BEREA, Ohio - Benjamin Watson looked at the name plates and fresh faces surrounding him as he dressed after practice. The 31-year-old tight end noticed the Cleveland Browns have gotten a whole lot younger.
"In this locker room, my 3-year-old's old," he joked.
He's hardly, well, kidding.
With 15 rookies and 12 other players with less than two years of experience on the 53-man roster, the Browns are counting on youth to serve them in 2012. They are the first team since Kansas City in 2008 to have 15 rookies for the opening game, and with an average age of 26 years, 10 days, the Browns are the NFL's second-youngest squad, according to STATS LLC.
"They have fresh legs," coach Pat Shurmur cracked the other day.
That's true, but the young Browns will also have to endure some growing pains in the weeks ahead. There's no substitute for experience, and it will be quite some time before they'll have any to draw upon. Still, the Browns aren't worried that they're too young to be good.
Today, against a Philadelphia team many believe can win the Super Bowl, the Browns will start a rookie quarterback (Brandon Weeden), rookie running back (Trent Richardson), rookie right offensive tackle (Mitchell Schwartz) , rookie defensive tackle (Billy Winn) and possibly rookie wide receiver (Josh Gordon), if they open in a three-wide formation.
And soon, they'll have a rookie owner as Jimmy Haslam's purchase of the franchise is expected to be approved next month.
But Browns president Mike Holmgren doesn't think the team's innocent look will be a detriment.
"This football team, even though it's young, is physically much better," Holmgren said. "We are young, but we have better players and we have better depth. I believe our special team's has a chance to be much better. If you're going to build it the way we're going to build it, there's a chance you have these types of numbers."
At 28, Weeden is no ordinary rookie and he'll be the first to start an opener at quarterback for Cleveland. Weeden didn't expect the Browns to be so green in his first season.
"It's a lot," he said of the team's large rookie class. "I'm not a numbers buff as far as NFL history, but this has got to be close to a record. There's a lot of rookies but there's good ones, really good players. Whether they're 22, 28, or whatever, they're rookies and there's going to be some ups and some downs."
Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson expects a rollercoaster ride.
He knows there will be times when his young teammates are overwhelmed. It's just part of the deal. But Jackson said there's something special about being around a bunch of eager, excited teammates who don't know what's ahead of them and who don't seem to care.
"It brings the team together, having young guys around, they're playful and doing this and doing that," he said. "There's always fun everywhere."
As Jackson spoke, Winn danced nearby to music coming from a speaker in end Frostee Rucker's locker.
"See," Jackson said, pointing at Winn.
Jackson said one of the biggest plusses about young players is that they're willing. There's no questions, no second-guessing, it's follow directions or suffer the consequences.
"They're doing what they're told," Jackson said. "You can kind of mold guys where you can help them obviously, but they will do what they're told exactly to the tee."
Weeden, who will be the 17th quarterback to start for the Browns since 1999, said the team's young blood is an advantage because players aren't as physically beaten down as maybe some veterans.
"We've got some guys, they don't get tired," Weeden said. "They run around, they just continue to go like the Energizer Bunny. Some of these receivers just run and run and keep going. I think that will help. And from what I've seen, a lot of these guys have short memories. You have to have a short memory to play in this league and to play big-time professional sports in general.
"Hopefully we'll use that to our advantage."
Entering his 14th season, kicker Phil Dawson has seen the Browns try to win with a young roster, old one and several in-between. The 37-year-old has watched young, assured players become scared, nervous wrecks by coaches who didn't treat them right.
Dawson believes this year's young Browns have confidence because they're being counted on.
"In the context of this place, they're not aware of the negative history," he said. "A lot of young guys come in this league and they're kind of talked down to or it's 'hey, rookie.' And if you're not careful, you beat them down to where they think the NFL is a completely different kind of football than the kind they've ever played.
"They get intimidated. They get rattled, and you don't necessarily see the results."
Dawson has heard the dire predictions for this year's Browns, and their raw roster.
He's hoping the kids will be all right.
"They're anxious, I'm anxious," he said. "But these guys feel they're a part of the team. They feel like they're being counted on to play on Sunday, and I'm excited to see how they respond."