Cleveland Browns: Grading the Rookies in Week 1

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst ISeptember 14, 2011

Cleveland Browns: Grading the Rookies in Week 1

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    Week 1 of the 2011 season didn't exactly go as planned for the Browns, who had high expectations for how their team would fare against the embattled Bengals

    In the frustrating, mistake-ridden 27-17 loss, the Browns youth and inexperience showed. There were mental lapses and technical mistakes. The team as a whole gave off a general feel of disorganization. Coaches and players didn't appear to be on the same page. 

    While it's hardly time to panic after just one loss, especially for a team with new systems on both sides of the ball and a new, rookie head coach, the Browns inaugural performance of 2011 should make fans wonder if perhaps our young players might have a bit further to go before they're truly NFL-ready than we thought. 

    There was good and bad among both new players and veterans on Sunday, but the team's rookies were (predictably, for such a young, up and coming team), under the greatest scrutiny. 

    Following is an evaluation of how Browns rookies (including the head coach!) fared in Week 1. Note that only those who logged significant playing time are included.

    Please share your own rookie evaluations in the comments below!

1. WR Greg Little

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    Greg Little was probably the most talked-about Cleveland rookie following the draft, and thus the most closely watched in his NFL debut last Sunday. Unfortunately for Little, that isn't going to do him any favors. 

    It wasn't that Little was awful across the board; mostly he was a non-factor. With Mohamed Massaquoi finally back in action and QB Colt McCoy relying heavily on his tight ends, Little didn't have many chances. That does, however, mean the chances he did get mattered that much more.

    On offense, Little was what I would call "acceptable" in the limited action he saw. He had one catch for 12 yards in three targets, including one drop where McCoy threw a pass that led him a bit, but he probably still should have caught. No sign of his vaunted ability to rack up yardage after a catch yet. 

    But the real problem occurred on a punt play, where Little got overzealous in his blocking, bashing into the punter and knocking him into ball carrier Josh Cribbs, who appeared headed for the end zone on his return. Yikes.

    One good thing about this play? I like Little's aggression. Beyond that though? He may have cost us a touchdown and even worse, he could have injured Cribbs. The Browns were fortunate the hit didn't hurt Cribbs, or at least cause him to fumble. 

    There have been numerous muffed plays on special teams already this year, looking back at the preseason, and it appears to be an area where the Browns may continue to struggle. The botched block on Sunday is the only one of those mistakes that was Little's, but it was a costly one. 

    Grade: C

    Little will get better, and he'll probably do so quickly, but things were a little ugly in Week 1. Little's aggression and effort in spite of that botched punt return were the only thing that saved him from getting an even lower mark. 

2. OT Jason Pinkston

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    The offensive line was a mixed bag for the Browns on Sunday, at times looking solid and productive, at other times looking completely hapless. They did, let's say, an OK job of protecting McCoy (he was sacked twice and hit six times). Not great, but we've seen worse. 

    Rookie Jason Pinkston had a little trouble holding off the Bengals' front seven, but all things considered, he didn't play poorly at all.

    One of my additional concerns for the O-line Sunday was penalties. Interestingly, it wasn't rookie Pinkston who was flagged for false starts, but veteran Joe Thomas (once) and second-year guard Shawn Lauvao (twice). 

    Coach Shurmur praised Pinskton's performance in his postgame statements, saying he did a "heckuva job" but cautioning that he still needs to continue to improve. 

    It sounded a little like Shurmur was hedging, but in all fairness, I think Pinkston did fine considering the circumstances. He wasn't perfect by any means, but he didn't appear to be all that big a downgrade from Eric Steinbach, and he'll get better once he gets more comfortable.

    Grade: B

    Still a long way to go, but not bad for a guy who wasn't even expected to play regularly, much less start, a few weeks ago.

