The Saturday night trade for veteran pass rusher Za'Darius Smith riled up the rookies on hand for minicamp. (USA Today)
Browns trade for Za’Darius Smith shook up rookie minicamp
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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 rookie minicamp …
Even the rookies were taken aback by the Browns’ surprise trade for veteran edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.
The trade with the Minnesota Vikings was confirmed about 7:30 Friday night, a few hours after rookies had completed their first day of minicamp.
“Oh, man, for me, it was definitely exciting,” said fourth-round pick Isaiah McGuire, the defensive end from Missouri. “You know, me being a rookie coming in, having the opportunity to learn from a great vet such as Za’Darius as well as the other people in the room is truly an honor and a blessing. I'm excited to learn from those people, pick their brains and just improve overall.”
McGuire said when he saw the news on Twitter, he immediately sent it to his family and they talked about “what a great opportunity [this] is for me as a young player.”
Smith was a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky by the Baltimore Ravens in 2015. He has made the Pro Bowl three of the past four seasons after posting sack totals of 13.5 in 2019 and 12.5 in 2020 with Green Bay, and 10 in 2022 with Minnesota.
If nothing else, Siaki Ika, the Browns' third-round defensive tackle from Baylor, recognizes the inspiration that a middle-round pick can develop into a perennial all-star.
“It gets me excited, real excited,” Ika said. “For what I want for myself in the future, so seeing someone like that and also being able, like I said earlier, to learn from someone like that, it’s really exciting.”
Added cornerback Cameron Mitchell, sixth-round pick from Northwestern, “Three-time pro bowler, big ole dude. I can't say I watched too much film on him, but you don't just go to Pro Bowls, so it means something.”
The Browns won’t formally announce the trade, or comment, until Smith is able to sign his reworked contract with the Browns. The new deal reportedly will guarantee Smith $11.75 million in 2023 and set him up for free agency in 2024. He is expected to arrive on Monday.
Coach Kevin Stefanski was not available to media on Saturday.
Pedal to the metal
Ika’s going to be in heaven transforming from a “dump truck” two-gap nose tackle to a “Ferrari” straight-to-the-quarterback pass rusher under coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment,” he said. “I mean, it already has been a big adjustment for me, but it is something I enjoy. Something I’m really excited for. In college, when I was playing blocks, looking to take double teams, this is the scheme [I was] wishing for. So now that it’s here, I’m really excited to get in and get some work.”
Ika played in the 347-pound range at Baylor. He said coaches and trainers are trying to decide what should be his heaviest weight with the Browns while improving his ability to get off the ball rather than taking on two blockers.
“Like I said, [it’s] not something I’ve been familiar with before. So now I think it’s really important that I shed a little bit more weight, get a little bit faster so I can move side to side, run sideline,” Ika said.
The giant among giants
Fourth-round offensive tackle Dawand Jones from Ohio State hovers over everybody, and will do so when he joins the veterans, too.
Ika observed, “That’s a big man. I thought I was big. That’s Ginormous.”
At first glance, Jones carries his 375-plus pounds fairly well on his 6-8 frame. But after two days of intense position drill work with line coach Bill Callahan, amid mild temperatures, it’s apparent that Jones has never been coached as hard as he will be under Callahan.
Questions about Jones’ love for the game of football arose during the buildup to the draft. Jones will answer those questions as Callahan cracks the whip in the dog days of training camp under an unforgiving sun and 100 degree heat index.
My observation is that Callahan will either make him, or break him.
Cedric the receiver
Receiver Cedric Tillman, the third-round pick from Tennessee, stood out on the field as the biggest receiver on hand and also with sure hands, at least in the limited pass-catching opportunities of a two-day rookie camp.
But another thing that had to appeal to the Browns was Tillman’s willingness to grind through a severe high ankle sprain injury, have the new “tightrope surgery” to accelerate his return, and then play through the Tennessee season while losing his status as No. 1 target in the wide-open Volunteers offense.
Tightrope surgery involves having tiny screws inserted to stabilize the injured area, which promoted a faster return to the field by about two weeks.
I asked Tillman if he ever considered shutting it down last year and taking a slower rehab approach so as to protect his future career in the NFL.
“No,” he said. “Me getting the surgery, the goal was always to come back and help my team win a championship.”
The Vols’ championship hopes were derailed when quarterback Hendon Hooker suffered an ACL tear late in the season. Hooker was the Heisman Trophy favorite at the time of his injury.
Tillman injured the ankle in Tennessee’s third game of the year against Akron. He came back to play three more games at the end. Once the Vols’ championship hopes were dashed, Tillman opted out of the Orange Bowl and the Senior Bowl to prepare for the draft.
Tillman was drafted because of his size (6-3, 213), sure hands, and physical ability to come down with 50-50 balls.
“This receiver corps was good before I came here,” he said. “I’m just going to try to look after those older guys and try to fall after them. But definitely I do think I bring something to the table -- my size, my ability, what I can do. So just trying to make plays for this offense.”