In exploring the positional situations and possibilities for this transitioning Browns franchise, wide receiver is the most fascinating area to follow.
Consider the possible return of an All-Pro, a new head coach with relevant expertise, a few aging veterans still under contract, a converted quarterback reunited with his former coach, and a surfeit of gutsy but undersized guys. If you’re looking for one positional group to take the biggest leap from one year to the next, the Browns WRs could be an interesting choice.
Here’s where they’re starting from. In 2015, Cleveland’s wideouts caught 196 passes (out of 345 targets, or 57%) for 2,299 yards (11.7 yards per reception). For the second straight year, they combined for just eight touchdowns. They also accounted for seven fumbles (compared to two for the running backs), though this includes the return game.
So Hue Jackson is right: a big-play threat is imperative. But even the finest playmaker can be limited if complementary options can’t regularly hurt defenses. So which pieces might already be in place, and which from today’s crowded roster are likely to depart?
Currently on roster: 10
- Josh Gordon — If there’s a Number One receiver to be found on the Browns roster, it’s him. He proved in 2013 that he’s an elite combination of size and speed, capable of taking over a game. But as we all know, his history of problems with substances of abuse has harmed his career (more than it’s harmed his body, in fact), costing him untold tens of millions of dollars. Suspensions have shelved him for all but five games the last two seasons, but is it really wise to give up on him if he earns reinstatement from the league? He’s still just 24 years old and tied to the Browns with his affordable rookie contract. A rededicated and motivated Gordon could boost the Browns offense faster and farther than any single thing worth imagining.
- Travis Benjamin — This time a year ago, many Browns followers figured he wouldn’t make the team. Instead, he was better than ever, the Browns’ most productive wideout by far. Another year removed from his 2013 ACL injury, he returned to form on special teams too, ranking fourth in the league in punt return average. In the final year of his rookie contract, the dreadlocked burner known as Rabbit more than doubled his career receiving output, catching 68 passes for 966 yards and five TDs. Besides his undeniable speed, Benjamin showed reliable hands and good route-running, including improvising on broken plays. But at 175 pounds tops, he’ll never win many battles for the ball in tight coverage, and he can get bodied out of the play, limiting his overall potential to be a dominating player. Still, he proved he’s a productive pro capable of scoring suddenly from anywhere on the field.
- Brian Hartline — The native Ohioan came home with a two-year contract last year and produced decently in an campaign marred by a concussion and broken collarbone. He contributed an average of 44 receiving yards in his 12 games (four starts), including a pair of amazing catches. Hartline doesn’t astound you with any one dimension of his game, but as a total package, he’s a solid, tough, reliable football player with ample size, speed, and quickness.
- Andrew Hawkins — A likable underdog with a fantastic story behind his ascent to NFL-quality receiver, Hawk had a tough year in 2015, as so many Browns did. He suffered two concussions within a month and didn’t come close to replicating the career highs he put up in 2014, his first year after arriving as a restricted free agent from Cincinnati. A shifty lightning bug of a player, he’s hard to cover out of the slot.
- Terrelle Pryor — The converted quarterback made the Browns’ opening day roster as a receiver but was soon waived in favor of RB Robert Turbin, who himself lasted only a few weeks here. After a wave of injuries, Pryor was re-signed in December. He caught just one of the eight passes thrown his way, but it went for 42 yards. His athletic skill and six-foot-six frame has some believing the ex-Buckeye can successfully switch positions in the latter half of his third decade.
- Taylor Gabriel — Like Benjamin, he could switch his first and last names and probably come out sounding better. But unlike Benjamin, this bantam Brown didn’t have a good year. After a fine rookie season as a surprise undrafted free agent, Gabriel saw his per-catch average fall from an impressive 17.3 to a subpar 8.6 while his drops doubled from two to four despite fewer targets.
