CLEVELAND — Jack Conklin and Myles Garrett stood together off to the side and had a lengthy conversation during a field goal drill late in the next-to-last Cleveland Browns training camp practice.
When injuries or pitch counts didn’t interfere, Conklin, at right offensive tackle, and Garrett, at left defensive end, faced each other a decent amount in Browns training camp, which ended last weekend.
So Conklin has been picking Garrett’s brain about pass-blocking techniques and other areas of his game he hopes to improve.
Although Conklin joined the Browns in March by signing a three-year, $42 million contract as one of the hottest free agents in the NFL, the former Tennessee Titans All-Pro offensive lineman considers himself far from a finished product.
“I’m still a young player,” Conklin, who turned 26 on Aug. 17, told the Beacon Journal in a recent phone interview. “Obviously, I still have a lot to learn and a lot I can get better at.”
At the same time, Conklin is confident he can immediately reward the Browns’ new regime for giving him $30 million guaranteed, its most substantial free-agent investment. He spent the past two seasons blocking in a wide-zone scheme employed by the Titans, and he’s eager to power a similar system used by new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski.
“I pride myself huge on my run blocking, and I love doing it,” Conklin said. “It’s my favorite thing to do. I definitely think just with my experience of doing it the last two years that I can help drive the team and help them figure out how to get this run game going. I definitely take huge pride in the team running behind me and leading the way.”
If camp is any indication, quarterback Baker Mayfield and his receivers will likely need time to establish adequate rhythm and chemistry when the season arrives, beginning Sept. 13 in Baltimore. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of organized team activity and minicamp practices in the spring and preseason games in the summer. The passing attack has often appeared to be behind, at least partially, as a result.
The hope is the running game will provide the offense with a backbone it can depend on early and often.
“It’s something to lean on when you have those two running backs that we have back there, when you’ve got (Nick) Chubb and Kareem (Hunt). Those guys are some freak playmakers,” said Conklin, who blocked for last season’s NFL rushing champion, Derrick Henry. “So if we get this run game going, the way this wide-zone offense works, that’s going to be awesome, and it’s going to have teams worrying so much about that, that it’s going to end up opening up our pass game in a huge way.”
Conklin took a day of rest during camp, and his repetitions in team drills have been limited since then. He insisted he’s good to go, though.
“Just a load management thing, being safe about stuff and working on not overloading my body and hurting anything,” Conklin said.
In May, offensive line coach Bill Callahan said in terms of fitting a system, the Browns could not have signed “a more perfect tackle in free agency than Jack.” Stefanski said last weekend Conklin has meshed with the Browns as well as the club had expected, and it turns out the compatibility doesn’t apply solely to the football field.
Conklin is from Plainwell, Michigan, where he played high school football for his father, Darren. Conklin’s wife, Caitlyn, grew up on the East Side of Cleveland in Gates Mills and has family living in Strongsville.
The ties to Northeast Ohio made the move from Tennessee easier, especially amid a global health crisis and with the couple expecting their second child and first son in November. Talks with Browns medical personnel and the NFL and NFL Players Association’s implementation of frequent COVID-19 testing helped alleviate concerns about Jack playing during a pandemic and coming home to a pregnant wife and 3-year-old daughter Riley.
Jack and Caitlyn met at Michigan State University, where he walked on after no Division I scholarship offers came his way and where she played soccer. They were married early in his NFL career by the Titans team minister at Nissan Stadium in Nashville.
They plan on eventually adopting a child on their way to having a big family. Caitlyn has been passionate about adoption for a long time. She and Jack became licensed foster parents in Tennessee and hope to repeat the process in Ohio. They once provided emergency care for sisters, ages 7 and 3, for a night and part of the next day.
“It really opened my eyes to just how big of an impact we could make just by helping a child or two, just giving them another chance at life,” Conklin said, “and we’re in such a great spot with how football is going and our life is going that it would definitely be a great thing for us to do to be able to help a child.”
Stefanski said the 6-foot-6, 308-pound Conklin “fits what we want to be and what we stand for” off the field.
“Playing style, he’s a smart, tough football player,” Stefanski added. “He can grind in the run game. He fights his tail off in the pass game. He has great length and size. Really excited about Jack.”
The Browns would be even more excited if Conklin and rookie first-round draft pick Jedrick Wills solidify their right and left tackle spots, respectively, for years to come. The Browns haven’t had a long-term starting tackle since future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas suffered a ruptured triceps tendon on Oct. 22, 2017, and retired after the season. The Titans were the opponent at FirstEnergy Stadium when the legendary consecutive snap streak of Thomas ended at 10,363.
“It was a crazy moment to be there when he got hurt,” Conklin said. “Growing up, my two favorite players were Joe Thomas and Jake Long. Just being from Michigan and Big Ten country, those are the two guys that I always looked up to and wanted to be like, and to be there, it was a bummer to see it go down like that.”
Since Conklin joined the Browns, he has struck up a relationship with Thomas. They’re both committed to mentoring Wills, who said he often turns to Conklin for advice.
“He’s definitely a guy that’ll listen and try to learn more,” Conklin said of Wills, the 10th overall selection from the University of Alabama. “I’ve been trying to do more and more every day just try to help bring him along, give him a little edge on certain things. There’s so much to learn, especially for him moving from right [tackle in high school and college] to left [tackle in the NFL]. I went through the same process moving from left to right coming in as a rookie.”