Al Saunders excited by potential of Browns' young, unheralded receivers

Al Saunders couldn't believe his own eyes, so he needed some first-hand verification.

Last year, the senior offensive assistant and veteran wide receivers coach watched his numerous rookies go through their expected ups and downs as they tackled the complex nature of the position at the highest level of competition. It was a challenge for all of them, but particularly so for Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins, who combined for seven receptions for 80 yards amid limited opportunities.

"When you come into a new program," Saunders said, "it's like learning a new language."

So when Saunders saw Payton make play after play the right way during OTAs and minicamp, he had to make sure he was dealing with the same player. He looked him square in the facemask and smiled.

"Did we get a new 84?" Saunders said. "This guy is running fast, he's coming out of breaks, he's catching the ball, he's a competitive guy … I know one thing, he can play in the National Football League. He's playing at a level much greater than he did last year."

The same can be said for Higgins, the late fifth-round selection who didn't see the field much until late in the season, when he was used as a big slot receiver. While Kenny Britt, Corey Coleman and Ricardo Louis figure to have prominent roles in this year's passing game, the Browns will need a handful of others step up from a group that is high on upside but low on experience.

Higgins, Payton, Rannell Hall, Mario Alford, James Wright and more will be competing for spots in a wide receiver group Saunders views as a year wiser.

"Most of them are totally fluent in the foreign language they've learned being in the Cleveland Browns offense. They've adapted dramatically," Saunders said. "They've all incrementally progressed a great deal. Now what they've got to do is continue to do that because we haven't played against anybody yet. When we put pads on and we play real games, it's got to be physical and do things in a stressful environment.

"I'm hoping what they've done and shown to this point will carry over."

At this time last year, Hall was impressing in a similar fashion.

Signed off Tampa Bay's practice squad near the end of the 2015 season, he made a quick impression on Saunders during the offseason workout program and carried that momentum into training camp. He was having a nice preseason debut at Green Bay until the second half, when he went down with a broken fibula. His season was over.

Hall said he was back to 100 percent by the end of the 2016 season. He wasn't limited in the slightest during OTAs and minicamp.

"I remember going to the hospital and spending some time with he and his mother there. It was a severe, severe fracture," Saunders said. "He's come back and you would never know he's had any injury. He's better than he was when he got hurt. We're excited about the competition he's providing to all of those guys."

Cleveland's 11-man room will be pared down a bit by the time the season arrives, but there are favorable odds that at least a couple of the remaining players will be entering with minimal experience. That's the challenge one of the most experienced position coaches in the entire NFL is ready to tackle.

"Every day I come to work, that is the most important thing to me is helping those guys get better. I believe that we can develop them," Saunders said. "I would love nothing better than our young players to reach their level, whatever that might be, of effectiveness. That is my reward as a coach is seeing players do well and progress in their skills."

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