Browns Raising Hope With Bumper Crop Of Young Players
By Steven King
In Cleveland, youth is being served in a big way.
While the Cleveland Browns have been short on wins in recent years, they’re also short – so to speak – on age, with the majority of their standouts being among the youngest players on their roster.
When Eric Mangini coached the Browns from 2009-2010 and brought in a bunch of the players he had had with the New York Jets, the locker room looked like an AARP meeting. Now it resembles a college graduation ceremony. As such, six-time Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas, who is 28, seems like Methuselah.
From the youngest to the “oldest”, here are the five best Browns under the age of 25 (we would have included DT Phil Taylor on this list, but we decided not to do so since he turns 25 in just a little over a month, on April 7):
WR Josh Gordon (21, will turn 22 on April 13) – Seven months ago, the Browns were in desperate need of a big, strong, down-the-field, go-to wide receiver. So they rolled the dice and forfeited their second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft in order to take the 6-3, 225-pounder in the second round of the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft. After a slow start due to the fact he got to the Browns not long before the start of training camp – and the fact he hadn’t played football since 2010 – he proved to be worth it. He finished third on the team with 50 receptions, but was first with 850 yards receiving, five touchdown receptions and a 16.1 yards-per-catch average (tops among those with 20 or more receptions).
RB Trent Richardson (22, will turn 23 on July 10) – The Browns traded up a spot, to No. 3 overall, in the 2012 draft to make sure they were able to get the Alabama product. He rushed for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, both of which are team records for a rookie. He also led the Browns in receptions for a good portion of the year and eventually finished second with 51. His 1,317 scrimmage yards also set a club rookie mark. Amazingly, he did all this despite the fact he played a little more than half the season with broken ribs.
CB Joe Haden (23, will turn 24 on April 14) – He has been the Browns’ best defensive player overall since arriving as a first-round draft pick in 2010. The Browns have acknowledged he is their shutdown corner and they hope to find another one to go along with him in the next two months in the draft or free agency. How important is Haden to the Browns? When he missed four games last season after testing positive for a banned substance, the secondary was absolutely torched. In the game he returned, the Browns got their first win of the year by upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals, who eventually made it to the playoffs.
DE/OLB Jabaal Sheard (23, will turn 24 on May 10) – The third-round draft pick in 2011 had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a Browns defensive lineman, leading the team with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. He added seven more sacks last season. He’s so talented that the Browns are convinced he can – if needed – stand up and be an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense they are implementing this off-season.
WR Greg Little (23. will turn 24 on May 30) – Despite not playing his final year of college ball at North Carolina, the 2011 second-round draft choice led the Browns as a rookie with 61 receptions for 709 yards and two touchdowns. Last year, he topped the Browns again with 53 catches and greatly improved on his ability to hold onto the ball.