BEREA - The Browns' 2011 draft class better be good. We're not talking about good in a few years. How about as soon as this year?
Injuries to veterans have a way of making rookies grow up in a hurry when they're thrust into the starting lineup. Rookies also have quick on-the-job training when they're put into the lineup because there aren't any quality veterans ahead of them on the depth chart.
Both of those scenarios are playing out for the Browns two weeks before they open the season at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. First-round pick Phil Taylor and second-round choice Jabaal Sheard are penciled in to start at left tackle and right end on the defensive line, respectively.
That's not the end of the rookie invasion. Receiver Greg Little, another second-round pick, could start if Mohamed Massaquoi and Joshua Cribbs continue to have health problems.
Owen Marecic, picked in the fourth round, will join Peyton Hillis in the backfield at fullback. Lawrence Vickers, the fullback last season, is with the Houston Texans, which means there's no other choice but Marecic.
The surprise addition could be offensive lineman Jason Pinkston, a fifth-round choice. Pinkston was on schedule to be an interior backup, but that's changed because of the disc problem Eric Steinbach is dealing with in his back.
Coach Pat Shurmur didn't say Steinbach will be placed on season-ending injured reserve, but it's a possibility if rehab doesn't help.
"At this point, he's going through some treatments that we're hoping will get him back," Shurmur said. "There's no real final call on when he'll be back or not."
Steinbach's injury is a major development. He had been a dependable performer, missing just three games in eight seasons (four with the Bengals and four with the Browns). Having Steinbach and four-time Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas on the left side of the line was a source of comfort for Shurmur, not to mention quarterback Colt McCoy.
It's now possible the Browns will go from the security of an eight-year veteran to a raw rookie. Shurmur likes what he's seen of Pinkston, but he's had just four weeks of work.
"Jason Pinkston has made huge, huge strides in three-plus weeks," Shurmur said. "It's one thing to be out on the perimeter running routes as a rookie and doing it, but when you're in there in the thick of it, it's very challenging for those big guys. It really takes development and seasoning, and I think he's making huge progress."
Taylor and Sheard were expected to start because of the alarming lack of talent on the line. Taylor took a big step forward last Thursday in the 24-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. At times he looked dominant, although Shurmur was quick to point out that Taylor needs to be more consistent.
It's hoped that Sheard will provide a strong pass rush, but it was clear against the Eagles that he needs to improve against the run. Offenses will simply run left until the Browns find a way to stop it.
Little will log plenty of time regardless of the health of Massaquoi and Cribbs. He's 6-foot-33, 220 pounds and has a way of getting open. Shurmur will have to live with the occasional drops, knowing that Little is a potential game breaker.
Cornerback Buster Skrine, a fifth-round choice, shouldn't be excluded from the list. The fifth-round draft choice could end up playing quite a bit in nickel situations. Dimitri Patterson was signed to replace Eric Wright as the nickel back, but Skrine has been more noticeable in practice.
The 2011 season is shaping up as the year of the rookie in Cleveland. Can the Browns live with the growing pains?