In most cases, a player entering his third year in the NFL is either carving out a place on his team, on the verge of becoming a quality starter or emerging as a star. But in some rare instances, a player automatically becomes an elite performer from the moment he steps foot onto an NFL field. And when the Cleveland Browns invested the third pick in the 2007 NFL Draft on offensive tackle Joe Thomas, he dominated from day one.
With that said, the question will be asked, “How is he still considered a prospect?” Thomas is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and is one of the best offensive tackles in the league. In this series, an NFL prospect is classified as a player entering his third-year or under 25 years old, regardless of his success and how good he already is. Even though he’s already viewed as a top player and has had success at an early age, the fact remains that Thomas is just 24 years old [he turns 25 in December]. He still has room for improvement, as scary as that seems, and will only get better as he continues to grow. A durable performer the last two seasons, Thomas has started 32 consecutive games. Even though the Browns finished the ’08 season with a disappointing 4 – 12 record, Thomas allowed just 4.5 sacks and was a bright spot on a team searching for an identity. With Eric Mangini now at the helm, a new direction in Cleveland is in place, and Thomas is the man destined to lead the way for the next decade.
The big question this season is who will lead the way behind center for the Browns: Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn? It appears that Anderson will be Quinn’s backup this season after Mangini hinted that Quinn has the edge. But, no commitment has been made. Assuming that Quinn is named the starter, the No. 2 prospect in the organization will finally have the opportunity to showcase his ability on the field and no longer wonder if his chance will ever surface. Since being drafted in the first round of the 2007 draft, Quinn, a local favorite, has had limited opportunities to get comfortable in the pocket and perform up to his capabilities. As a rookie, Quinn saw action in one game in relief of Anderson and didn’t do much to stand out. And last year, he played in three games, starting all three, and completed 50.6-percent of his passes for 518 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Until Quinn is named the starter and receives consistent reps in training camp and throughout the regular season, the Browns will never know what they truly have.
The Browns know what they’re getting with the selection of 2009 first round pick Alex Mack; a consistent lineman who will be respected immediately in the huddle. A three year starter at Cal, Mack finished his career starting 39 consecutive games, and in those starts, he allowed just one sack. Mack, the No. 3 prospect in the organization, is an intelligent, experienced lineman who possesses excellent leadership qualities. He has great size and strength and is a good athlete. He’s aware of his surroundings, is quick off the line and tough at the point of attack. He’s a technician who uses his hands to his advantage and mauls the opposition until the whistle is blown. He has to work on his balance and discipline, as he will take penalties against a bigger, faster opponent. Playing in the AFC North, Mack will see his share of mammoth men who possess uncanny quickness in Casey Hampton (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens). And, it will be his responsibility to improve his leverage and technique to combat against those players. In a division that loves to run the ball, if Mack is able to beat out incumbent starter Hank Fraley as the starting center, his ability to get off the line and drive into the opposition will benefit the Browns and help Jamal Lewis return to his 2007 form.
When you observe the Browns defense, there are a lot of holes, and the one constant that seems to always be the catalyst is the secondary. But last year, the secondary was much improved and the main reason for that was the play of the No. 4 and 5 prospects in the organization, cornerbacks Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald. Wright, a second round pick in the 2007 draft, and McDonald, a fifth round pick in the same April spectacle, are two players the Browns can build their secondary around.
Wright has been outstanding during his first two years in the league. As a rookie, he played in 14 games, starting 13 of them, and finished the year with 76 tackles, a sack and an interception. Last season, he started all 16 games and had 66 tackles and three interceptions. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Wright has a solid frame and possesses excellent ball skills. Wright is established as a starter and will only get better entering his third-year. McDonald, who has a similar frame to Wright, has been quite a find and has produced beyond expectations to date. In his first-year, McDonald played in all 16 games, starting two, and contributed 24 tackles and two interceptions in a situational role. Due to injuries in the secondary, McDonald became a starter in his second-year and was one of the most productive players on defense totaling 75 tackles and five interceptions. With the Browns bringing in veteran Rod Hood as a free agent, it appears that McDonald will have to compete for a starting role with him for the starting job. Hood has been a starter in his career, but is most effective as a nickel corner, where McDonald has more upside on the outside.Rounding out the top-ten are three 2009 draft picks: No. 6 David Veikune, No. 7 Brian Robiskie and No. 9 James Davis, as well as two second-year players: No. 8 Ahtyba Rubin and No. 10 Beau Bell. Veikune and Robiskie will see action in a backup role this year, while Davis faces a log-jam at running back and will have to impress during training camp and the preseason to get some touches this year. After a rookie campaign that was halted by two knee surgeries, Bell returns to the Browns looking to contribute and prove that the injuries are behind him. The Browns have a stacked deck at linebacker, and Bell has a lot of work ahead of him to rise up on the depth chart. Rubin is a big, physical interior presence and is the primary backup to Shaun Rogers. Rubin had a promising rookie season and will be counted on this year to help out upfront.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.