National Football League
NFL young talent rankings: No. 30 Browns have talented veterans but pipeline has thinned
National Football League

NFL young talent rankings: No. 30 Browns have talented veterans but pipeline has thinned

Published Aug. 1, 2023 1:40 p.m. ET

Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at every team's players drafted between 2019 and 2023 to ascertain which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of all those lists. We'll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.

When the Cleveland Browns made their blockbuster move to trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson, they gave away some of the keys to their future. They were OK with that because they truly believed they had the pieces in place to win now.

But they had better win now — or at least soon — because the long-term future doesn't look bright, based on the current state of their roster. They definitely have talent. They could even have enough to be a playoff team this season.

They just don't have a deep or impressive core of younger talent that could make up the longer-term future of their team.


"I actually like their team a lot," said one rival general manager. "They could even be a sneaky contender this season. But if you're asking about their long-term health, it's probably poor. Almost all of their current core is age 27 or older, and there isn't a lot of youth behind them. And they traded three years of first-round draft picks away."

That is the biggest issue to come up from a variety of NFL sources who discussed the Browns roster with Fox Sports. To get Watson, Browns GM Andrew Berry traded away first-round picks in the 2022, 2023 and 2024 drafts, plus a third-round pick in 2023 and a fourth in 2024. Partially as a result, they haven't had a first- or second-round pick in either of the last two drafts. 

They currently don't have a first-round pick next year, either. In fact, six of their eight picks in 2024 will be in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.

"You build depth on Day 3, not the top of your roster," said one AFC scout. "That's their problem. Or at least it will be."

What would a successful season look like for Deshaun Watson?

Right now, it's not. The Browns have a strong group behind Watson, and they're not exactly filled with greybeards. Running back Nick Chubb, tight end David Njoku and defensive end Myles Garrett are all 27. Only one member of the starting offensive line is over 30. Receiver Amani Cooper is 29. They certainly can keep this going for a couple of years.

But players age fast in the NFL, especially when they get close to 30. And when that starts happening to the core of this Browns team, then what?

"Maybe it doesn't matter," the scout said. "Maybe getting the quarterback is worth it. It usually is. And if they make a run at a Super Bowl nobody will care.

"But in a few years, if this continues, they're just going to have to start all over again."

Young core

CB Greg Newsome II 

TE Harrison Bryant

T Jedrick Wills Jr.

CB Martin Emerson Jr. 

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

WR Elijah Moore

Standout: LT Jedrick Wills

There were four outstanding tackles taken in the first 13 picks of the 2020 draft, and Wills was the second off the board, taken by the Browns at No. 10. It was a bit surprising that he went that high, but there were times during his rookie season where Wills really looked he might turn out to be the best of that stellar group.

The 6-foot-4, 307-pounder hasn't quite lived up to the promise he showed as a rookie, though, when he was good enough to land on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team (along with Tampa's Tristan Wirfs, who was selected 13th). Nagging injuries and maddening inconsistency have plagued him since.

He was ranked as the 55th-best tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in 2021. That dropped to 60th in 2022.

Still, the Browns liked what they saw enough to pick up a fifth-year option for 2024 worth $14.2 million. And they think his play last season was far better than the PFF grades suggest. 

"As you go back and watch a lot of the tape over and over, he's doing a nice job in the run game and the pass game," said Browns coach Kevin Stefanski. "He's winning his one-on-one matchups. Never perfect because it's hard to be perfect as a left tackle in this game. But he played well. 

"I really think, if he stays healthy, the trajectory continues to ascend."

Are the Browns being overlooked?

Potential breakout: CB Martin Emerson

The more his rookie season went on last year, the more Emerson played, and the more the Browns seemed to trust him. And even with a new defensive coordinator (Jim Schwartz) coming in, it's likely that this year they'll trust him even more. 

The Browns' first pick in the 2022 draft (third round, 68th overall) did nothing but impress as a rookie, with solid play even as opposing quarterbacks constantly targeted him (89 times, according to PFF). He showed the size (6-2, 195) and speed to handle some of the NFL's best receivers. PFF ranked him as the 22rd best corner in the NFL, and credited him with forcing incompletions on 20 percent of the passes thrown his direction. Opposing receivers only caught 48 of the 89 passes thrown his way overall.

With Denzel Ward on the other side, he'll continue to get attention. And with Greg Newsome apparently unhappy with his role in Schwartz's scheme, Emerson could be in line to play even more. 

"The one thing missing from his game is interceptions," said an AFC executive. "But he was never a ballhawk. Even in college it always looked like his timing on the ball is off. That's fine, as long as he can knock the pass away. But the opportunities will be there. And if he can catch a few, the league will take notice."

Contracts to consider: LT Jedrick Wills

He's not there yet, now that the Browns have picked up his fifth-year option for 2024, but the bar has already been set for what he can earn with a strong season. The Giants did that for him before the start of training camp when they gave LT Andrew Thomas — drafted fourth overall in 2020, six spots ahead of Wills — a five-year, $117.5 million extension with $67 million guaranteed.

Thomas, though, was one of the best left tackles in the NFL last season. Wills still has some work to do to get there.

"He was my fourth tackle the year he came out, and he's probably still third in that group (behind Thomas and Wirfs)," said a former NFL offensive lineman who scouted the tackles that year. "But the talent and potential is there. If he can do it consistently, they'll have to pay him."

If Wills can put together a consistent season, the Browns might end up paying him sooner than later, given how quickly tackle contracts have escalated. Wills just has to prove his value first. 

Key stats

Cornerback Greg Newsome is one of only 27 corners to play more than 1,590 snaps over the past two seasons, and one of only 43 to record 15 or more passes defensed in that span.

Among all the tight ends drafted since 2020, Harrison Bryant has the third-most touchdowns (seven) and he's one of just four who has recorded at least 700 receiving yards.

In 45 starts, LT Jedrick Wills has allowed 15 sacks and 20 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

CB Martin Emerson was one of only 10 corners with at least 15 passes defensed last season.

Inside Info

WR Donovan Peoples-Jones

"I don't think the Browns know what they have in Donovan, I really don't. He's gotten better every year, and he found a way to catch 61 passes last year as the No. 2 receiver on a team with shaky quarterback play and a strong run game. He's got good size (6-2, 204), he can run a little, his hands have improved, he's strong.

"But they went out and signed (Marquise) Goodwin, traded for (Elijah) Moore, drafted (Cedric) Tillman. Don't get me wrong, they needed depth. They had nothing behind (Amari) Cooper and Donovan. But Donovan would be a good No. 2 on a lot of NFL teams. He's much better than he was coming out of college. I hope they don't bury him." —AFC scout

WR Elijah Moore

"Smart pickup. He's the definition of a guy who needed a change in scenery. Everyone loved him when the Jets drafted him (in the second round in 2021). He was electric with the ball in his hands. All the reports out of New York were good. But he had historically terrible quarterback play. Then he fought with the coaching staff over his role. The Jets were a mess and they mishandled him.

"The fact that Cleveland gave up a second-round pick for him (they got Moore and a third-rounder back) shows you what they think of him, especially since they didn't have a first-round pick either. If they use him right, he's got a chance to break out." —AFC general manager

CB Greg Newsome

"Every time I see Newsome I think he should be so much better than he is. He's got such great instincts. He's in position. He looks like he's tracking the ball. He certainly gets his hands on them a lot. But it's just like college, where he can't hang on. I mean, it's not all about interceptions for corners. But he's a first-round pick (26th overall with 2021) with zero through his first two seasons? That shouldn't happen." —AFC scout

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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