It’s another cold January for Cleveland Browns fans. As starved as Cleveland fans are for postseason football, that old Cleveland adage is going to ring true for at least one more season: wait until next year. But before we look forward like little kids on Christmas Eve to what should be an eventful 2012 NFL Draft, let’s sift through the rubble and find some positives to take away from this 4-12 team.
Sunday-in and Sunday-out, the Browns featured a offensive game that was, at best, anemic. But a couple of players need to be singled out, as they definitely will be wearing orange and brown for the foreseeable future.
Rookie wideout Greg Little was the target of much criticism for his dropped passes and questionable off-field attitude, but looking at his year from a statistical standpoint, he actually did quite well: his 61 receptions were second-most in the NFL for a rookie receiver, trailing only A.J. Green.
And to say that Colt McCoy could have done a better job at getting him the ball is an understatement; Little performed well by any standards. The fact that a) he put up such numbers as a rookie and b) did so while shaking off the rust that came from not playing football for an entire year bodes well for his future. Don’t consider this praise an endorsement for Little to be a feature receiver, but don’t give up on the rookie, either.
For as much flack as Peyton Hillis caught during the early months of the season, the brutish ball carrier came on strong during the last month of the season. In a two-game span that saw him get the ball like the feature back we hoped him to be, he responded with rushing totals of 99 and 112 yards against Arizona and Baltimore, respectively.
Those who watched him play saw a running back that masterfully used his size and frame to push the pile forward, relying more on a power game than anything quick or flashy. Did Hillis underperform in 2011? Absolutely. But considering the value of the Browns’ fourth overall pick, it’d be foolish to pine for someone like Trent Richardson. Even if Hillis isn’t the future at running back, he should prove to be more than a servicable stopgap as Cleveland uses its drafts pick to shore up other holes (like quarterback).
On the defensive side of the rock, the Browns are looking at three cornerstone-type players on their defensive line. Ahtyba Rubin and rookie Phil Taylor played well together more often than not, showcasing glimmers of greatness in the process. And defensive end Jabaal Sheard shattered everyone’s expectations by recording 8.5 sacks.
All three are 25 years or younger, and it isn’t hard to envision trips to Hawaii down the road for any of them. The 2007 New York Giants can attest to the importance of a good defensive line in a 4-3 defense, and the Browns are three-quarters of the way to having one of the premier units in football.
Past the line, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had a fantastic bounce-back season, finishing second in the NFL in total tackles. Joe Haden continues his assention towards All-Pro cornerback, making plays sideline to sideline. Younger defensive backs like Buster Skrine and Dimitri Patterson showed that they are more than worthy of a spot on Cleveland’s roster moving forward. And, assuming he can rally past the injuries that limited his 2011 season, T.J. Ward should bounce back as one of the game’s premier young safeties.
It’s hard to fool a Browns fan; we know ineptitude when we see it, and this was surely one of the most inept seasons I can remember sitting through. Still, enough young players made themselves known to make me believe that the Browns might reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Here’s to hoping that’s sooner rather than later.