July 29, 2014

Browns Backing in to Wide Receiver Improvement

They came, they saw, they dropped passes. Lots of them.

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)

  • mgbode

    if it was me, then i would have gone:

    Round 1, Pick 3 (3): Richardson,RB, Bama (I came around on him late, but I did)
    Round 1, Pick 22 (22): Glenn, OT, UGa (I had him above Reiff)
    Round 2, Pick 5 (37): J.Robinson, CB, UCF (CBs really poor later)
    Round 3, Pick 24 (87): N.Foles, QB, Zona
    Round 4, Pick 5 (100): James-Michael Johnson, LB, Nev (or I could wait till 120 and pick Marvin here, either way)
    Round 4, Pick 25 (120): M.Jones, WR, Cal
    Round 5, Pick 25 (160): J.Criner, WR, Zona
    Round 6, Pick 34 (204): E.Acho, LB, Tx (good value)
    Round 6, Pick 35 (205): B.Winn, DE, Boise (good value)
    Round 7, Pick 38 (245): T.Wade, CB, Zona (I don’t know, so I’ll defer)
    Round 7, Pick 40 (247): B.Smelley, TE/HB, Bama (I like the duel-headed Bama backfield idea at least)

  • mgbode

    Sanu and Marvin Jones were my favorite mid-round WRs.  The Bengals got both of them.  I will now proceed to wash my eyes with acid :)

  • Steve-o

    I’m sure the Browns realize their recievers as a group are less than fabulous. They very much wanted to address WR earlier.

    Plan A was K. Wright at 22
    Plan B was R, Randle at 67
    Plan C was C. Givens at 100

    Plan D was T. Benjamin, and they decided to reach since they wanted a vertical reciever and were running out options. Lets hope he fits the role they envision.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    And they got a very good CB in Kirkpatrick too.  When did the Bengals learn to draft?  ;-)  Browns will remain the 4th best team in their division for years!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    We are of the same mind with the first four picks although I would have been ok with Weeden had they remained at #67 which is honestly where I think he should have been drafted.  I could have lived with him at #37 but #22 was waaaay to early.  I guess it’s just personal preference in the end for us, I don’t know what it was for Heckert.

  • Ritz

    Well, lets see….

    The commentor said “They had a plan, they stuck to it.”

    My point is that just because they had a plan and stuck to it does not mean its a good plan and therefore a great draft. Makes sense now??

  • kev

    the difference is i’m talking about the Front office, not the Head coach! however i don’t think shurmur was the man for the job but that’s another story.

    And I also agree that the win total should improve, at some point. The only problem is that it’s very difficult to know how the season is going to play out… Maybe the browns will make the playoffs thanks to a stiffling defense and an offense that don’t drag them down to the bottom of lake Erie. Who knows after all.

    I’m not very optimistic about the upcoming season because I don’t think Weeden is the answer and nothing will happen until that’s fixed! 

    You talk about the Lions, how did they get out of the hole? Stafford… ok and Megatron as well. 

    Point being I don’t think the problem at QB comes from the FO, because they didn’t really get the opportunity to draft a legitimate QB. They tried but came up short with RG3. When I look at what H&H did, it’s quite a good job and the team is most certainly in a much better shape than  when they arrived. 

    So I hope the Browns will be the surprise team next year but i’m prepared to salivate at the idea of getting landy jones…

  • dan

    I’ll take the bet with new front offices, too. They’re largely the same. Making it head coaches just adds Kansas City to the list and doesn’t take any team off of it, as far as can recall, since the Browns have the only front office silly enough to come in and not immediately switch to their own guy at HC.

    Anyway, I feel like you and I are in agreement — the Browns aren’t showing any improvement in their won-loss totals anytime soon. From this fact I conclude they haven’t got any better. I also conclude that better front offices have taken over worse teams than the Browns and shown improvement over the same period of time.

    I like using the Lions as an example because they were worse, made different decisions, and are better now. In particular, they used high draft picks on impact players at important skill positions (QB and pass rusher, in particular), didn’t trade down, and used free agency to fill holes. And, as it turned out, when they got better, they started winning
    more games. I’m sick of people telling me that the Browns are better than they were when H&H came in. If the team is better, why can’t it win more games than it did before?

  • dan

    Adding — I think we’re also in agreement that the Weeden pick doesn’t make sense because, no matter who they took, the Browns would have been in position next year to draft a better QB prospect.

  • kev

    since H&H arrived which QB could/should have they drafted. Andy Dalton… Maybe but everybody was comfortable with McCoy last season. and he probably wouldn’t have been successful in Cleveland anyway. And I don’t think AJ Green will be as good as Johnson. Point being the lions got lucky. I think you make your own luck but that’s only true up to a certain point when you talk about the draft