3. DT Phil Taylor

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    The Browns' first pick in the 2011 draft, DT Phil Taylor had a lot to prove coming out of camp. Many didn't like the Browns' choice and worried that Taylor wasn't first round talent. Taylor did nothing to further endear himself to critics when he held out at the beginning of camp. 

    Luckily, it seems that may have been the worst of it. Taylor turned in a pretty good performance on Sunday, at least for a rookie. 

    He was second on the Browns' defense with six tackles (five solo), and had a share of one QB hit, which was the one that knocked the Bengals' Andy Dalton out of the game. 

    Grade: B

    I didn't see a lot of standout play from Taylor, but I didn't see much in the way of errors either. Particularly when you consider that he's a rookie who, on most teams, might not be considered completely NFL ready as a starter, he did a pretty decent job. 

3. DT Jabaal Sheard

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    After the draft and throughout the preseason, I was largely more sold on the Browns' second pick, Jabaal Sheard, than top pick Taylor. On Sunday, they looked pretty even. 

    That makes sense, as regardless of round, they were taken fairly close to each other in terms of draft slot. I expected that Taylor would eventually become the better player, but that Sheard would progress faster. So far, they look neck-and-neck. 

    Sheard contributed on defense on Sunday with three tackles. He was aggressive and solid on most plays, but he did log one offsides penalty. 

    Grade: B-

    The offsides call was forgivable for a rookie, and overall when considering all the errors the defense made Sunday, Sheard wasn't the guy anyone should be pointing fingers at. He did fine, and I expect he'll have more impact in the coming weeks. 

4. Limited Impact Rookies

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    In addition to the major contributors, there were a few additional rookies who logged some playing time for the Browns on Sunday. The following players didn't have enough impact on the game to be graded, but warranted at least a mention here. 

    Buster Skrine: Skrine was the talk of camp, playing well above his draft slot multiple times during the preseason. Sunday he had two tackles and was, let's say, productively involved in a few other plays. He was part of the Great Substitution Debacle that cost the Browns a 40-yard touchdown and probably the game, but he wasn't really the one at fault. 

    Owen Marecic: After a relatively quiet preseason, I'd almost forgotten about Marecic. Unfortunately, the way he got my attention again was by getting flagged for interference. It was only one error, granted, but it was a costly one. 

5. Coach Pat Shurmur

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    I wanted to be able to say nice things about rookie head coach Pat Shurmur after this game. I really, really did. Unfortunately, Shurmur didn't make that easy for me. 

    I'm guessing Shurmur has already been suitably tortured for incurring a penalty for running into an official, so I'll leave that one alone here. Besides, there were plenty of other things in Shurmur's game plan to complain about. 

    First, the blame for the overall feel of disorganization and chaos during the game and the excuse-making that took place immediately after the game has to lie with the head coach. Shurmur was disappointingly full of excuses after the game. It would have come off better if he had just acted frustrated and contrite. 

    Worse, he appeared slow to adjust to the Bengals' maneuvering in the game, saw his team flagged for 11 penalties (and actually commit even more than that when you count the ones that weren't called) and he gets most of the blame for the substitution mess that lost the game for the Browns.

    After the game Shurmur mentioned that any one of the defensive coaches, LB D'Qwell Jackson, or he himself could have called the time out to fix the problem there. That may be, but he's the head coach, and he's the one who should have called it, or at least the one who should take the blame without qualifying it by saying "anyone could have done it" if nobody does. 

    Grade: D

    Let me qualify this by emphasizing once again that it's only Week 1. I absolutely don't think this grade is a sign of how Shurmur will rate overall at the end of the season, or even a few weeks from now. The poor mark is a combination of predictable adjustment and growing pains, and Shurmur's poor reactions after the game to that. 

    I can deal with mistakes on the field and the sideline for a rookie head coach, but I was furious at the excuse-making Shurmur heaped on us after the game. Especially as a new hire, he should have owned up to this. I am 100 percent confident that Shurmur will be notably better as soon as next week, but this game (and the aftermath) was not his finest moment.