There is a very good chance the 2016 Cleveland Browns wind up 0-16. They’re already 0-12 as they hit their preposterously late bye week, and the prospects for a single victory are about as likely as me getting a dream date with Lily from AT&T…and my wife of 20 years letting me go on it.
It’s been a miserable time in Hue Jackson’s first season in Cleveland. A rotating spit of walking wounded quarterbacks is the biggest culprit, though far from the sole reason the head coach is overseeing what might be the worst team in modern NFL history. Yet even in this lost season, Jackson and the Browns are discovering some young players who are proving they belong as integral parts of the long-term solution.
The most obvious is wideout Terrelle Pryor, who has evolved into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Whomever winds up being the quarterback in 2017 and beyond–and that player is not on the current roster–will have a difference maker at wide receiver.
Running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson both have proven worthy of being parts of the future. For a tandem of 23-year-olds running behind a line that needs a lot of help, with no consistent quarterback play to keep opposing defenses from crowding the line, to have the kind of success Crowell and Johnson have, it speaks to their long-term viability.
They’ve combined for 77 receptions on 93 targets in addition to netting 876 yards on 201 combined carries. Those rushing numbers pale in comparison to other backs, but relatively speaking Crowell and Johnson are doing just fine in Jackson’s offense.
Rookie wideout Corey Coleman is also showing real potential. Limited to just six games due to injury, Coleman has had no chance to develop any chemistry or refine his craft like many rookies. Yet the 22-year-old from Baylor has shown he can get open down the field and work well opposite the 27-year-old Pryor. His arrow is pointing up thanks to routes like this…
— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) November 27, 2016
Rookie guard Spencer Drango, Coleman’s teammate at Baylor, has progressed enough in recent weeks to be part of the future. He’s only playing because Joel Bitonio and John Greco are both injured, but the 24-year-old converted tackle is getting a little better every week.
Defensively, the Browns are finally seeing a positive return on investment with 2015 first-rounder Danny Shelton. The massive nose tackle made Pro Football Focus’ midseason all-star team. He’s a foundational player to build around at just 23.
Linebacker Christian Kirksey has stepped up as a strong all-around defender in his third season in Cleveland. He’s not a dynamic player but would look awfully nice playing next to one. And in rolling the dice on 26-year-old Jamie Collins, the Browns might have that dynamo. It’s too early to judge the returns on the trade with New England, but Collins is a proven young player with a winning pedigree and off-the-charts athletic ability.
They’re even getting some pleasant surprises. Take corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun, an undrafted rookie from Minnesota. Small but plucky, “BBC” has quickly shown the NFL game isn’t too big for him, even playing outside when optimally cast as a slot corner.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun is an undrafted cornerback for the Browns.
— Doug Farrar (@BR_DougFarrar) November 30, 2016
Not bad for a 23-year-old who the Jaguars cut, eh…
Notice the ages? That’s important. Cleveland is incredibly young at so many spots. Of the 53 players on the active roster, 18 are rookies. Add in the second-year players and you’ve got almost half the roster.
Some will quietly fade away as the franchise upgrades the talent level. Yet, there is a young core here that can be the base of a successful football team.
Obviously the Browns need to get better at a lot of key positions, from quarterback to pass rusher to center. If Sashi Brown, Paul DePodesta and the front office can get those right, they’ll find an exciting base of useful young players ready to blossom.