The receiving corps which represented the Cleveland Browns’ passing game in 2011 was essentially the Island of Misfit Toys. A pair of second-round underperformers — one later released — were joined by a return man and a former running back who had not played football during the last year due to ineligibility issues. On the rare occasion when the team entered the red zone, a tight end who is allergic to blocking would motion into the slot. Even the reserve quarterback got in on the action; his lone, 21-yard catch would ultimately place him as the team leader in yards-per-reception.
Heading into the draft having avoided free agents as if they were bill collectors, the wide receiver position topped the team’s list of needs. The immediate and direct answer came in the form of Miami Hurricane speedster Travis Benjamin, a player who the team feels they have intimate knowledge of due to his time spent with Mark Whipple when the current Browns quarterbacks coach was the Hurricanes offensive coordinator. The book on Benjamin: Small hands, small frame, killer dreads, and was once clocked having a 4.26-second 40-yard dash. Devin Hester’s Pro Day 40-time, for comparison purposes, was 4.33 seconds. Given size and stature, Benjamin was quickly compared to a former Heckert draft selection in Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson. That said, while the Browns’ stable of receivers received an injection of speed, the position was easily one of the most ignored when it came to this past weekend’s festivities.
Or was it?
Understanding that the team’s passing game left a lot to be desired, it appears that the Browns front office decided to indirectly attack their aerial weakness, addressing it from the inside out. A top-flight running back to keep defenses honest was only the start. From there, Tom Heckert opted to add a strong-armed, red-headed yet accurate quarterback in Brandon Weeden. Finishing the line of scrimmage sandwich, Heckert set his sites on protection for the 28-year-old, adding the top right tackle in the draft (Mitchell Schwartz) as well as a bruising guard in Colorado’s Ryan Miller. Coupling all of this with another year of experience, and the Browns feel that their receivers will improve due to the time they’ll have to run their routes coupled with the arm from which the ball will be delivered.
“An outstanding quarterback brings synergy to the whole team,” said head coach Pat Shurmur this past weekend. “Just like the addition of a running back helps the quarterback, a quarterback who throws the ball accurately and on time, makes the receivers looks good.
“When the quarterback has a little bit more time to throw it, because the line is doing their job, it makes everything look good. I think that it is all connected, I really do. I think that it is hard on offense to talk about one specifically not connected to the other. I do know this, when you have outstanding quarterback play, all the players on offense and all of the people in this room, we all look good.”
Last season’s top target was a rookie in Greg Little, getting 121 looks from Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. Of those 121, only 61 were hauled in for receptions. Little’s drop total in 2011 is well documented as the former Tar Heel was second in the NFL having 12 balls hit the ground on his watch. As that excruciating as that number is, it’s nothing compared to the other 48 targets which were neither caught nor dropped; targets that were anything but on-target.
Mike Holmgren was not about to make excuses on Saturday, stating that the receivers have to catch the ball. At times last season, Holmgren felt that Otto Graham could have been under center and things would have still been bleak. Drive killing drops leading to eventual three-and-outs or the giant pendulum that swings from momentum-building first down to a deflating third-and-long. Yet, as bad as some of Little’s drops were, they paled in comparison to the pass attempts that sailed over his head, skipped three feet in front of his cleats, or were thrown three-to-five yards behind him.
“The [receivers] will be better, for a lot of reasons,” said Holmgren. “That’s why no one is in a panic about how the draft went as far as how our receivers went. We will not drop the ball like we dropped it last year. We will have a running game to go with our passing game. Those things by themselves it will be better.”
Sure, receivers can make a quarterback look good, but in today’s NFL, it’s the quarterback who typically wins the chicken-egg debate. If not for Drew Brees, the Saints would not have had two 1,000-yard receivers and four players with at least seven touchdown receptions. If not for Peyton Manning, Pierre Garcon would not have a shiny new five-year, $42.5 million dollar contract.
Heading into this off-season, the everlasting debate was if the issue in 2011 was Colt McCoy or his relative lack of weapons at the offensive skill positions. The only way to find out the answer was to add weaponry and let the result unfold. Instead, the front office drew their own conclusions and acted upon it knowing that the hour glass was quickly losing sand.
We will soon find out if Brandon Weeden is not only an upgrade at quarterback, but a miracle worker with this current cabal of receivers.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)