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Browns rookie Corey Coleman: The next Steve Smith?

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Since the turn of the century, Browns fans have lived with one ugly and enduring reality: other NFL teams house star players; Cleveland does not.

So it goes for a franchise that has chewed through countless coaches, general managers and woebegone scouts in search of something lasting.

Seventeen years into the team's rebirth, Cleveland's laundry list of draft-day blunderings has left this loyal-but-pained fan base to ponder: Will it ever change?

After all, this was the team that, in 2011, traded away the No. 6 overall pick to Atlanta, allowing the Falcons to grab wideout Julio Jones, a franchise-altering weapon who last season ripped through opponents for 136 catches and 1,871 yards.

That trade landed the Browns a bushel of picks that morphed into five players -- nose tackle Phil Taylor, wideout Greg Little, fullback Owen Marecic, quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson. Five years later, none of those men remain in Cleveland, none are NFL starters and three of the bunch are unlikely to ever play again.

The fun doesn't stop there: names like Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Gerard "Big Money" Warren, Quincy Morgan, William Green, Chaun Thompson, Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn and, more recently, Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel float through Cleveland's collective subconscious like a band of unforgiving anti-heroes.

Twenty-year-old Browns fans have zero concept of what it means to watch a young team grow into a bully; to see first-year players develop into stars; and to see those stars band together for a Super Bowl run. Instead, Cleveland has operated as an annual helping of mincemeat for three divisional foes -- the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals -- who sit at the other end of the spectrum as models of franchise consistency.

Enter Corey Coleman


For all the lazy "Moneyball" quips, this year's Browns draft revealed a common link running through the 14 rookies picked by the new front office: production at the college level.

That is especially true of first-round pick Corey Coleman, the playmaking pass-catcher out of Baylor who led the nation with a whopping 20 touchdown grabs last season.

In Coleman, the Browns have found a future star.

It doesn't feel premature to make that claim considering Coleman's stunning handiwork at camp, where the rookie on Friday burned the Browns' secondary to the ground during an intrasquad scrimmage.

Fans used to seeing Cleveland's defense toasted -- just not by their own player -- could only watch as Coleman hauled in lasers of 53, 41 and 35 yards from quarterback Robert Griffin III. The 41-yard bomb saw Coleman stretch beyond enigmatic cover man Justin Gilbert to snag the ball just inside the right corner of the end zone.

Friday's onslaught left ESPN's Tony Grossi to paint the rookie with a rash of words -- "dynamic" and "scintillating," for starters -- that have long been out of service for Browns beat writers.

But it was more about what Cleveland's players were saying.

"I've seen some rookies come in and they don't catch on that fast," said cornerback Tramon Williams, the former Packers starter who practiced against the likes of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. "To see him doing what he's doing, it's been awesome."

Said quarterback Josh McCown: "He's scored a bunch when we've had some of this live stuff. The cool thing about Corey is, he's still learning, but when the ball touches his hands, he's exactly why you picked him. That's impressive to me."

'He hasn't run a route tree'


The knock on Coleman coming out of Baylor's spread attack was a lack of intricate route-running at the college level.

"Baylor guys have a lot to learn because of the way they play," one scout told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before the draft. "On their backside, they don't even come off the line and you don't really block."

Said NFL Media's Mike Mayock during the draft: "The only key for (Coleman) is that he hasn't run a route tree. You will have to manufacture touches for him as he learns the route tree," while adding: "He's special with the football in his hands."

If Coleman blooms this season as we expect, much of the credit will go to a coaching staff that continues to find ways to get him the ball downfield. Coach Hue Jackson and offensive aide Pep Hamilton haven't clung to the pre-draft assumptions that Coleman can't play outside.

"Coach Hue knows how to get his playmakers the ball," Coleman told Ken Carman and Anthony Lima of CBS Cleveland on Tuesday. "He got me moving everywhere. Short passes. Long passes. Trying to mix it up, and I like what he's doing."

