A big rookie class brings high hopes
At Baylor wide receiver Corey Coleman used to seek out Oklahoma State's Emmanuel Ogbah after their teams played. The two former Texas high school standouts would shake hands briefly and chat. "It's crazy we are on the same NFL team now," Ogbah says. "He would always tell me, 'See you on top.'"
The first two picks of coach Hue Jackson's regime in Cleveland still have a way to go to reach that level, but they've taken on the responsibility of making the Browns into contenders—a status the team has not enjoyed since the 1980s. (Cleveland last won its division in '89.) "We were all drafted for a reason," Ogbah says, "and that is to come in and help change this program." Coleman compares the current situation to what he experienced when he arrived at Waco in 2012; the Bears hadn't won a conference title since 1994 but finished first in the Big 12 twice during his four years there.
The Bengals' offensive coordinator last season, Jackson, 50, moved modestly in free agency, most notably signing starting quarterback Robert Griffin III to a two-year, $15 million deal. But the draft is the foundation of this overhaul project. "I truly believe that this class will start to put a stamp on what we are truly about and what we are becoming," Jackson said in April. Using five trades—including dealing the No. 2 pick for No. 8 and then that for No. 15—the Browns turned their 10 choices into 14 rookies, three future high picks and veteran corner Jamar Taylor. Their 14-draftee haul tied for the biggest since the NFL went to seven rounds in 1994.
Beyond its size, the class is notable for two characteristics. One is the collection of hardware Cleveland acquired along with its draft picks. The new Browns collectively earned three national awards, five Conference Player of the Year honors and six All-America nods. Talk of the picks' college awards became such a theme on TV commentary that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, a baseball analytics guru who was hired in January, at one point turned to Jackson in the war room and joked, "What? Did they want us to take guys who weren't productive in college?"
The second is that many of the draftees come with an underdog story. Third-round defensive end Carl Nassib (Penn State) and fourth-round outside linebacker Joe Schobert (Wisconsin) were walk-ons. Quarterback Cody Kessler, another third-round selection (USC), and inside linebacker Scooby Wright III (Arizona), the team's seventh-round pick, battled the "undersized" label. Most impressive is their third-rounder, offensive tackle Shon Coleman (Auburn), who overcame leukemia. DePodesta says, "As much as we are focused on talent, we are focused on character."
While it takes years to evaluate any draft, veteran left tackle Joe Thomas favors the new Browns approach: "It seems like they placed less emphasis on raw ability and more emphasis on toughness, intelligence, how much they like football."
Six months ago Thomas sounded hesitant about staying in Cleveland for another rebuild, but he bought in after meeting with Jackson and executive VP of operations Sashi Brown, and he's been impressed by what he's seen from his young teammates. Shon Coleman has worked late with Thomas. During their first off day of training camp Corey Coleman, Ogbah and other rookies were around the facility putting extra time in. "Not every one of those guys is going to pan out," Thomas says, "but they make your team better."
Putting in the work is a beginning. To truly reach the top, larger challenges await.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Whenever a left tackle is drafted early in the first round, people love to say, "Here's their 10-year starter." But left tackles can go bust like players at any other position. Even if they don't, having a rock-solid starter protecting the quarterback's blind side does not solve every problem. Just ask the Browns. Joe Thomas is now entering his 10th season. In 2007, after he was taken No. 3 out of Wisconsin, Cleveland went 10--6 and just missed the playoffs. Every year after that they have finished below .500. In all but one of those seasons they were 5--11 or worse. But don't blame Thomas, 31. He's one of the league's steadiest blocking technicians. In pass protection he's tremendous at moving his feet steadily and close to the ground—mowing the lawn, as it's called. This is why he's rarely off balance. And his football IQ is off the charts. The irony is that Thomas's excellence makes him the best trade bait for rebuilding Cleveland.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 1--15
2015 Record: 3--13
SEPT. 11 atPHI
SEPT. 18 vs.BAL
SEPT. 25 atMIA
OCT. 2 atWAS
OCT. 9 vs.NE
OCT. 16 atTEN
OCT. 23 atCIN
OCT. 30 vs.NYJ
NOV. 6 vs.DAL
NOV. 10 atBAL
NOV. 20 vs.PIT
NOV. 27 vs.NYG [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 vs.CIN
DEC. 18 atBUF
DEC. 24 vs.SD
JAN. 1 atPIT
= PREDICTED WINNER