Rookies Outperforming Veterans

After six weeks of football, the Cleveland Browns hold an overachieving record of 3-2. Most predictions left Cleveland with another disappointing 4-12 season, but currently, they’re already one win away from achieving this. Browns fans must be ecstatic with the team’s performance so far. Brian Hoyer has silenced the critics with his decision making and his game management. Granted, there have been some slow starts, opposing running backs have penetrated the defensive line, and our secondary has surrendered big plays. Needless to say, there are some kinks to work out. Surprisingly though, it’s not the rookies that need adjustment, it’s some of our former first rounders that have been disappointing.

Most notable is cornerback Joe Haden, who has been somewhat disappointing. Throughout five games, the Pro Bowler has struggled to contain big threat pass catchers. Haden has allowed 100 yard games to Steve Smith, Jimmy Graham, and twice to Antonio Brown. He has tremendously under performed by surrendering 16 receptions on 22 targets. Although the former Florida Gator has yet to register an interception, he ranks fourth on the team with 23 total tackles.

Further down that list is the eighth overall pick, Justin Gilbert, who ironically is eighth with 17 tackles. Although Gilbert possesses great coverage skills, he must improve his technique and fundamentals. The Oklahoma State product has not looked sharp, allowing 11 catches on 15 targets. His struggles have resulted in decreased playing time, as he was on the field for 83% of the snaps in Pittsburgh to just 13% in Tennessee. Our first round pick has been outperformed by an undrafted rookie, K’Waun Williams.

After going undrafted, Williams accepted an invite to a three day rookie minicamp in Cleveland. The defensive back outplayed everyone and worked hard for everything he has earned. The rookie flashes impressive strength in press-man coverage, a main aspect in Mike Pettine’s defensive system. Williams recorded two clutch tackles when playing the nickel cornerback versus the Titans. In the fourth quarter, he executed a clutch tackle to stop the Titans on third down. Also, with 20 seconds left in the game at Tennessee, with one timeout remaining, 35 yards away from field goal range, Williams registered his first sack to seal the victory.

Another rookie who has been impressive is Christian Kirksey. The linebacker is fifth on the team with 23 tackles. His most notable play occurred when he blasted quarterback, Jake Locker, in the end zone, resulting in a personal foul. Call it late, call it dirty, it doesn’t matter because that hit sparked a Cleveland Browns comeback. Regardless, Kirksey has been consistent and appears comfortable in coverage. Currently, the rookie is contributing more than last year’s first round selection, Barkevious Mingo.

Although Mingo doesn’t boast eye-popping stats, he remains a quality starter. The lack of tackles (13) and sacks (0) are disappointing, but easily explained. The linebacker has been utilized to drop back into coverage rather than to pressure the quarterback. Although critics argue his 240 pounds is too light for an outside linebacker, his speed allows him to cover tight ends and running backs.

Speaking of running backs, Browns fans have witnessed the amazing potential of both Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. Throughout five games, the two rookies have posted a combined 472 yards and six touchdowns. Despite veteran Ben Tate regaining his starting job, West and Crowell should still produce. Crowell reached the end zone versus the Pittsburgh Steelers while West was a healthy scratch. Currently, Cleveland has three backs with at least 230 yards and two scores. The success of Cleveland’s ground attack should be credited to the offensive line.

Despite concerns over the loss of Alex Mack, the line has done an amazing job. Rookie left guard Joel Bitonio filled the void between veteran Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Mack. The second round pick has played every snap and is consistent. Bitonio is able to accelerate down field and sustain blocks. His ability to move defenders away from the ball has contributed to a successful rushing attack. This is also an offensive line that has surrendered only six sacks this season.

Another offensive rookie who has had a tremendous impact is Taylor Gabriel. It seems like this undrafted free agent records at least one big catch per game. Gabriel had a 70 yard grab against Baltimore as well as a 49 yarder versus Tennessee. He is third on the team in receptions (11) and second in yards (218) and average (19.8). The contributions of Gabriel have eased the concerns over Josh Gordon’s absence.

Ultimately, these unexpected rookie performances have contributed mightily to the positive direction of the Cleveland Browns. Some veterans have been below par, but hope to turn things around. If everyone can get on the same page, imagine what this team can be capable of.

-Max Gold

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