The Browns will begin the 2013 season with a roster teeming with youth.
At present, 27 of the Cleveland Browns’ 53 roster spots belong to rookies, second-year players and one first-year pro.
One-third of those players are undrafted rookies: defensive back Josh Aubrey (formerly of Stephen F. Austin), tight end MarQueis Gray (Minnesota), linebacker Paul Hazel (Western Michigan), running back Dennis Johnson (Arkansas), offensive lineman Patrick Lewis (Texas A&M), linebacker Brandon Magee (Arizona State), linebacker Eric Martin (Nebraska), tight end Keavon Milton (Louisiana-Monroe) and offensive lineman Martin Wallace (Temple).
The Browns acquired seven of the rookies on waivers. For example, Gray was let go by San Francisco in the cut down to 53 players, while Johnson was waived by Houston.
According to Browns media relations coordinator Dan Murphy, Cleveland is on track to become the first NFL team to have nine undrafted rookie free agents on the roster in Week One since the 2002 Baltimore Ravens.
Now there was a statistic that took me back in time. I remember those Ravens well, and I remember the landscape of the AFC North at the time.
The AFC North, which replaced the old AFC Central in 2002, was going through a down period. The Steelers had not yet drafted Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals fielded the NFL’s worst team in 2002 and would take a few years to become a consistent threat. The Browns had some talent and a quarterback (Tim Couch) who hadn’t quite broken through.
The Ravens, Super Bowl winners in 2000, had to retool their roster after one failed title defense because of salary-cap issues, which opened all of those spots for younger players.
And a couple of those unheralded prospects could really play.
Among the Ravens’ undrafted rookies was a linebacker from Southern Illinois named Bart Scott, who just concluded an impressive 11-year NFL career.
Another of their undrafted rookies, safety Will Demps, would go on to start 75 games in seven seasons.
The 2002 Ravens managed to be fairly competitive in despite that thinned roster — and despite losing Ray Lewis after five games. Nevertheless, the Ravens managed a 7-9 record. All things considered, it was a wonderful coaching job by Brian Billick. The Steelers would win the North, with the Browns — buoyed by a 6-2 road record — grabbing a wild-card berth.
The Ravens were not down long. In 2003, they won the North on the strength of an outstanding defense and running game. One of their 2003 first-round picks was Terrell Suggs, who joined 2002 first-rounder Ed Reed as new cornerstones of one of the top defenses of its era.
Time will tell if the 2013 Browns have a gem or two among their undrafted free agents. Ultimately, though, whether Cleveland rises or falls probably comes down to its top-end talent, the players drafted early. If we remember the 2013 Browns for the breakout seasons Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden put together and the promise a healthy Barkevious Mingo showed as a pass rusher . . . well, then Cleveland might be on to something. And if a few of their rookie free agents prove much better than expected . . . well, even better for a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2002 and is probably due for some good breaks.