You may remember back in 2010 (you know the last time there was a complete overhaul in Berea) we wanted to give incoming President Mike Holmgren a hand evaluating the roster. We are nothing if not equal opportunity. The Browns have a completely new group in charge this year. Joe Banner, Mike Lombardi, Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner and Ray Horton take over a 5-11 team. They have plenty of important decisions to make about the roster between now and the 2013 NFL Draft. WFNY wants to offer our assistance with The Banner Position Reports. Previous reports:LB, QB, RB, DBs, DL
Not since the “The Season of Dreams” back in 2007 have the Browns had real playmakers catching the football. That year Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards each topped 1000 yards and 80 receptions before seeing their numbers drop off significantly in 2008. Then, the next three years the Browns’ pass catchers were led by Mo Massaquoi (34 rec, 624 yards), Ben Watson (68 rec, 763 yards), and Greg Little (61 rec, 709 yards). It became something to celebrate when a receiver caught a pass instead of the usual dump off to backs and tight ends. The Browns’ inability to get the ball out wide has been as much on the receiving corps as it has been on the revolving door of quarterbacks coming through Berea. It’s the old chicken or the egg conundrum. Have the struggles passing been the result of poor quarterback play, or lack of weapons catching the football? The short answer is yes. But in 2012 with Weeden throwing to Little and Gordon the Brownies started to show signs of a real passing attack. While far from a proficient one, there was now a passing attack to speak of.
Last season will be remembered for two things, the emergence of Josh Gordon, and drops. Drops became a huge problem for Greg Little early on in the year, so much so that talking heads and fans were irrationally calling for the Browns’ best wide out at the time to be benched. Little made the easy ones look hard and the hard ones look easy in 2012, but whether you like Little or not, he’s the first receiver since Braylon to put together back to back productive seasons catching the football.
Gordon, marked with a giant question mark coming out of Baylor and Utah, exceeded everyone’s expectations in 2012, validating the second round choice Tom Heckert and crew used in the supplemental draft to snag him. From the moment Gordon stepped on the practice field, it was evident the Browns hadn’t had a receiver with this kind of potential since Braylon, but the question was how long would it take to see some of it come to fruition?
In just his fifth NFL game, Gordon hauled in two touchdowns against the world champion Giants, then added a score in the following two weeks to give him four scores in a three game stretch. The rookie would cool off for a few weeks before having strong weeks of 6 catches for 116 and 8 for 86 against Oakland and Kansas City. Great signs for a kid who had sat out of football the previous year.
Outside of Little and Gordon, no other receiver made any sort of impact in 2012. Ben Watson had another solid showing at the tight end spot, but never got into the offense as much as the Browns had hoped coming into the season. Watson was spelled by the athletic Jordan Cameron, who failed to break out like many had expected. Cameron did record his first career touchdown against Pittsburgh, but only eclipsed 3 catches once on the year.
Contract Situation (estimated via RotoWorld)
Greg Little – 2013: $602,500, 2014: $753,750, 2015: Free Agent
Josh Cooper – 2013: $480,000, 2014: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Josh Cribbs – 2013: Free Agent
The receivers and tight ends on this team are cheap. Not one player on the roster is slated to make $1 million in 2013, and the core of Little, Gordon, Benjamin, and Cameron will all be around through 2014 with their cheap contracts. Mo Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs are goners, as is Watson who is on the wrong side of 30 for a team trying to rebuild. Josh Cooper will be back thanks to the two year deal he signed that keeps him with his college buddy, Weeden, through the end of this season. Wide receivers/tight end is one area the Browns can most definitely afford to spend money this off season.
Banner Report Advisory Alert: Elevated
For the first time in years, the Browns can go into the season knowing they have two actual NFL caliber receivers in Little and Gordon, not to mention a burner in Travis Benjamin. All three players were selected in the last two drafts1, leaving the Browns young, raw, and talented out wide. While Little notoriously makes fans grab the brims on their orange hard hats in frustration with his dropped passes, moments like his 43 yard catch to keep the Brownies in the game at Baltimore remind us the potential that Little has. With all the potential that Little has, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think Gordon has even more. Gordon also had his battle with drops, (most notably the game winner at Indy) but his high end speed, prototype receiver frame, and ability to pluck the ball with his hands make him the most exciting Browns’ wideout since Braylon. The key word with this group is potential, and just like a maple tree, potential is useless until it is tapped. It’s hard to see top end wideout talent making their way to shores of Lake Erie this spring, but there are plenty of options on the market that could bolster this receiving corps with experience and competition.
Tight end is a little more murky. Watson and Smith are all but gone, leaving Jordan Cameron as the only tight end on the roster. Cameron has upside due to his athleticism, but is still way off from the Antonio Gates/Jimmy Graham mold that many Browns fans hoped the former USC basketball player would someday become. With Cameron slated in as the backup to be used in special packages, Banner and Lombardi have their pick of some young, proven players to come in and start at the tight end spot.
2013 Draft Class (via CBSSports)
1. Cordarrelle Patterson (Tennessee)
2. Tavon Austin (West Virginia)
3. Keenan Allen (California)
4. Robert Woods (USC)
5. DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson)
With so little money on the books at receiver and tight end, Banner and Lombardi have to have their quill pens and checkbooks ready. Unfortunately I think it’s more realistic for the Browns to make a ripple instead of a splash in these markets. Welker, Jennings, Cruz and Wallace would all be great additons in a fantasy world, but I’m confident all will be making their homes somewhere else besides the west side of Cleveland next fall. Rarely do big free agent wide receiver signings pan out the way teams hope, it’s the second tier guys where you find the real value. The Browns HAVE to sign a quality receiver to join the group in 2013. They don’t need a guy with star power, but someone who can fill the Joe Jurevicius role of 2007 will do just fine. The Browns need a guy who knows how to play the position in the NFL, and is dependable with their hands. The Browns have the money to spend so they should be able to have their pick of second tier guys like a Domenik Hickson or a Danny Amendola.
Amendola is a struggling QB’s best friend, just ask Sam Bradford, who was clearly better with Amendola then without. He’s not flashy, and doesn’t get a the hype Welker does, but he can serve the same role. He can beat safeties and linebackers in one on one coverage all day, providing a saftey valve for inexperienced QB.
Victor Cruz may get all the hype nationally for his 2011 season, but in 2012 Hickson and Cruz were very similar for the Giants. As the third receiver for the Giants, Hickson ammassed 60 catches and nearly 600 yards and was top 20 in the league in percentage of balls caught that were targeted to him. Against the Browns the last season, Hickson was almost uncoverable, stealing the ball out of the air with the Browns db’s draped all over him. Browns’ receivers have trouble catching the ball as is, and to add a guy who will catch it regardless of where it’s thrown or who is on him would be a huge addition.
The Browns should also have the opportunity to overpay the tight end of their choice. With Coach Chud being so famous for his tight end usage I would expect the Browns to be aggressive in the tight end market early, and then add another one or two as the weeks and months go by. Jared Cook has to be the name at the top of his list due to his size and ability to stretch the field vertically. Tennessee wanted to keep him, but is going to be unable to thanks to a loophole in his contract that would require the franchise tag to be applied to him as a receiver instead of a tight end. Dennis Pitta is another likely target. The Superbowl winning tight end of the Ravens put together a strong 2012 with 61 catches for 689 yards, as well as made big catches in big moments last post season. Any time you have a chance to take away a top tier player from one of your division rivals, it’s worth taking a serious look. If the Browns don’t come away with Pitta or Cook I’ll be viewing their tight end shopping this off season as a disappointment.
Gordon was taken in the 2012 supplemental draft [↩]