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Gary Barnidge's age-defying season explained by Browns defensive players

In the weeks and months since it became clear this was no anomaly, ESPN, and other popular media outlets have told the improbable story of Gary Barnidge's breakout season.

At 30 years old and in his eighth NFL season, Barnidge went from an off-the-radar, reliable No. 2 tight end to one of the league's top producers at the position. The catches, yards and touchdowns he's amassed in 2015 are more than he had in the previous seven seasons combined. He's been a vital piece to a Browns passing game that has carried the load more than anticipated.

Months earlier, those same TV networks, websites and magazines could have come to Berea and elicited the same quotes and soundbites from Cleveland's defensive players. They were the first to be clued in to the enhanced role and ensuing production would carry from the start of Cleveland's 2015 season.

Repeatedly throughout the month of August, Barnidge was the one making chunk plays down the seam and in the red zone. At the end of one practice, he won the offense the camouflage jerseys by beating his man and corralling a deep ball thrown by Josh McCown.

The ones who had to defend him most are the last to be surprised by a season that described as "defying time."

"Me and Craig (Robertson) used to talk about it all the time," linebacker Christian Kirksey said. "Gary, every time we needed a big play last year, he had for sure hands. I didn't expect nothing but the best from him this year and he's really shown up for us."

As Barnidge has described in his numerous interviews, the difference between this season and his previous seven are the opportunities.

In Carolina, it was Greg Olsen who worked in front of Barnidge. In his first two seasons with the Browns, Barnidge worked behind Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron, who amassed 104 catches for 1,341 yards and nine touchdowns from 2013-14. Barnidge had 26 receptions for 283 yards and two touchdowns during that stretch.

Memories of Barnidge's performance last year against the Saints, when he made two pivotal, first-down catches in Cleveland's 26-24 win, hadn't faded by the time Cleveland opened training camp. There Barnidge was as the team's No. 1 pass-catching option at tight end, and the offense hadn't missed a beat.

"You look at him and you're like 'this guy's not fast, he's not going to get away from me' or 'you can't block me, there's no way.' It's the total opposite and he just dominates," rookie linebacker Nate Orchard said. "During training camp I always heard him say this is the year I'm going to make it happen. Whenever they throw me the ball, I'm going to catch it and make a big play.

"He put his words into action and he's here now."

A look at TE Gary Barnidge's career so far. (Photos courtesy of AP Images)

Kirksey calls Barnidge a "'tweener," and it's meant as the best possible compliment for an opposing tight end.

Matched up against a smaller, faster linebacker, Barnidge, at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, can use his size and strength to position himself in a spot where the quarterback can still get him the ball. Against a bigger, stronger defender, Barnidge has the speed -- as deceiving as it might be -- to create space and put himself in a spot to not only make a catch, but also make a sizeable run after it.

As a 'tweener, Barnidge has been particularly tough to stop in two areas: down the middle of the field and inside the red zone. Even with the extra attention he's drawn from opposing defenders and even with a rash of injuries to Cleveland's wide receivers, Barnidge's numbers have remained steady as he closes in on franchise records for 100-yard receiving games and touchdown receptions for Browns tight ends.

"(The quarterback) can just dump it off to the tight end when he's getting a pass rush. Or you've got a mismatch with a tight end and a corner," Kirksey said. "You know he can box out and get a good amount of yards. You always need a guy like that on your squad."

It's a helpless feeling for an opposing defense, especially when McCown connects with Barnidge on a back-shoulder throw the way he did against the Arizona Cardinals. Or when Barnidge makes one simple move to get around a defensive back to catch a fade like he did against the Steelers.

And, well, when he makes a catch with his feet the way he did against the Ravens to forever etch himself in 2015's top NFL plays, there's truly nothing a defense can do but try to stop him on the next series.

"A guy like Gary, he doesn't quit," defensive back Pierre Desir said. "If you try to jump the route, he's going to continue to work. He always has a great connection with any quarterback and he can catch anything. With him, he's able to move and make plays if they're not there the first time."

For the first seven years, Barnidge was a relative unknown outside of the cities in which he played. That was the case until the end of September, but members of the Browns defense saw it coming for years.

"I'm sure teams have seen what he's done and he still comes in the game and makes plays. It's scary," safety Jordan Poyer said. "A lot of guys knew he was going to be a really big factor on this team this year and he stepped up and did that."

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