Browns undergo youth movement
BEREA, Ohio (AP)
''Yeah, this is the old guys' section,'' the 32-year-old linebacker cracked.
Everywhere else, these are the baby Browns.
One of the NFL's oldest teams last season, Cleveland has undergone a major infusion of youth. First-year coach Pat Shurmur's current roster is overloaded with young, inexperienced players. The Browns have 11 rookies and 31 players with three seasons or less of NFL playing service, a dramatic shift from last year's squad.
For last year's season opener against Tampa Bay, the Browns had a league-high 18 players who were 30 or older. This year, they have nine. In 2010, Cleveland's average age on Week 1 was an AFC-high 27.49 and the Browns had six rookie or first-year players. Their current average age is 26.01 with 15 rookie or first-year players.
''We got young in a hurry,'' Shurmur said. ''That's no excuse for failure.''
But their youth is probably why so little is expected from the Browns this season. They are rebuilding with youngsters, ones who will have to grow up in a hurry for Cleveland to escape this 12-year cycle of losing. Youth has been served. It remains to be seen if it will survive.
''I look at it positively, we're going to find out pretty quick who can play and who can't,'' said Dawson, 36. ''I still believe there are enough veteran guys around here to steer the way. We're certainly young, there's no way around it, but ignorance is bliss some times. We'll embrace it and go with it.''
When the Browns take the field for their opener Sunday against Cincinnati, they'll do so with inexperienced players dotting their starting lineup and at vital positions.
Quarterback Colt McCoy, who turned 25 on Monday, made eight starts as a rookie last season, which he began as the team's No. 3 QB. McCoy will be protected up front by rookie left guard Jason Pinkston, pressed into duty sooner than expected after Eric Steinbach underwent season-ending back surgery. One of McCoy's top targets will be rookie wide receiver Greg Little and McCoy will hand the ball to running backs Montario Hardesty and Armond Smith, who have yet to play one snap as pros.
Cleveland's defensive line will include two rookies, tackle Phil Taylor and end Jabaal Sheard, and rookie defensive back Buster Skrine appears to be the team's nickel back. Also, Richmond McGee hasn't punted in a regular-season game or held for a PAT or field-goal attempt.
''It's going to be the first live action for a lot of these guys,'' Fujita said. ''Until you play real games, you really don't know what you have.''
Following a 5-11 season, general manager Tom Heckert entered the offseason with a goal to make the Browns younger. Like a plastic surgeon, he made a series of nips, tucks and lifts to Cleveland's aging roster. Heckert cut the veterans brought in by former coach Eric Mangini, whose ex-Jets did little to turn around the Browns. Heckert also signed free agents in their 20s and kept all eight 2011 draft picks.
''We knew we were an older team last year and it wasn't necessarily just the age, we wanted to improve at certain positions,'' Heckert said. ''We just wanted to get younger from a team perspective. We want guys that are going to be out there all the time and it's tough when you get older. That's just the way it is.
''It wasn't really a statement where we are going to get younger, but we know building through the draft that you're going to get younger anyway. That's kind of been our plan.''
Safety Mike Adams laughed when reminded of the Browns' relative adolesence.
''We're young but not that young,'' said Adams, one of the team's few thirtysomethings. ''We still got dinosaurs like Sheldon Brown and Scott Fujita. I'm not going to put myself in that group - not yet. Seriously, we have some young players but we have legitimate leadership and I think that overrides everything.''
Brown is one of those aforementioned leaders. The 10-year cornerback spent last season in a mentor's role for then-rookies Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, who developed into two of the team's top players. Brown said it's up to the veterans to bring the youngsters along.
''It's about being a pro and telling them, 'Watch how I work, watch what I do' and 10 years later you pay it forward and show the next guy,'' he said. ''I had guys do that for me. It's a young team, but if you have one or two veterans that are there for the young guys at each position, then they're not young anymore.''
Notes: RT Tony Pashos was in a walking boot on his left leg while the Browns stretched after practice. Pashos missed 10 games last season after undergoing right ankle surgery. Shurmur said not to ''read into'' the injury, but it's notable the club signed 10-year vet Artis Hicks, who has made 68 career starts. Hicks could replace Pinkston for the left guard spot. ... TE Ben Watson (hip) and LB Chris Gocong (neck) did not practice. Shurmur is hoping both are back Wednesday. ... Play-by-play announcer Jim Donovan was at practice for the first time since undergoing a bone marrow transplant. ... The Browns signed DL Auston English and LB Benjamin Jacobs to their practice squad. Both had been waived.