It's not a secret: The Cleveland Browns got older and wiser this offseason in free agency. That was the plan.
Quarterback Josh McCown (35), wide receivers Dwayne Bowe (30) and Brian Hartline (28), defensive lineman Randy Starks (31) and cornerback Tramon Williams (32) have all played at least seven seasons in the NFL.
In addition to linebacker Karlos Dansby (33), left tackle Joe Thomas (30) and John Greco (30), the Browns now have seven players who are 30 years or older, and with the exception of McCown, all are penciled in as major contributors and among Cleveland's top performing players.
It's quite the turnaround in just 14 months.
When general manager Ray Farmer inherited the roster in February 2014, the Browns had only four players who were 30 or older: quarterback Jason Campbell, running back Willis McGahee, linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and kicker Billy Cundiff. The Browns were one of the youngest teams in the league.
As almighty of a leader as Jackson was, Cleveland's locker room lacking players whom younger guys could model their game. And while the lack of stability at the head coaching position had plenty do with the Browns' struggles, the losing culture hung in the air because there weren't enough players who had won in the NFL.
Enter Farmer and coach Mike Pettine, both of whom see football the same way. While the pair of football minds agree a franchise should be built through the draft, being solely a young and athletic team without Pro Bowl-caliber veterans is rare among playoff contenders. And two years ago, the Browns simply didn't have many.
So Farmer and Pettine targeted difference-makers in the prime of their careers, not just 30-somethings who would be see rotational snaps. Dansby replaced Jackson in the middle of the defense and brought the credibility of helping lead the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance.
The same thing can be said with safety Donte Whitner, who replaced T.J. Ward. Whitner landed in the Pro Bowl and the Browns led the league in opposing quarterback rating (74.1) and finished second in interceptions (21), while younger players marveled at his football acumen and genuine nature in wanting to teach them.
After sitting out the initial blitzkrieg of free agency last month – much to some reporters' dismay – Cleveland jumped in the fray during wave two, adding Bowe, Williams and Starks.
The Browns have challenged all of these players not only to be productive, but in the mold of Whitner and Dansby, help collectively make their position groups smarter. Bowe and Hartline will be hands-on with Taylor Gabriel. Williams will mentor Justin Gilbert, Pierre Desir and K'Waun Williams about the intricacies of playing corner. Starks will do the same in the entire defense live room, as will McCown with the quarterbacks.
In signing proven veterans, a message to the Dawg Pound and the rest of the NFL was sent: These veteran additions will add reinforcements to the visible changes Dansby and Whitner brought to the locker room in 2014.
The Browns' new approach in free agency should be considered progress, but there are goals Farmer and Pettine repeatedly say have yet to be met.
The 7-9 record was the best record Cleveland has totaled since 2007, but the record isn't what Browns fans should be most proud of. It's the disgust and disappointment the end of the season generated from players and coaches that shows this is a team in "win now" mode. A group full of younger players may have been satisfied with the three-win increase from 2013.
"(It was) disappointing to everybody involved – players, coaching staff, everybody within the organization," Pettine said in December. "In just getting a brief amount of time to reflect, I thought we did a lot of positive things this year. I think we've instilled a culture change. I think we're well on our way to having that bought into by the vast majority of our players – the 'Play Like a Brown' mantra."
Let's not forget the core pieces of this roster are still in the early portions of their careers. Cornerback Joe Haden (25), safety Tashaun Gipson (24) and left guard Joel Bitonio (23) are sturdy, Pro Bowl-type building blocks for the future of the Browns.
Getting older on the football field means getting wiser in the classroom in April and May with X's and O's, and it means getting mentally tougher in the months of November and December when the stakes are raised.
And if Farmer and Pettine are right, it could ultimately mean playing in the postseason in January.