Cleveland Browns center Nick Harris will likely need season-ending surgery, Stefanski says
Browns starting center Nick Harris will likely need season-ending surgery on his right knee for an injury suffered in Friday night’s 24-13 preseason-opening victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in TIAA Bank Stadium, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said.
Harris underwent an MRI on Saturday after going down on the game's second play. Bull rushed by Jaguars defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton, Harris was carted to the locker room.
"We're still gathering information there, I want to make sure that we have all the information before we come to that conclusion," Stefanski said Saturday in reference to surgery for Harris.
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"All these injuries stink. You don't like anybody to get injured. Nick certainly is a guy that's been working so hard this offseason. Really hoping that it's not a season-long thing because the kid just works so hard."
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Harris was replaced by Ethan Pocic, signed to a one-year $1.187 millon contract in March. The Browns released JC Tretter, their starter for the past five seasons, in a cost-saving move on March 15 and handed the job to Harris, a fifth-round pick out of the University of Washington in 2020.
President of the NFL Players Association, Tretter, 31, remains an unsigned free agent. Stefanski would not comment on potential roster moves being handled by General Manager Andrew Berry and his staff. Brock Hoffman, 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds, an undrafted rookie from Virginia Tech, is the only other center on the training camp roster.
"I won't comment on roster-type things, that's Andrew and his crew," Stefanski said when asked specifically about Tretter. "I want to make note that Ethan did a nice job and he's done a nice job since April. Excited about what he can bring to the table."
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Pocic may be their best option, especially if the Browns are reserving salary cap space to bring in another starting quarterback if Deshaun Watson is suspended for the season. Centers under age 30 with prior practice squad or NFL experience who remain available as free agents all went undrafted, according to Spotrac.com.
Pocic, 27, a second-round pick of the Seahawks in 2017 out of LSU, started 40 of his 57 games played for Seattle. He started 10 of 13 games in 2021 and ranked 15th among 39 qualifying centers graded by ProFootballFocus.com. Tretter was sixth in those rankings.
"He's a physical football player. He's a big center; he's got really good size," Stefanski said of Pocic, 6-6 and 320 pounds. "He's played a lot of football in his career. For us, it's just getting him good exposure to what we do, which we've been doing since April. He's done a nice job with [offensive line] coach [Bill] Callahan and coach [Scott] Peters in understanding our techniques. I really think we have a guy who has done that in some big moments."
Listed at 6-1 and 293 pounds, Harris used the offseason to gain strength, but retained his athleticism to pull and move on screens. Pocic's style is different.
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"We'll definitely play to our players' strengths," Stefanski said of Pocic. "No two players are the same. We'll ask Ethan to play like Ethan and not play like somebody else."
Last season, the Browns learned how disruptive offensive line injuries could be to their attack. They allowed 49 sacks after giving up 26 in 2020, when they made their first playoff appearance since 2002 and won their first postseason game since Jan. 1, 1995. Right tackle Jack Conklin, left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and swing tackle Chris Hubbard missed games with injuries — Hubbard's and Conklin's season-ending — and Tretter landed on the COVID-19 list.
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With the Browns still awaiting Peter C. Harvey’s ruling on the NFL’s appeal of Watson’s six-game suspension for violation of its personal conduct policy, backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett will begin to get the bulk of the starter’s reps on Sunday. Twenty-four women filed civil suits accusing Watson of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during massage appointments; all but one have been settled.
“That has been the plan really from the beginning is just to at some point let Jacoby get the majority of them, still work Deshaun, still work Josh Dobbs and still work Josh Rosen, but Jacoby will get the majority starting this block,” Stefanski said.
The week includes joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles Thursday and Friday ahead of Sunday afternoon’s preseason home game.
“Jacoby has gotten a lot of reps to date. I go back to the nine-week offseason program and the weeks we have been together, he has gotten a ton of reps with the ones and with the twos,” Stefanski said. “Even the way we structure our routes versus air and individual period, he has gotten a lot of reps with the quote-unquote ones and the twos.
“He will keep on that same process and making sure he is running the show when he is in there. He does a nice job in the quarterback meeting room with those guys, so I just think this is also the natural progression for him moving forward.”
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Watson went 1-for-5 for 7 yards and a 39.6 rating in his first game action since Jan. 3, 2021. The offensive rhythm was off as receiver Anthony Schwartz dropped two passes during Watson’s three series, running back D’Ernest Johnson lost a fumble, offensive lineman Michael Dunn was called for a false start and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones for holding and Harris left the game.
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“I think anybody who is doing something that they have not done in 20 months, there is going to be an element of getting back into it and getting used to it,” Stefanski said. “So much of what we did last night was getting through a night game and how we walkthrough and preparing yourself to play; the pregame warmup; breaking the huddle; at the line of scrimmage making run checks; getting to the sideline talking to a new position coach; and hearing a new voice in your helmet in a game setting. That was really the goal of last night for him.
“Then the third play of the game, he is taking snaps from Ethan. They have had a ton of reps together, but that is a new center in there. There are some challenging things. Ultimately, he did a nice job of running the offense. I know we would all want more production and those type of things, but you can’t overreact to a small sample size either direction, whether it is good or bad.”
Browns receiver Anthony Schwartz takes drops personally
Schwartz, a third-round pick in 2021, has caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown and rushed six times for 39 yards as a rookie. Missing five practices early in camp with a strained knee suffered on July 28, Schwartz had a rough night, failing to catch a pass on three targets.
“He missed some time coming back off of injury. Continued to grow as a player,” Stefanski said. “Obviously, you are going to have some drops as a receiver. He takes them personally. Any receiver always takes those personally and wants to get better the next time.
“Preseason games are for work. You go out there, you make a mistake, you correct it and you get back to work.”
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Schwartz should get plenty of chances to atone. Stefanski said Michael Woods II, a sixth-round pick from Oklahoma, will miss practice this week with a hamstring injury that first forced him to sit out on Aug. 5.
Against the Jaguars, the Browns were also without receiver David Bell, a third-round pick from Purdue, who returned to practice Aug. 7 after missing two weeks with a foot injury, and No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, held out to avoid injury.
“We have a bunch of guys who can be versatile and can do different jobs. In terms of making a blanket statement on the whole group, I just think we have a bunch of work to do,” Stefanski said.
Return job is wide open after Jakeem Grant Sr.’s Achilles injury
After Pro Bowl return man Jakeem Grant Sr. suffered a season-ending torn Achilles on Tuesday, the Browns used Ja’Marcus Bradley to return kicks against the Jaguars. He averaged 2.5 yards on two punts and 15.5 yards on two kickoffs.
Stefanski was not ready to say Bradley would be their primary returner.
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“We have some guys who can do those jobs — punt return and kickoff return. We will kind of look at some other guys, as well, and see who can provide us some meaningful reps there,” Stefanski said. “Those are the things we are working through as a staff.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.