Browns' Jedrick Wills Jr. looks for big leap after facing 'worst-case scenario' as rookie
BEREA — The adversity Jedrick Wills Jr. endured last season as a rookie extended far beyond what anyone outside of Browns headquarters could have known.
At a glance, Wills learning how to play left tackle for the first time in his life seemed difficult enough on its own.
But Wills made the transition from the right side of the offensive line to the left amid unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. All spring practices and preseason games were canceled, leaving Wills with merely a condensed training camp in which to prepare for his first NFL season and new position.
“It was probably the worst-case scenario,” Wills told the Beacon Journal during his second Browns camp Tuesday.
From offensive line coach Bill Callahan to coach Kevin Stefanski to General Manager Andrew Berry, the Browns were convinced Wills would be able to adapt to left tackle when they drafted him 10th overall out of the University of Alabama. Wills played right tackle for the Crimson Tide, but Berry had just signed All-Pro Jack Conklin a month before the draft to a three-year, $42 million contract in free agency.
“We had a lot of confidence in [Wills moving to left tackle] because of the mental makeup and because of the physical skills,” Stefanski said Wednesday. “We knew it wasn't going to be perfect early, and for 99% of rookies, it's not perfect early.”
Still, the decision to start Wills right away represented a leap of faith, and he went through growing pains. He was schooled in practices by defensive ends Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon. He took lumps in games.
And doubt crept into his mind.
“The toughest part of the transition was that doubt,” Wills said. “I feel like almost every athlete is scared to fail and almost every athlete has that fear to fail. It was that way probably until about halfway through the season, just not having that confidence that I usually have.
“It probably took me half of the games for it to really click, for me to really have that mojo at that position. That's one of the biggest keys is to have confidence, and I feel like I lost sight of that a little bit last year.”
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Jedrick Wills Jr. had COVID-19 scare as Cleveland Browns rookie
Even when Wills finally felt as if he had hit his stride, he encountered obstacles.
The Browns placed him on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Christmas Eve and activated him on Dec. 26. But then they made him inactive Dec. 27 against the New York Jets, and Stefanski said afterward the club was “just following the protocol” by holding Wills out. The starting receiving corps had also been sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols, and the Browns lost to the Jets 23-16 when a victory would have clinched a playoff berth.
“I never ended up having COVID,” Wills said. “I had like a 106[-degree] fever, which is pretty critical, so that was one of the main reasons why they kept me out of the game. I had all the symptoms [of COVID-19], but I never tested positive.”
Wills said he was frustrated but not frightened by his illness. The Browns had to win the regular-season finale the next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to the postseason for the first time in 18 years. They prevailed 24-22 with Wills back in the starting lineup.
Then after the Browns' 48-37 wild-card win over the Steelers, Wills was injured on the offense's first play from scrimmage Jan. 17 in the 22-17 divisional-round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. As defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi dived to tackle running back Nick Chubb, Nnadi whipped into Wills' right leg.
“I had a high ankle sprain and a lateral ankle sprain all in one,” Wills said. “I got the best of both worlds.
“I think that would have definitely made a difference with me being there [for the whole game], and I just can't wait to see what we can do this year in the first game.”
Wills, 22, is hoping for a much better experience in his return to Arrowhead Stadium for the Sept. 12 regular-season opener against the defending AFC champion Chiefs.
“It's a revenge game, and we could've beaten them last year,” Wills said. “We fell short, but it's just an opportunity to get a jump start on the season.”
Jedrick Wills Jr. says Cleveland Browns have realistic shot at Super Bowl
Wills spent two months rehabilitating the injured ankle. He worked out in the offseason in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, with the trainer he's had since high school, Ted Butler of Operation Athlete. The 6-foot-4¼ Wills added muscle and dropped body fat. He ended last season weighing about 328 pounds. Now he's down to about 313 pounds.
A Pro Bowl selection, Wills said, is “100%” on his radar. That's not all, though.
“The only goal I have is just to come out every week and make a statement for my name, and then whatever comes at the end, comes at the end,” Wills added. “Of course, we're [all about] team accolades. We're all focused on that Super Bowl, and I think that we have a realistic shot at it.”
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The offensive line is among the main reasons the Browns are widely considered a legitimate contender. Wills said he doesn't pay attention to ProFootballFocus.com, so he might not know the analytics-driven website ranked the Browns' offensive line No. 1 in the NFL ahead of the 2021 season.
“We take pride in putting this team on our back, and as far as we go is as far as they go,” Wills said. “I definitely think I can contribute even more than I did last year to this group of five men.”
Wills started all 17 games in which he appeared, including two in the playoffs. He tied for 57th among the 79th qualifying tackles PFF graded last season. He ranked 27th in pass blocking and 70th in run blocking. He made the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team.
“I thought he was very sharp in pass protection for the most part,” Browns three-time Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio said. “You saw why he was a first-round tackle, his athletic ability, the way he moves, how he can move guys. I think O-linemen taking that first- and second-year leap and having an offseason this year a little bit more than last year is going to be big for him.
“I think he can make big moves. I think he has a chance to be in the upper echelon of left tackles. I don't know if it's going to happen this year or next, but if he just keeps working and improving, he has a chance to be really good.”
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Browns offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt challenged Wills to eliminate pre-snap penalties. Eight of his 11 penalties last season were false starts. The other three were holding.
“Jed had a tougher time than most with the cadence last year, but in his second year, I'm looking for a big jump from him there,” Van Pelt said.
Jedrick Wills Jr. never practiced on left side of offensive line for Alabama coach Nick Saban
Wills said he appreciated the “good, reflective criticism” the coaching staff provided after the season, and he believes he can be “two times better than last year” because he's way more comfortable on the left side of the offensive line than he was a year ago.
“[Switching to left tackle] was definitely one of the hardest things I've had to do,” he said.
Wills played right tackle in youth football, middle school, high school and college. He didn't begin training as a left tackle until the months preceding the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, using a smartphone to record videos of his techniques for further review. He never practiced on the left side of the line during his days with Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“No, not even one time,” Wills said. “I did a little bit of right guard. It's always been the right side.
“It's like doing everything your whole life right-handed and just one day you wake up and it's like, 'Oh, we're going to make you left-handed today.' That's how it felt because I played right tackle or the right side, in general, forever. It's completely different footwork. You're stronger in your right leg. You're stronger in your right arm. You have more coordination.”
The day after Wills had been drafted, Berry told him the Browns picked him to play left tackle. Wills didn't mope. He embraced the opportunity.
“I was like, 'Hey, whatever y'all need me to do,'” Wills said. “I hopped on that right away.”
Bitonio did everything he could to help Wills, yet much of their communication came via text messaging because the pandemic forced teams to conduct virtual meetings. Sure, the linemates could talk on the field at practice — provided a COVID-19 issue didn't prompt a cancellation — but if Bitonio detected something on film during meetings, texts would ensue instead of face-to-face discussions.
Former Browns 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas also became a mentor of Wills, but their interactions were limited to texts and FaceTime calls. They didn't meet in person until Monday, when Thomas visited Browns headquarters on assignment for NFL Network.
Now Wills can communicate better and bond more. He's feels at home with the Browns and at peace with his position.
“I was just talking to Jed yesterday about how it may be only one calendar year, but just how much farther along he is right now, and that's just from a technical standpoint, from a comfort level,” Stefanski said. “So he's in a really good spot.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.