BEREA — Undrafted free agents are easy to dismiss in training camp. For most the NFL dream will die this summer when they are told to turn in their playbooks, so there’s no point in investing in them.
Josh Aubrey has been impossible to ignore through almost two weeks of camp. And is worth getting to know.
First, No. 37 began showing up around the ball. Then he stepped into the strong safety spot with the first-team defense last week when T.J. Ward’s hamstring sidelined him.
Aubrey, a converted cornerback from Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, is listed on the depth chart as the third-team strong safety behind Ward and Johnson Bademosi but has impressed the coaching staff and has a legitimate chance to make the 53-man roster.
“He has really developed since the spring,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I’ve really noticed a big improvement. He’s a guy taking advantage of the opportunities. He’s getting chances for reps and he’s making good with them. That is what you like seeing out of guys this time of year.”
Aubrey is from Tyler, Texas, and wound up at Stephen F. Austin — a member of the Football Championship Subdivision (former Division I-AA) — because the coaches agreed to take his twin brother, Jordan. Aubrey was a four-year starter at cornerback and four-time all-conference selection, totaling 255 tackles, seven interceptions, 29 passes defensed and 3.5 sacks
But the draft in April came and went without his name being called.
“I was stressed out. I don’t think I slept after day two of the draft,” he said. “Regardless I knew I was going to be on a team and after the draft I had like 10 teams calling trying to sign me. But I already knew where I was going to go if I didn’t get drafted.”
Browns secondary coach Louie Cioffi had shown the most interest before the draft, including working out Aubrey. Even Cioffi’s declaration that he wanted Aubrey to switch from cornerback to safety didn’t scare him away.
Aubrey had never played safety before and wanted to remain at corner. But he liked the opportunity with the Browns and attacked the change.
“I always thought he was a safety,” Stephen F. Austin coach J.C. Harper said in a phone interview. “Those safety positions, you better have guys that can make sure tackles.”
Harper considered moving Aubrey (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) to safety to pair with his twin but didn’t have a better option on the outside. Cornerbacks have a reputation for being soft, but Harper said Aubrey has no trouble bringing the lumber.
“Golly, we ran corner fire (blitz) and he laid it to the quarterback,” Harper said. “It was one of those hits where you turn away.”
“The thing that separated Josh was he would come up and hit,” said Arlington Nunn, secondary coach and assistant head coach at Stephen F. Austin. “He’s very physical. He had no problems stroking somebody or taking on the big fullback or the tight end. He took pride in it.”
“I’ve always been a hitter,” Aubrey said.
Most of his early reps with the Browns in the spring came at free safety, but he’s at strong now. He went home between the offseason program and camp and focused on the change from corner with the help of his twin.
“We did a lot of talking and just trying to understand the position,” Aubrey said. “You see the game totally different from safety than out there on the edge at corner.
“I just focused in. It was either now or never, I felt like for me. So I just did what I had to do and kept working at it. And it looks like it’s paying off for me right now.”
The work hasn’t stopped. Aubrey was one of the last players off the field after practice last week, after being one of the few to run sprints on his own. Then he stopped to catch balls from the JUGS machine.
“I try to do something every day, just to say I gave it my all, really,” he said. “I don’t want to leave nothing on the table. It’s just something I want to do to be better.”
Harper isn’t surprised by the stories of Aubrey’s post-practice habits or his early camp success.
“Josh is a tremendously hard worker,” Harper said. “Everything to Josh is playing football, and he’s good at it. He’s kind of a natural. He will represent Cleveland well — the city of Cleveland is a bunch of hard workers. He’ll do whatever he has to do, just because he loves football.”
Despite the humble entrance to the league and lunch-pail mentality, Aubrey doesn’t lack for confidence. His time with the starters surprised observers, but not the participant.
“I know my main goal was to start wherever I went,” he said. “My goal didn’t change just because T.J. went down. I love T.J. to death, but I just don’t change my goal, so still I want to prepare myself for when it’s my time.”
But by no stretch is he getting ahead of himself.
“When I wrote my goals down, it was more like, know what I’m going to do, be in the right spot, start on special teams first, then become a starter on defense,” he said. “So you kind of work it in one by one. I still want to be a starter when it comes down to it.”
Harper said that shouldn’t be misconstrued as cockiness.
“That’s just how he sees himself,” he said. “He sees himself as a really good football player. It’s not arrogance.
“He’s very grounded. He’s a coach’s dream. Some people are engineers, some are lawyers, Josh is a football player. So he’s going to play for a long time.”
Aubrey’s transition to the pros has been made easier by a friendly face. Stephen F. Austin receiver Cordell Roberson was also signed by the Browns after the draft.
“Coming up from Tyler, Texas, he didn’t really have too much down there,” Roberson said. “Once we got to college, he just established it then that he was going to continue to work to live out his dream.
“He’s a hard worker. I saw it then, when we were in college, that he’d be at the next level.”