Coleman went on to downplay the route-running narrative, saying: "I got 'em all down. I know they were saying, 'Oh, I don't know if he can run routes,' and stuff. I think I can run routes. I think coach Hue and (the other coaches) think I can run routes."

The next Steve Smith?


Draftniks pegged Coleman for success long before Cleveland picked him up.

Rotoworld's Josh Norris in October called him "the No. 1 WR prospect in the 2016 class," writing of Coleman: "He has the skills to win in both the 'big' and 'small' receiver games. ... If there is still room on the Coleman wagon, there won't be after the NFL combine."

NFL Media's Matt Harmon, creator of the Reception Perception methodology, deep-dived Coleman's film this offseason to conclude that "a prospect's ability to 'run the full route tree' is an overblown criticism recycled year after year by the scouting community. Projecting a player from the college level to the NFL is more about identifying translatable traits and their execution in their assignments. Coleman passes that test with flying colors."

At 5-foot-11 and 194 pounds, Coleman's juicy mesh of 4.37 speed and "explosive" leaping ability left NFL Media's Lance Zierlein to call him an "instant blur off the snap."

After two weeks of camp, Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins was ready to draw an NFL comparison.

"Corey Coleman is an incredible talent. He reminds me a lot of Steve Smith, which is in my opinion one of the top-three receivers to ever play the game of football," Hawkins told Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. "I've always been a huge Steve Smith fan. But he has a lot of that skill set. He has to work on some of his technique stuff, but his effort is what's special to me because a lot of time young guys, they don't always come in knowing that above all else, give effort."

After watching Manziel float through Cleveland like a traveling circus -- vanishing just as quickly -- Browns scribes have noted Coleman's desire to show that the Browns finally hit a home run.

"It's a blessing, but at the end of the day, I got a lot of stuff to prove," Coleman said of his fast start. "That's how I'm going in with my mindset. I haven't done everything yet, until I step on the field with other teams. That's my mindset. Don't get complacent, just keep on going. Because coach Hue brought me here for a reason, they believe in me, so I don't want to make him wrong."

What can Coleman become?


While it's exciting for the long-shipwrecked Browns to find an anchoring playmaker, Coleman's gaudy practice tape must translate to September.

That won't be easy unless Griffin can regain his lost confidence and make the kind of leap under center that Andy Dalton experienced with Jackson in 2015. While Griffin has played well during camp, it won't be accepted until he's doing so against a live pass rush. The improved play of quarterback-turned-wideout Terrelle Pryor should help, along with the Week 5 return of from-the-wilderness Pro Bowler Josh Gordon. Getting the ball to Coleman, though, will be a foundational element of this attack.

"You don't have to be 6-4 to be a great receiver in this league," Browns receivers coach Al Saunders said Tuesday, per The Chronicle-Telegram. "What you have to be able to do is, you have to change direction, you have to get separation, you have to be able to catch the football. ... Corey Coleman is a vertical player. He's got undeniable speed ... but what you've got to do is devise a system and devise the kind of things that those guys can do so they aren't in contested environments all the time."

Asked on Tuesday to describe Jackson's playbook in one word, Coleman was quick to say: "Explosive."

"Browns offense" and "explosive" haven't appeared in the same sentence since the late 1980s, when Bernie Kosar was flinging passes to the likes of Ozzie Newsome, Reggie Langhorne and Webster Slaughter.

In a nod to the past, Coleman will wear Kosar's beloved No. 19 jersey as a pro. Jackson, though, isn't rushing to shove the rookie into a savior role -- not yet, at least.

"I don't want to anoint this young man yet; it's way too soon," Jackson said. "Has he shown some unquestioned ability? Yes, he has. So I want to give him that, but at the same time he knows he has some things he has to get cleaned up real fast."

Jackson has avoided gushing over Coleman publicly, but the wideout's former coach at Baylor, Art Briles, was bold in stating what the rookie has a chance to become in Cleveland.

Said Briles: "They're going to think he's one of the best to ever put on a Browns uniform."

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