Cleveland Browns could start seven rookies in Week 1

Departures from the 2015 roster and a strong 2016 draft combine to give Cleveland the chance at several rookie starters.

| 6 months ago
(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Cleveland Browns could start seven rookies in Week 1


We at PFF have been very complimentary of the Cleveland Browns’ offseason, especially their draft, which we gave the highest grade of any team. Of the 14 players drafted, 10 were in the top 118 of PFF’s final draft board. With big needs at wide receiver and edge defender, the Browns targeted those spots multiple times.

General managers never hit 100 percent on their draft picks, and are lucky to be right on 50 percent of them, so by having more picks, the better the chance of acquiring impact players that can start for your team. Because the Browns drafted so well and lost quality starters via free agency, their rookies have a great opportunity to start in year one.

According to our grades, up to seven rookies could start for Cleveland in base or sub-packages in 2016. Here, we’ll take a look at each of these possible starters.

1. Corey Coleman, WR (Baylor)

The Browns’ first-round draft choice is an obvious starter, and will be presumptive starting QB Robert Griffin III’s top target. Coleman separated better than any wide receiver in college while at Baylor in 2015, and his explosiveness was unmatched. Before his quarterbacks starting dropping like flies, Coleman was the second-highest-graded wide receiver behind the Washington Redskins’ first-round pick, Josh Doctson. He averaged 20.3 yards per reception and 5.41 yards per route run, and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 20:1. Simply put, he couldn’t be covered by college defensive backs. With Cleveland’s top two wideouts from 2015 no longer on the roster, the question really is who will be the Browns’ No. 2 receiver behind Coleman.

2. Rashard Higgins, WR (Colorado State)

That second wide receiver spot will likely be won by former Colorado State star Rashard Higgins. Higgins was the Browns’ fourth wide receiver drafted, and the 18th receiver overall, but we had him as our seventh-best wideout and 40th-overall prospect. Higgins won’t blow anyone away athletically, but he produced at a very high level two years in a row, despite losing his quarterback to the NFL and his head coach to the Florida Gators. Higgins’ 2014 was in step with Seattle’s Tyler Lockett and Oakland’s Amari Cooper, even though he was targeted 18 and 45 fewer times than each, respectively. Arguably the best route-runner of any receiver in the 2016 draft, Higgins had an uncanny ability to out-leverage defensive backs and break his routes at exactly the right time to create separation. Higgins will have tough competition from Jordan Payton and Terrelle Pryor, but his smarts and football instincts will likely win out.

3. Shon Coleman, OT (Auburn)

This one will be a battle between two rookies—Coleman and former Baylor OT Spencer Drango. While Coleman was drafted in the third round and Drango the fifth, Drango has graded as the third-best offensive tackle the past two years combined. Coleman took a big leap from 2014 to 2015, and he needs more development and experience, but is the superior offensive tackle talent. Drango’s best fit will be at guard, as he struggles to keep balance when going up against quicker defensive ends. With Mitchell Schwartz now in Kansas City, this position is up for grabs, and newly-acquired free agent Alvin Bailey has struggled in his NFL career. Expect Coleman to win the job, but probably struggle in year one.

4. Emmanuel Ogbah, OLB (Oklahoma State)

The Browns second-round pick will immediately start in nickel packages purely on his pass-rushing abilities. One of the most explosive edge defenders in the draft, Ogbah ranked fourth in pass-rushing productivity among all 4-3 defensive ends at 15.1, while tying Joey Bosa with the most pressures in college football (70). The Browns have Paul Kruger, Nate Orchard, Armonty Bryant, and Barkevious Mingo returning from 2015, but they combined for just 12 sacks and only Kruger had a pass-rushing productivity above 8.0. Ogbah will be an immediate upgrade to the Browns’ pass-rush and will start opposite Kruger in nickel packages.

5. Carl Nassib, DE (Penn State)

Nassib was one of our sleeper picks for Defensive Rookie of the Year partly because Cleveland’s weak defensive ends, and also because no other defensive end was more productive on a per-snap basis than Nassib. Nassib led the nation in sacks and pass-rushing productivity, and held up well in run defense. He will compete with Desmond Bryant, Jamie Meder, John Hughes, and Xavier Cooper for snaps, and only Bryant ranked in the top 25 of either run-stop percentage or pass-rushing productivity. Nassib should start in sub-packages based on his pass-rushing, and will see some time in base-packages because the Browns’ incumbents are shaky.

6. Scooby Wright III, ILB (Arizona)

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton likes to blitz his inside linebackers. In Arizona, he rushed his ILBs at almost 30 percent, while he was around 22 percent as defensive coordinator in Tennessee. If he continues to bring the heat up the middle, no ILB was better in college in 2014 than the former Arizona Wildcat nicknamed “Two-Star Scoob” with 14 sacks, seven hits, and 27 hurries. As you can see in the table below, Wright performed best when it mattered most at the end of 2014. Unfortunately, he missed most of 2015 due to injury, but came back in a big way for his final college game, recording two sacks, one hit, 12 tackles, and 12 stops against New Mexico in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Wright was drafted in the seventh round, an absolute steal considering we had a third-round grade on him in our final big board. With Karlos Dansby (signed with Bengals) and Craig Robertson (Saints) leaving significant snaps behind, Wright is in a prime position to pick those up.

Scooby 2014

7. Joe Schobert, ED (Wisconsin)

Schobert is a bit of a wildcard in the Browns’ defense. He was incredibly productive rushing the passer at Wisconsin, and also very strong against the run from the OLB position. With a pass-rushing productivity of 22.7 in 2015 and 19.4 in 2014, Schobert led the nation two years in a row. I’ve already spoken about the inefficiency of the OLBs the Browns kept on the roster from 2015. Schobert will be a player that comes in on sub-packages to blitz the passer from all spots on the defense.

The fact the Browns could start seven rookies in Week 1 is indicative of their current roster, but these players can develop into high-quality NFL starters in due time. Other rookies can become starters, such as QB Cody Kessler with his pinpoint accuracy under 20 yards, and UDFA C Mike Matthews grading as one of the best centers in college football. It also spells out very few wins for the Browns in 2016, as a squad full of rookies isn’t set up for victory in the NFL. The impact of this draft will be noticed in 2016 in flashes, but the wins and playoff contention won’t come until 2017 and 2018.

| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • crosseyedlemon

    I sure wish George Allen was still alive so we could get his reaction to a team starting seven rookies. I don’t think the legendary coach of the Redskins started seven rookies in his entire career.

  • James Murphy

    What’s and “ED” is that what a defensive end becomes when he puts on a Browns jersey? All kidding aside, great article. Would like to see the Browns on the rise, a fanbase that has suffered for too long.

    • @PFF_JohnKosko

      ED=edge defender. While I put position specific for other EDs, I left it as ED for Schobert because of the uncertainty of where he’ll line up.