It’s not easy being in a division where every other team has won the division title within the last 10 years at least once, and two of them have gone as far as winning the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 and 2009.
The ball is beginning to roll in favor of the Cleveland Browns, though. Eric Mangini along with his newly acquired team president, former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren, have brought new life into the franchise together.
Mangini’s solo 2009 campaign started off rocky with a 1-11 beginning, but finished off strong at 5-11, capped with a victory over their division rivals in Pittsburgh, breaking their 12-game losing streak against them.
Since then, the Browns have managed to stack themselves with some of the most impressive young talent in the NFL today.
As far as sophomore-to-older veterans on the team, they’ve got names like All-Pro kick-returner Joshua Cribbs, All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, as well as other big time contributors like nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin, outside linebacker Matt Roth, tight end Benjamin Watson and strong safety Abram Elam.
Where the lights really begin to shine is in Cleveland’s 2010 draft selections.
With the seventh overall pick, they chose Joe Haden at cornerback from Florida. He was easily the best pure player at his position this year, and has lived up to his own hype, currently owning 54 tackles in 2010 with 5 interceptions, tying for the second most in the league right now for rookies.
Then in the second round, the Browns chose safety T.J. Ward from Oregon, who currently leads all rookies in the NFL with 114 tackles, adding another forced fumble and two interceptions to his resume.
Ward’s numbers make him the No. 11 tackler in the entire league, which makes him a strong candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Lastly, in the third round, Cleveland selected quarterback Colt McCoy from Texas. He had more wins than any other starting QB in college football history, and led his team to the 2010 BCS National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Sadly, Colt got hurt early in the game, and Texas lost to Bama, and to make matters worse, his injury resulted with a big drop in his draft stock.
Though, after newly acquired quarterbacks Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace went down for the Browns, the rookie stepped up and showed great poise and leadership for Cleveland.
He just recently completed his fourth career start, but faced Super Bowl winning QBs Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Tom Brady in his first three games, beating the latter two in his first two career starts.
After going down in Week 11 in Jacksonville with a foot injury, McCoy came back as the starter against the Bengals, but despite the loss, threw for a career-high 19 of 25 completions with a 76% completion percentage, a career-high 9.7 yards passing average, and another career-high 2 TD game via a 243 yard passing performance.
The kid has room for improvement, but considering he was slated to be the third-stringer and has outplayed the other two veterans on the team, it is safe to say that drafting Colt McCoy in the third round was nothing short of a STEAL.
Cleveland does have big needs on the team. Despite Cribbs being a receiver, he only mostly shines on special teams as a return man, and last year’s second-round choice, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, isn’t developing as quickly as Cleveland would have hoped.
A big-time receiver, whether a speedster or possession player, would really help boost McCoy’s confidence, as the Browns’ leading receiver is their tight end Watson. They also need big-time interior offensive line help, where the Browns have allowed three quarterback injuries in 2010 through the middle.
They must protect their passers if they want to be able to pack a 1-2 offensive punch in the future.
Rob Ryan is also running a tight defensive squad as the team’s D-coordinator. They are very young, but extremely talented.
If they all continue to develop in this manner, Ryan will have created one of the league’s most dominant defenses, mirroring the likes of division rivals Ravens and Steelers. They just might be one defensive end or inside linebacker away from being elite on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cleveland Browns had arguably one of the best draft classes of 2010 right along with the New England Patriots, but if the Holmgren/Mangini duo continues to run this team in the same manner, people should expect to see a huge shift in power in the AFC North.