed has never been in question, he came into the league extremely raw as a receiver and it would have been outlandish to expect any meaningful impact as a rookie. In a prime example of how quickly things change in the NFL, Schwartz enters week 2 as PFF’s top graded rookie WR at 82.2, good enough for 9th overall among WR's in the NFL for week 1. 

The credit for this early return on investment should go to the Browns' offensive coaches, who did not target Schwartz’s speed blindly as means to deepen the playing field for other offensive players, but had a specific and immediate plan on how they could use those skills more directly. Against Kansas City this Sunday, he earned 5 targets and hauled in 3 of those for 69 yards. These receptions helped generate 4.1 EPA, which led the Browns and ranked 3rd among non-quarterbacks behind KC receivers Hill and Kelce. 

Indirectly, Kansas city was forced to address a rookie WR with double coverage at times, and deeper safeties at others. In terms of total impact, few rookies in the league topped Schwartz in week 1. 

In addition, it is unlikely that a return of Odell Beckham Jr will impact his role in the offense. His vertical presence changes the spacing for every receiver and reduces the help a defense can commit to stopping the Browns rushing attack. Now that he has shown he is capable and commands opposing defenses respect, there is no incentive for the Browns to remove this element from the field aside from inside the red zone, where even then the threat of a reverse on jet action (which we haven't seen yet but will) can have positive uses in that area of the field. 

The early emergence of Schwartz and the coaches willingness to trust him changes the capabilities of this offense in ways Cleveland will need come January. It will be exciting to see just how creative these coaches get in their play designs as a result.

Andrew Berry entered the 2021 NFL draft with glaring needs – a Starting Cornerback to play opposite Denzel Ward, an upgrade in skill, speed and athleticism at Linebacker, a drastic increase in speed at Wide Receiver to force defenses to defend a larger portion of the field than they did in 2020, and to find impactful players for the defensive interior, a position that was woefully lacking up and down the draft board for this years crop of players. 

The returns after one week are far above any reasonable expectations coming in and provide tangible promise for shoring up the deficiencies of a team looking to compete for a division title and more this season. 

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