BEREA: John Hughes couldn’t hide his grin when he thought about the Browns’ first depth chart of the year.
Hughes is listed as Phil Taylor’s replacement in the starting lineup, and he’s confident he can perform well in that role. The team is counting on Hughes and fellow rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn to step up, because Taylor’s surgically repaired left pectoral muscle will keep him sidelined at least until late October.
“I’m not gonna lie,” Hughes said Tuesday while reflecting on the first 10 full-squad practices of training camp. “[I was] like every other rookie who’s nervous coming into his first camp, but after the first couple days go by, you really feel like you belong, you fit in, especially on and off the field, which is a big thing. I definitely feel like I fit in.
“I feel like my game’s improved a lot, just being able to learn different tidbits from different players and apply it on the field. It’s been helping me out a lot.”
In April, the Browns drafted Hughes out of the University of Cincinnati in the third round (87th overall) and Winn out of Boise State University in the sixth round (205th overall) because they knew they needed to improve their depth in the trenches. The coaching staff believes the defense struggled mightily last season against the run (ranked 30th, 147.4 yards allowed per game) partly because Taylor and fellow starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin were not spelled enough during games.
After Taylor suffered a torn pectoral muscle while lifting weights in May, it became obvious Hughes and Winn were in line for more playing time this year than originally anticipated. Hughes and Winn, camp roommates at the team’s hotel who lined up next to each other Tuesday with the second-team defense, have been vying with veterans Scott Paxson and Brian Schaefering to fill the void created by Taylor’s injury. Each player will try to strengthen his case for a starting role Friday night, when the Browns visit the Detroit Lions in the preseason opener for both teams.
Paxson has taken the majority of the first-team reps during camp, though the Browns made it clear they’re targeting Hughes as their first option when they released the depth chart Monday night. They’re hoping he rises to the occasion.
“I wouldn’t get too concerned about those depth charts right now,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “We have to put somebody in there, and [Hughes] is a guy that will compete to play in that spot. Nobody’s earned anything there. We’re going to play a bunch of guys.”
Winn is listed second on the depth chart behind starting defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin. He worked with the first-team defense last week when Rubin and Schaefering were sidelined with injuries.
“I feel like I made a lot of progress,” Winn said. “There’s been a lot of plays that have been installed. There’s been a lot of work that’s been done out here. There’s been a lot of competing. In the team periods and the one-on-ones, everybody’s competing against each other. That’s what you want on a team, and I feel like every single one of us out here has been out there getting better.”
The 6-foot-2, 320-pound Hughes is known as a run-stopper, and the 6-4, 295-pound Winn is often labeled as pass rusher. Both are fighting to prove they’re not one-dimensional.
“I wouldn’t paint them both into a run-stopper or pass-rusher box yet,” Shurmur said. “Just because a guy is physical enough to stop the run doesn’t mean he can’t generate pass rush. Like Billy Winn, just because he’s got quickness doesn’t mean he can’t play the run. Those are at first glance what their attributes are. Now they need to develop into total players based on what they’re good at.”
Browns General Manager Tom Heckert took heat for drafting Hughes earlier than expected. Now Hughes wants to defy his critics and show he can do it all.
“Can I rush the passer? Yeah,” he said. “I mean if I couldn’t do all the stuff that they put me on the field to do, I wouldn’t be here.
“I like to work on my flaws. Stuff that people say I do bad, I try to work on the most because I want to be a better overall player. So when we do pass rush one-on-ones, when we do team blitz, I try to work extra hard just to [fine tune] my craft.”
Still, both players said they’re still adjusting to the speed of the game at the NFL level.
“The speed and the tempo, it’s not like college,” Winn said. “Guys, they’re in your face in a split second.”
The intensity will increase against the Lions, even though exhibition games are toned-down versions of the real deal. Hughes has never been to an NFL game, so his first will be one in which he plays. Winn, meanwhile, is excited to face two of his former Boise State teammates, rookie quarterback Kellen Moore and wide receiver Titus Young.
Hughes and Winn hope their debut at Ford Field will foreshadow what they believe can be a bright future together.
“When we get on the field, I feel like we have good chemistry,” Hughes said. “We mesh real well.”