It may as well be Groundhog Day for the Cleveland Browns. They are starting a new quarterback -- Robert Griffin III -- marking the 25th time the franchise has done so since being reintroduced to the NFL in 1999. There's a new coaching staff, helmed by Hue Jackson, and a new group in the front office. Veterans have left in free agency, others have arrived and the Browns came away with 14 drafted rookies in the spring. There will be two new starters on the offensive line when the regular season kicks off in September, a new tandem of safeties in the defensive backfield and it's even possible that Patrick Murray supplants last year's kicker, Travis Coons, depending on how this summer's battle plays out.
In short, it's easy to write off the Browns, given the extent of their latest rebuild.
But it's also possible that positive changes are ahead for the Browns, a foundation in place to build upon. And it all hinges on the receiving corps.
The Browns drafted four receivers this year: Corey Coleman in Round 1, Ricardo Louis in Round 4, Jordan Payton in Round 5 and Rashard Higgins in Round 5. Two additional rookies, Dennis Parks and Ed Eagan, are currently on the roster. Darius Jennings is in his second year and while Terrelle Pryor is 27 years old and has been in the NFL since 2011, this is his second season playing wideout after transitioning from quarterback. Once Josh Gordon returns from his four-game suspension to start the season, it will have been nearly two years since he has caught a pass in an NFL game.
Of Cleveland's 12 rostered wide receivers, eight have had one or fewer seasons of professional experience. The average age at the position is 24.25 years, with slot receiver Andrew Hawkins the group's elder statesman at age 30.
While the Browns won't be retaining all of these players once rosters are pared down, it's clear that the combination they hold onto will be a relatively young and inexperienced group. The learning curve will be steep, especially when paired up with a new-to-Cleveland quarterback in Griffin. But there's a lot of upside.
Coleman was the 2015 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, given to the NCAA's top receiver, after catching 74 receptions for 1,363 yards and 20 scores in his final year at Baylor. Higgins out-did Coleman in 2014, with 96 catches for 1,750 yards and seven scores before settling down to 74 receptions for 1,061 yards and eight scores in 2015. Gordon was the NFL's top receiver in 2013, earning 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns on 87 receptions despite being suspended for the first two games of the season.
Coleman has already drawn comparisons to the Baltimore Ravens' Steve Smith Sr., by none other than Hawkins. Higgins has retained his "Hollywood" nickname by showing off his reliable hands, big-play ability and smooth route-running and former NFL quarterback. And Bleacher Report analyst Chris Simms sees elite potential in Pryor, who caught a 49-yard pass from Griffin in the first preseason game and a 50-yard score in the second, something he has been spending most of his summer doing in training camp.
It hasn't been perfect, of course. Promising young wideout Rannell Hall is already on injured reserve after breaking his fibula in the Browns' first preseason game. Neither Coleman, Hawkins nor Gordon have yet to participate in the preseason, with Coleman and Hawkins nursing hamstring issues and Gordon a quad injury. Higgins was the only Browns receiver to score a touchdown in the team's first preseason game, a 10-yard reception thrown by rookie quarterback Cody Kessler. Third downs have also been an issue thus far, with Cleveland converting only two of eight against the Packers and of one eight against the Falcons.
But these slow starts and injury concerns are immediate-term issues; what the Browns are trying to build with this young corps is part of a long-term plan, a plan of which we've already begun seeing flashes of coming together through the first two exhibition games.
With the Browns, anything long-term is a built-in question mark, given the constant turnover at coach and front-office. But there is an ever-increasing feeling that team owner Jimmy Haslam's itchy trigger finger has been scratched over the last three seasons and that he is ready for the stability Jackson, his coveted coaching hire, can provide. Though Griffin may never return to form, Cleveland is readying a situation at receiver that could benefit him or anyone who winds up under center in future years. And for now, it does appear to suit Griffin well, improving from four completions on eight attempts for 67 yards and an interception against Green Bay to six completions on eight attempts for 96 yards and two scores at home versus Atlanta.
Cleveland's crew of wideouts are proven playmakers with a variety of skill sets that, on paper, rival any in the league and, in practice, could prove troublesome to opposing defenses. With tight ends like Gary Barnidge -- who had a 29-yard touchdown thrown his way by Griffin on Thursday -- Connor Hamlet and Seth DeValve and pass-catching running back Duke Johnson factored in, Cleveland's passing game could be strong.
If explosive offense is the goal, the Browns have certainly put in the appropriate effort to achieve it. It's only a matter of time.