For a 2-7 team, the Cleveland Browns have an extraordinary number of bright spots and upsides.
This season really hasn't been that bad, despite its close calls and crushing moments. Many fans are enjoying the games again. Watching a bunch of young guys try, and sometimes fail, is actually rather encouraging. The rest will come with experience.
So who, among the many young guys on one of the NFL's youngest teams, has the brightest future in the NFL?
If this were Family Feud, the subsequent list would send me straight back to the podium of shame. Because these aren't the guys getting all the media attention (both positive and negative). They're the ones that pound the ground every week with a fraction of the credit, but largely allow the more visible players to continue making the big plays.
The guys on this list will continue to make an impact on the NFL for years to come. A mix of rookies and second-year players, the following four players are here to stay.
The future's so bright, I gotta wear a neon visor with built-in sun protectant.
Offensive linemen are kind of like house cats. Unless they're really awesome, or really awful, they frequently get ignored entirely.
Mitchell Schwartz has been quietly improving throughout the course of the season. Better yet, he's shown that he's committed to continue that trend. A recent article details his pregame ritual of watching his own tapes with the scrutiny usually reserved for an upcoming opponent. From Northern Ohio's The Morning Journal:
"You can see the areas you need to clean up," [Schwartz says,] "but you can also see what you've been successful with because you don't want to lose that."
The Browns, as a unit, are allowing far fewer sacks this year (14 thus far) and Schwartz deserves partial credit for that. Plus, with that hunger to improve, we can be sure that he'll continue to grow as a crucial part of the line.
Without solid pass protection, forget about nurturing the growth of a rookie quarterback like Brandon Weeden. As Forrest Gump would say, they're just like peas and carrots.
He's small, a little tentative and has to work on his hands, but it's pretty fun to watch this kid take off.
Travis Benjamin's our own personal roadrunner, leaving defenses in the dust while those glorious locks flow in the breeze. He's stepped up a couple times in the absence of Mohamed Massoquoi and has one touchdown on the season (roughly half of Greg Little's total, if my math serves me correctly.)
Best-case scenario, we nurture and raise our own personal Devin Hester. Benjamin's a little smaller, at 5'10" and 175 pounds, but that could just mean a smaller flash as he burns by opposing units.
He has a lot of potential, and he just needs to work on running routes and trusting those things attached to the ends of his rapidly pumping arms. Catch, then run, not the other way around, and we could be looking at someone who could fill Josh Cribbs' shoes. He might even grow out of them.
Craig Robertson has stepped up and made a difference on a spotty and often inconsistent Cleveland defense.
There are a few things to really like about this guy. He was undrafted and grabbed in free agency. Who doesn't love someone who performs far beyond expectations? He's fourth on the team in tackles (with 50 total) and continues to play consistently week to week.
He's also added a pair of interceptions to those stats, indicating that he's a heads-up player who already has a good sense of his chaotic surroundings. It's interesting to picture the future of the Cleveland defense with Robertson as a centerpiece.
Plus, he exemplifies the type of player the Browns need to truly rebuild: young, talented and acquired under the radar.
Like the emergence of the Snuggie, Robertson is unexpected and a little disorienting, but he ultimately makes my Sundays much more enjoyable.
I'll admit it; I have a sports crush.
Buster Skrine has been killing it this year, and he will continue to be a crucial component in this evolving defense of ours.
His biggest problem is discipline, having been most notably called for a costly pass interference penalty against the Giants. One could make the argument, though, that it's just a side effect of the unbelievable energy and competitive spirit this kid brings to every game he plays.
I like Skrine for several reasons. Here's just a few.
He's scrappy. At 5'9" and 185, Skrine's momentum isn't doing him any favors. But what he lacks in mass, he makes up for in speed and fire.
He's an underdog. Skrine graduated from high school at 140 pounds. That's only a little more than the turkey I plan to consume singlehandedly next weekend. But he never let his size be a hindrance, and he rode that competitive spirit right to the NFL.
He can play. Skrine leads the defense with 58 tackles. A mind-blowing 51 of those were made solo.
That's not to mention the intangibles that don't show up on the stat line. He reads offenses and picks up speed within moments. He has yelled in the face of a punt returner to psyche him out during a crucial fourth-quarter play. He's got a flat top, for crying out loud. There's nothing about this kid that isn't pure concentrated awesome.
Fans should be watching Skrine as he becomes a more disciplined and effective defender. It's going to be a great show.