- Dwayne Bowe — While Gordon produced nothing for the Browns in 2015, at least they didn’t have to pay him. His suspension led to the signing of Bowe, the former Chief Pro Bowler released two seasons after a big contract extension. In the first year of his two-year Cleveland deal worth at least $9 million, Bowe appeared in just seven games and caught all of five passes. He seemed slow and generally disengaged, the latest of many disappointments to wear number 80 for the Browns.
- Marlon Moore — A core special teamer, he started two games at WR and caught seven passes and scored one touchdown, tying career highs.
- Darius Jennings — The most productive of the Browns’ three undrafted free agent rookie signees who saw action last year, Jennings is yet another undersized receiver. He gained 275 all-purpose yards but had no big plays in four December games.
- Rannell Hall — Poached from Tampa‘s practice squad in December, he was a Central Florida teammate of fellow rookie WR Breshad Perriman, the Ravens’ first-rounder who missed the season with a knee injury.
Analysis and outlook
Much depends on whether Gordon is reinstated, and whether the Browns decide that the reward is worth the risk. But the league might not decide in time for the beginning of free agency on March 9. They have 60 days to rule on his reinstatement application. News of that application was first reported on Wednesday, but the received date was not specified, so it’s unclear when that clock started ticking.
In considering what to do at wide receiver this off-season, the Browns ought not rely on Gordon being reinstated and returning to top form for all 16 games. I’d love to see that happen, as Gordon, for all his troubles, is not a bad person, and his potential far exceeds whatever downside the Browns would take on by keeping him.
But if they have their eyes on a free agent prize, there’s no reason not to go for it. That might be someone like Alshon Jeffrey, a top-notch downfield threat coming off an injury-plagued contract year, or one of Jackson’s Bengals: Marvin Jones or Mohamed Sanu, two strong complements to the elite A.J. Green. Or they could wait for the draft, by which Gordon’s status would be clearer.
As for the Browns’ own free agent WRs, Benjamin and Pryor, the latter seems more likely to return in 2016. Benjamin broke out at the right time to hit the free agent market, and he may draw a better offer elsewhere. He established himself as a bona fide NFL starter, but his game may not be complete enough (or his body rugged enough) for Browns to bank on to the tune of eight figures guaranteed. I’d miss his game-breaking speed and wish him well, especially if he goes to another division.
After the Browns waived him in September, Pryor was still available three months later, so it seems he could be enticed to return under a modest deal. If Jackson wants to take on this project, it seems like a low-risk endeavor with considerable upside.
Hartline, Hawkins, Gabriel, and Moore are all under contract, with no workout or roster bonuses of note, so there’s really no reason not to bring them back to compete for spots. Hawkins’ health may be a concern, and he turns 30 in March. But he seemed excited by Jackson’s hiring, and I could see him and Hartline returning to play complementary, veteran roles at affordable prices. If Moore sticks around, it will be mostly due to his role as a gunner. It would take another quantum leap for Gabriel to make the team again. Even moreso for Jennings and Hall.
By all appearances, Bowe’s career is in sharp decline. Now maybe there’s more than meets the eye. If the revamped Browns organization can cut through the fog of his enigmatic 2015 season, perhaps he can be motivated to find a second wind. But I doubt it. The thing is, $2.85 million of his scheduled 2016 salary of $6.15 million is guaranteed. If they cut him, that’s $4.6 million of dead money under the salary cap. But that may be preferable to his $8 million cap hit if he stays.
I just hope that the decision-makers examine Bowe’s situation closely. They should sit down with him to fully understand the dynamics behind the dysfunctional 2015 season and absorb the appropriate lessons. I don’t think they’ll throw good money after bad. It just seems beyond comprehension that he could provide sufficient value to justify keeping, given the utter waste of last year.
If I had to predict the Browns’ 2016 opening day roster at wide receiver, I’d say Gordon, Sanu, Hartline, Hawkins, Pryor, and a rookie to be determined. I’d be happy with that, but I also predict my prediction is wrong.