CLEVELAND (AP)Gifted two days by the NFL to possibly get healthier, the Browns practiced for a game they expected to play Saturday.
Nothing has gone as scheduled during another wild week in Cleveland.
With a protracted COVID-19 reserve list seemingly changing by the hour, if not the minute, the Browns got in lively, indoor workout as they got ready for Monday’s postponed game against the Las Vegas Raiders – still not knowing what players will be available.
The Browns currently have 24 players, including quarterback Baker Mayfield and 11 other starters on the COVID-19 list, after the virus swept through the team in recent days and threatened to derail Cleveland’s playoff hopes.
The NFL’s decision to relax some testing policies could result in the Browns getting back some key players by Monday, but coach Kevin Stefanski, who is still isolating after a positive test and remains uncertain for the game, isn’t counting on anything.
”Things are very fluid, so we’ll see how it goes in terms going to the list,” said Stefanski, who watched Saturday’s workout on Zoom. ”In terms of guys who are coming back, we don’t know. ”There’s uncertainty there and if guys make it back, great.
”If they don’t, that’s fine, too.”
Stefanski has stayed stoic. It’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed.
With it looking as if they would have to trot out mostly backups and start third-string QB Nick Mullens against the Raiders, the Browns (7-6) got a reprieve Friday when the NFL budged from its hard stance to press forward and moved Saturday’s game – along with two others – due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases across the league.
The move brought needed relief to Cleveland. Vegas owner Mark Davis complained it left his team with a ”competitive disadvantage” and Raiders cornerback Casey Hayward wondered on Twitter if the Browns got a break because center JC Tretter is the NFL Players Association president.
”We’ll be ready on Monday at 5 p.m. when the game is scheduled,” Browns linebacker Anthony Walker said in response to the Raiders’ gripes. ”That is all I have to say about that one. Thanks, JC, for being on the Browns.”
It’s possible the Browns may also benefit from the league and NFLPA agreeing to change testing protocols, which now require players to produce just one negative COVID-19 test instead of two to be eligible to return and play.
While the modification looks promising, Browns defensive end Takk McKinley is the only player to be activated from the list so far under the policy change. Walker, who missed last week’s game and was activated Friday, said he twice tested negative.
McKinley’s return was offset by the Browns losing another starting offensive lineman. Rookie right tackle James Hudson III went on the list, joining right guard Wyatt Teller and left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who tested positive earlier.
Walker felt fortunate to have mild symptoms.
””It’s funny, I texted my dad and was like, `Dude, if I would have told you the symptoms that I had, you probably would have had me definitely go to school and definitely would have had all of my after-school activities like everything was normal,”’ he said.
For Mullens, Cleveland’s COVID-19 outbreak has brought an unexpected chance for him to jump start his career.
The 26-year-old, who started 16 games for San Francisco over three seasons, has spent this year staying ready in case of an emergency. It’s time to break the glass.
And now that Mayfield and backup Case Keenum are down and maybe out, Mullens is next man up.
On Saturday, he felt invigorated after taking his first snaps with Cleveland’s first-team offense – well, what’s currently serving as the first-team offense.
”It felt really good to hear a play call, go execute a play call and just operate,” he said. ”We talked about smooth operation. That’s the goal. That’s what leads to productive offense. It felt good. I was really excited that we could get those reps.”
Mullens realizes that as quickly as he moved to the front of the QB line, he could be bounce to the back if Mayfield and Keenum return.
He’s ready for whatever’s next.
”This is my fifth year in the NFL,” he said. ”I’ve learned to expect anything really.”
Walker believes if Mullens steps in, the Browns won’t miss a step.
”I see the way he comes in every day and prepares,” Walker said. ”I like to say I’m one of the first guys in the building every day, and every day I get in and Nick Mullens is always there before me.
”A guy who comes in the building every day with the mindset of `I am preparing like a starter’ because you never know what could happen, he’s the epitome of that.”
NOTES: Rookie WR Anthony Schwartz returned from concussion protocol and practiced for the first time since getting hurt at New England on Nov. 14. He had been ruled out but the postponement gave him some time. He’s listed as questionable.
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