Before leaving for summer vacation, the Cleveland Browns finished up camp with press availability from all of their coordinators including offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who did provide some interesting bread crumbs to follow in addition to just confirming what was largely expected.
Most of the questions focused on Odell Beckham, who was working on the side during Thursday's practice session after participating at various levels both Tuesday and Wednesday. Van Pelt confirmed it was the planned rehab work he had.
He was also asked about the tight end group and said that they were impressed with them and continue to see reasons to expect they will continue to improve. Simply having them able to do more work with the quarterback should help.
That was all pretty run of the mill stuff. The most interesting tidbits revolved around the running back position.
“He is a running receiver back right now for us. The good news is he can play in both spots and gives us some flexibility. Earlier on in the OTAs, we were a little down on numbers at receiver. That is probably why you saw him more at receiver than you did at running back. He is a guy that came in, he is very smart, he loves football, he puts the time in and he has flashed out there in these OTAs.” - Browns OC Alex Van Pelt
That's what was always expected when the Browns drafted Felton, given that he was a high school running back that transitioned to wide receiver at UCLA that was switched back to running back when they found themselves short at the position.
It's a logical way to approach Felton. Building on Felton, the Browns have another running back that can do many of the things that Felton can do in Kareem Hunt. Maybe he won't be utilized as a pure receiver as often as someone like Felton would be, but he certainly can line up wide, run some routes and catch passes.
This occurred in the 2020 season, including most notably in the second matchup against the Baltimore Ravens where the two teams were largely in a shootout.
After the Browns had issues with their receivers getting separation early in the game, the tweak the Browns made was to line up Hunt wide out in space. He became a matchup problem for the Ravens and he was able to create a number of plays as a pass catcher, which helped create more space for the offense overall.
The other element that was on display last year was the notion of having the best 11 on the field. That didn't happen perhaps as often as the Browns would have preferred given the shortened offseason, but Van Pelt mentioned it when asked about the combination of Hunt and Nick Chubb.
"...you want to put your most-talented players on the field, and Kareem is definitely deserving of getting playing time, along with Nick in certain packages. Those are things we have looked at in the offseason and will continue to grow.”
Some may think about having them both in the backfield, which is certainly a possibility. Between Hunt's size and ability to catch passes, he can become a real matchup problem lined up wide or even just in the slot. Whether it's manufactured touches like quick passes and screens or more precision based routes like wheels up the sideline, that may well be the most dangerous way to Hunt.
The Browns offense has so many players of different sizes and shapes that it can be a challenge for defenses to prepare, let alone match up with them. They have receivers with speed or size, tight ends and now they a weapon like Hunt that can function in a space between them.
And when considering Hunt's rushing production versus his receiving production, it's simply the logical approach. In two seasons with the Browns, Hunt averages 4.23 yards per carry on 241 carries. Over the same span, Chubb averaged 5.24 yards per carry, a full yard better.
The same two seasons, Hunt has been targeted 95 times in the passing game, producing 589 yards at 6.2 yards per target. Save for the fatigue aspect, the Browns are better served to hand the ball to Chubb and utilize Hunt as more of a generalized weapon.
The comfort level Baker Mayfield began to show later in the season, especially in empty formations, it only creates more opportunities to utilize Hunt in that role.
Van Pelt was asked about Mayfield's comfort level entering this season.
“He was impressive. There are a lot of areas and a lot of pass concepts that we wanted work on in this minicamp that maybe he did not completely own last year and wanted improvement in these plays. He has shown that. A lot of that is just working through progression and knowing where to go next if one and two are covered, and he got that accomplished in this camp. We are very happy with where he is right now.”
He also addressed his confidence, knowing the offense heading into this year.
“Definitely. In the last seven or eight games last year, he really played really well. I think he now feels that. He understands what that looks like and how he has to operate within the system to be successful. Now that he realizes that, you see it more in practice. Definitely.”
The other interesting answer from Van Pelt came from how the Browns have adjusted entering this season in terms of their meetings and how they are preparing. Being forced work virtually, they entered some uncharted territory how they prepared.
Entering another year where teams are largely able to operate close to how they did before the pandemic, teams were presented with options. The Browns, like most teams, embraced what the virtual offseason could enable them to do in terms of teaching and staying in touch with players almost anywhere. It was largely a question of how that would advance from there.
“We always work collaboratively. That is the greatest thing about this staff. Everybody has a say, everybody has an equal opinion and we all respect each other’s opinions. This is a really great offensive staff so a lot of guys have great ideas come from winning programs in other places. The beauty of our staff is that I feel like we all work really well together.
As far as things we have done differently, some of the meetings have been structured a little differently and some of the presentations have been different and changed for the better in the second year of the virtual offseason.
A lot of the scheme eval we got to do last year after having a season together, making those changes and then researching the league, looking across the league and seeing what other teams have done offensively, what teams are doing, defensively and picking and choosing if there is something that maybe we are missing, offensively that other teams are doing, maybe we try to implement that or try to add that to our offense. If it fits, it fits. If it does not, it does not and we just move on.”
Nothing is too specific, which isn't a huge surprise, but Van Pelt does provide a key hole for people to understand how the Browns are thinking and evolving their approach, always trying to improve. And much of it can be applied to any aspect of football. It's not just specific to offense.