The Cleveland Browns have completely revamped their roster from just one season ago with an infusion of youth that has made them one of the youngest teams in the league.
With youth comes growing pains, and the 2-6 Browns are not immune to those struggles.
Despite showing positive signs, Cleveland sits at a disconcerting 2-6 whereas it was 3-5 in 2011 at the midway point of the season.
However, the 1-9 finish of the 2011 Browns doesn’t look possible with the current team that’s been on the field every Sunday this season.
That’s encouraging for a Cleveland Browns fanbase that is running out of things to be miserable about.
All of the progress in Cleveland can be attributed to a very good draft and free agency period by GM Tom Heckert.
Take a look at some midseason grades for every new Browns player.
Trent Richardson, RB (pick No. 3): A-
The third pick in the 2012 NFL draft has shown flashes of the dominant and powerful runner he was at Alabama despite an injury in the preseason that slowed him down a little early on in the season. A recent rib tweak also halted his progress.
Despite those struggles, he is still having a fantastic rookie season in which he’s already scored five rushing touchdowns at the midway point of the year. That’s two more than Peyton Hills and one more than all of the teams’ running backs scored combined in 16 games in 2011.
Richardson isn’t the fastest and doesn’t display breakaway speed, but he is a workhorse that rarely goes down on first contact. His ability to extend plays and find creases in the defense makes him an elite caliber player at his position.
Brandon Weeden, QB (pick No. 22): B+
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had an awful start to his NFL career with a four-interception performance against the Philadelphia Eagles on opening day. Since, he’s thrown for nine touchdowns and six interceptions and has progressed each week in both his understanding of the NFL game and in his execution.
The biggest thing to like about Weeden is the heavily advertised “big league” arm that he unloads whenever dialed up by conservative play-caller Pat Shurmur. It isn’t just the distance he can throw but the velocity behind those throws that allow them to reach their intended target unscathed.
Going through progressions has been a hot topic on the quarterback’s game, and he’s getting better at this each week. His eyes, at times, stared down intended receivers. This isn’t happening as much, and he’s beginning to look more comfortable in the pocket as a result.
He’s also handling pressure very well in the pocket and stepping into throws despite that pressure. As a result, his decision making has markedly improved because of that increased comfort level in the face of the pass rush.
It’s safe to say the quarterback position in Cleveland is set for the next seven-to-10 years barring an unfortunate injury to Weeden.
Mitchell Schwartz, OT (pick No. 37): B
The scouting report on Mitchell Schwartz was that he was a prototype right tackle due to his strength lying in his run-blocking ability. While that may have been the case, he’s also show an adequate pass-blocking acumen as well.
There’s been times where Schwartz gets flagged for a dumb penalty or gets fooled and beat by his assignment. But those are few and far between and are to be expected of a rookie thrown onto an offensive line.
Overall, Schwartz has backed up GM Tom Heckert’s decision to go with him atop the beginning of the second round despite the “projections” that he was a third-round talent.
Josh Gordon, WR (second-round supplemental draft pick): B
What’s not to like about the Cleveland Browns risking a second-round supplemental draft pick on Josh Gordon from Baylor? The rookie wide receiver came into Cleveland raw after not playing throughout all of 2011 due to a suspension from marijuana violations while at Baylor.
Gordon’s four touchdowns this season in only four games of significant action match a team high of four by a receiver in 2011. Josh Cribbs was the guy to set that unremarkable mark.
Despite the ability to connect with Brandon Weeden downfield for the big play, the rookie still needs to improve his route running and his hustle at times. Weeden and Gordon are not nearly as effective as a QB and No. 1 receiver should be.
When throwing in Gordon’s direction, Weeden has just a 41 percent completion mark. That number needs to improve and will the more the two play together.
Travis Benjamin, WR (pick No. 100): C+
Benjamin was pegged as the speedster of the future for the Cleveland Browns offense. By that, I mean he was projected to be a vertical field threat that could take the top off of a defense. That hasn’t exactly happened, but he has shown some positive signs early on.
Failing to get separation and drops have been lingering problems for the rookie receiver, but he has shown the ability to do both at times. He needs to learn to defend passes from defenders when the throw isn’t on the mark in order to prevent interceptions.
Two of Brandon Weeden’s Week 1 picks were thrown in his direction down the sideline, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made uncontested interceptions on the plays.
Ryan Miller, OG/OT (pick No. 160): Incomplete
Miller has mostly acted as a reserve and hasn’t seen much action so far in his rookie campaign.
Brad Smelley, FB (pick No. 247): Incomplete
Smelley is still on the team’s practice squad and has not been called up despite heavy struggles by Owen Marecic. It may be a testament that Smelley just isn’t ready or capable to excel at the NFL level yet.
However, the Browns went with tight end Alex Smith in Marecic's place during Sunday's win over the San Diego Chargers. Smelley fits the mold of the "H-back" that can be moved anywhere along the line of scrimmage and has ultimately more value than Marecic moving forward.
John Hughes, DT (pick No. 87): B
The Cleveland Browns took a lot of national media heat for the pick of John Hughes out of Cincinnati in the third-round of the draft. Why take a defensive tackle when the team was presumably set with Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor?
