CLEVELAND — Jack Conklin kept Deshaun Watson from harm. He couldn't protect himself.
Cleveland's starting right tackle sustained a “major” left knee injury in the first half of Sunday's win over Cincinnati and will miss the remainder of the season, a major personal blow and significant one for the Browns.
Conklin, who returned last season from a severe injury to his right knee, tore two ligaments when he was inadvertently rolled up on by Bengals end Trey Hendrickson at the end of a pass play in the first half of the Browns' 24-3 season-opening win.
Conklin was finishing off his block when Hendrickson hit him from the side after being pushed down by Browns left tackle Jedrick Wills. Jr. Conklin was carted off the field and tests Monday confirmed the diagnosis.
“He’s a huge part of this team, and when he gets this surgery and when he’s ready, he’s going to be back in this building helping us because he’s a big part of that offensive line room,” coach Kevin Stefanski said on a Zoom call. “So disappointed for him.”
A two-time All-Pro, Conklin worked hard and returned earlier than expected last season after rupturing his right patellar tendon in 2021. His comeback inspired teammates, who voted him their Ed Block Courage Award winner.
The Browns signed the 29-year-old Conklin to a four-year, $60 million contract extension in December.
Stefanski is confident that Conklin, who played four seasons with Tennessee before coming to Cleveland as a free agent in 2020, will make another return.
“He’s so conscientious, so mature,” Stefanski said. “So he’s disappointed and upset about it, but I have no doubt that he’ll bounce back from this, just knowing the person.”
After Conklin went out, rookie Dawand Jones came on and played well in his NFL debut.
“Some really good moments, some things that he’s got to clean up,” Stefanski said. "Honestly, any young player, when you get thrown into the mix early, there’s going to be some time to catch up. And I thought he had some good moments, some things that we will work real hard to clean up.”
A fourth-round pick from Ohio State, the 6-foot-8, 375-pound Jones has steadily improved since minicamp and held his own against the Bengals.
If he stays in the starting lineup, he'll have his hands full next week as the Browns play at Pittsburgh and he could be matched up against Steelers All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt.
The Browns have another option in third-year tackle James Hudson III, who has made seven career starts.
Jones, though, keeps getting better and Stefanski was impressed with his debut.
“There are no redshirts in the NFL so you never know when that opportunity is going to come,” he said. "It happened in the first half of the first game and you have to be ready. He will continue to get better and then as it pertains to any matchup moving forward, it’s the NFL, every week is going to be very difficult.
"Obviously, going into Pittsburgh is tough on every team that goes into that place. So we’ll have a plan and we’ll move forward.”