In his third season, Anthony Walker's injury has given Jacob Phillips the opportunity to play full time. (Cleveland Browns)
Browns linebacker Jacob Phillips excited about opportunity to start
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Takeaways from Browns practice and interviews …
Anthony Walker and Jacob Phillips were named co-starters at middle linebacker at the start of the regular season, but Walker started each of the first three games and then they would alternate every two series. Phillips also would play alongside Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in certain nickel sub packages.
Now the job falls full time on Phillips because Walker is out for the season after a serious quad tendon injury.
The injury will stress the depth at linebacker. JOK missed Monday’s practice with a groin injury and his game status Sunday will be determined later in the week. The position group includes Sione Takitaki, Jordan Kunaszyk and Tony Fields. September roster cut Dakota Allen is the only linebacker on the practice squad.
So it’s fair to assume GM Andrew Berry will look for another body to get up to speed. One more injury would be problematic.
“We are talking through all of those things,” coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I think that is the nature of the NFL. As we all know, you get into certain weeks, and all of a sudden, you felt good about your depth and the next thing you know you are out two guys or whatever it may be. We will continue to look at those type of things, but the guys who are here are getting a ton of reps. I feel very comfortable with the group that we have.”
There is pressure on Phillips more than ever to stay healthy. He has missed games with knee and bicep injuries his first two years.
“We are going to need him to continue to ascend, get better and those type of things. He is definitely somebody who is excited about the opportunity,” Stefanski said.
At training camp, Phillips spoke of needing a healthy season to prove the player he can be. So far, so good.
“I have been very blessed and very fortunate just training camp and the start of the season remaining healthy," he said. "I just want to keep going and getting better every week. I feel like I have done that. Just keep putting it all together and trying to help my team the best I can.”
Phillips showed his athletic range in the late stages of the Pittsburgh win with a sack of Mitch Trubisky on a blitz and pass breakup downfield covering tight end Pat Freiermuth.
The job description of middle linebacker calls for Phillips to wear the green dot helmet, meaning he’ll be relayed the play-calls in his helmet receiver by the coaches. He said he has done that before and is looking forward to the responsibility.
“Very excited,” Phillips said. “Always take advantage of every opportunity you get because you never know when is the day that you may be sitting down. It is going to be good. I am going to have fun with it. I love the game. I love the team. I love everything that we have. It is going to be a whole lot of fun.”
It’s a big year for Phillips to prove he can hold down a full-time job. Next year, his fourth, is his last under contract before free agent eligibility.
New punt returner Chester Rogers didn’t have too much of an opportunity in the Pittsburgh game – two returns for 11 yards and two fair catches – but at least he didn’t put the ball on the ground on a night of 21 mph winds. He looked comfortable in his first game with the Browns.
“Absolutely. That was a big emphasis throughout the week,” he said. “Possession of the ball is the No. 1 key. You look around the league, there’s been a lot of muffed punts.”
Rogers is looking forward to Sunday’s game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which is where he lives in the offseason.
“I played there last year in preseason [with the Titans]. I ripped like a 60-yard punt return. I like it there,” Rogers said.
Rogers has 92 career punt returns for a 9.8-yard average with the Colts, Titans and Browns, but no touchdowns yet. He has scored six times on 141 career receptions.
Stefanski wouldn’t quite commit to Rogers over Demetric Felton as the full-time punt returner.
“Wanted to give Chester an opportunity as the punt returner there. That was for that week. We will see if that is the direction we go this week," Stefanski said. "Demetric is a good football player. He is going to make a bunch of plays for us this season."
A little different Monday practice coming off the bye weekend. Stefanski said he spent extra time trying to clean up the special teams. “We had a couple of special teams periods out there working on some things. A lot of it goes back to technique and fundamentals,” he said …
Danish guard Hjalte Froholdt said he never played as a fullback before the one play in the Pittsburgh game, which resulted in Nick Chubb’s 1-yard TD vault. “It was a good install during the week, something they wanted me to do,” Froholdt said. “It was fun. In Denmark, I played tight end a little in high school. Never a fullback.” …
Right tackle Jack Conklin had no incidents with his repaired knee in his first game since the patella tendon injury six months ago. “I thought he played well,” Stefanski said. “It looked like the old Jack to me. He was playing very physical. He is stronger than I think he has ever been. He worked so hard this whole offseason. Good to see him out there.” …
Missing from practice were defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (ankle), Owusu-Koramoah (groin), defensive tackle Taven Bryan (hamstring), and left guard Joel Bitonio (bicep). Stefanski didn’t have a conclusive update but said he hasn’t ruled out anyone from Sunday’s game in Atlanta.