Depth on the defensive line is an important factor in building a winning team, and the Browns management used a pick they thought they needed to in order to make sure they got the guy that would help add to that valuable depth.
Hughes has filled in nicely at times and has been a pleasant surprise in the pass rush despite his strength lying as a “space-eater” in the middle of the line.
James-Michael Johnson, LB (pick No. 120): B+ / Incomplete
Johnson was a mid-round pick for the Browns and was believed to be an instant contributor to a linebacker group that was very thin. However, injuries delayed his progress, and the true grade for this pick may begin to emerge later in the season as he will have plenty of opportunities with Scott Fujita on injured reserve.
Emmanuel Acho, LB (pick No. 204): Incomplete
Acho went down with an undisclosed injury in the beginning of preseason but didn’t shine in the limited amount of time he was given. He was placed on IR and will get another look next season to make the roster
Billy Winn, DL (pick No. 205): A-
Billy Winn, protected to be drafted as high as the low second round by some draft analysts (nfldraftscout.com), is turning out to be a steal for the Cleveland Browns. He’s certainly making a big impact with his explosive pass rushing and ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage to disrupt play development.
The only knock on Winn is that he isn’t an every-down player and is rotated in and out to meet the situation.
Trevin Wade, CB (pick No. 245): D
As a late-round pick it’s expected that a player may not pan out in the NFL. Wade was not believed to be one of those players after being labeled a “faller” on draft day due to his projection as a third-round pick (nfldraftscout.com).
Wade has been burned by speedy receivers in the limited playing time he’s been afforded so far. In his defense, one of them was Victor Cruz and the other was an emerging speedster in Cincinnati’s Andrew Hawkins.
He does have potential and should be given time to develop, but he’s currently a liability when put into game situations.
Juqua Parker, DE: A
Juqua Parker, 34, came to Cleveland during the offseason to try to prove that he still had some gas left in the tank. His production had tapered off in Philadelphia but was given another shot by his former employer Tom Heckert.
It was an under-the-radar signing but one that has helped the Cleveland Browns’ pass rush immensely. Parker’s two sacks and countless quarterback pressures have created several other opportunities for other Browns defenders to take down the QB.
Frostee Rucker, DE: B-
Rucker was brought in from Cincinnati as a run-stopping defensive end to hold down the edges across from Jabaal Sheard. He’s done a decent job at that and has also at times provided a surprisingly effective pass rush as a bonus.
Still, he struggles at times in sealing the edge and allows plays to develop underneath him for decent gains by opponents’ rushing games. The Browns have issues in stopping the run, and they weren’t fixed with the addition of Rucker this offseason.
Craig Robertson, LB: B+
Things started out good for Robertson, who was thrown into the fire from day one. He picked off Michael Vick, nearly helping the Browns to a surprise upset over the Eagles. He’s also been active in pass coverage throughout the season which is a positive for a linebacker group that has been shredded in recent years by the pass.
Overall, Robertson is a very active linebacker that uses instincts to guide him and is rarely not involved or near the end of a play as a result. He can work on filling holes better but does a pretty good job at getting quickly to the point of attack and making plays as or before they develop rather than after they move downfield.
Josh Cooper, WR (undrafted free agent): C+
Cooper started the season on the practice squad but was called up due to a rash of injuries that struck the Browns’ receiving corps. His familiarity with Brandon Weeden and understanding of the team’s offense allowed for a seamless transition into the offense.
After three weeks of action, it’s safe to say that Cooper is a legitimate NFL-caliber player. He has quick feet and a good sense of where the holes in coverage are in the secondary. However, despite his rapport with Weeden and ability to get open, he’s struggled with drops. His fourth-down drop against the Indianapolis Colts resulted in a turnover on downs in Colts territory.
L.J. Fort, LB (UDFA): B
The undrafted but high-motored Fort became the first rookie since 1996 to record both an interception and a sack in his first game, according to Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Fort had a standout game against the Eagles in Week 1. He had an opportunity for a game-sealing interception in the Browns’ end zone, but it fell out of his grasp and the Eagles went on to win on the ensuing play.
Despite being relegated to special teams and more of a reserve role with the return of fellow rookie James-Michael Johnson and starter Jackson, Fort still has the ability to provide a spark on defense when called upon.
Johnson Bademosi, DB (UDFA): B+
Bademosi has shown explosiveness in the special teams game and has been involved in several excellent plays including downing a punt inside the five-yard line against San Diego in Week 8.
He’s got speed but needs to hone it a little bit better in order to avoid overrunning the play, which he’s done at times.
Tashaun Gipson, DB (UDFA): B
Gipson was brought in as a special teamer but was given more opportunities on defense once Eric Hagg was demoted from the active roster. He made the most of them before falling victim to injury and hasn’t seen much of the field since.
Once he returns, he’ll likely see time in the secondary as part of a rotation with Usama Young at the free-safety position due to his sound tackling and good coverage skills.
Mike Hoag Jr. is a B/R Breaking News Team writer and covers the NFL and the Cleveland Browns for the site. Follow him on Twitter for analysis and updates on the latest news and happenings in the sports world.