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The Uncertain Future of the Cleveland Browns' Wide Receivers

Wide receivers Mohammed Massaquoi and Carlton Mitchell both returned to the practice field at the Browns’ facility in Berea on Sunday. Mitchell has missed two weeks with a finger injury, while Massaquoi’s well-documented absence has encompassed all workouts since the end of the lockout in late July. Seeing reports of these two young pass catchers back in action begs a poignant question: What will the roles of the receiving corps be when Pat Shurmur‘s offense settles in?

Through three preseason games Greg Little has seen the lion’s share of targets as the coaching staff works to get him as much game action as possible to shake off a year’s worth of rust. In fact, with 12 targets, Little has seen twice the attempts of expected starters Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs (though Cribbs missed the Philadelphia game with an injury).

Despite the coaching staff forcing the ball somewhat to develop their second round selection, Little has come down with the ball on seven of those 12 targets. While this completion rate (58%) is somewhat lower than the completion rates of Evan Moore, Robiskie and Cribbs, their targets have occurred more in the flow of the offense. In contrast, while there has been hype surrounding Jordan Norwood as a potential slot receiver, he has come down with only three of the nine passes sent his way.

It is unlikely that many observers would look at this group and see a true No. 1 threat. That being said, the success of the West Coast offense does not require a No. 1, but instead flourishes when the quarterback has multiple targets and spreads the ball around. So, if the Browns take the committee approach, where does everyone fit in?

I generally avoid player comparisons – it is rarely productive to talk about a young player as “the next so-and-so.” Each player is unique and brings varying degrees of many different skills. That said, I do see the Browns’ passing game having the potential to develop into their own version of the New Orleans Saints. Remember – I’m not comparing players – Colt McCoy is not Drew Brees, however, systematically the Browns have an opportunity to develop along those lines into an offense that utilizes multiple targets effectively.

Physically speaking, Greg Little’s 220-pound frame is the most imposing of the group and projects well as a reliable outside target that can also dart in for the all-important quick slant routes and fight for the ball in traffic. Robiskie and Massaquoi are very similar in size and speed and will likely fill very similar roles opposite Little.

Mitchell possesses good height at 6-3 and the best pure speed on the squad (4.49 in the 40-yard dash at the combine). If he has truly developed his pass-catching and route-running skills since last season, as many have reported, he could fill the role of the “burner,” stretching opposing secondaries to open up the underneath routes.

Finally, among the receiver roles in the WCO we look for who can best fill the role of the slot man, working mostly over the middle in traffic. Again, while much has been written about Jordan Norwood’s potential in this role, there are reasons for concern. At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Norwood is a small target who possesses neither the speed to outrun, nor the size to shed tacklers. It is more likely that the bigger, faster and veteran Josh Cribbs would find more success, and he certainly would be of greater concern to opposing defenders.

Should the wide receiver corps settle into successful roles, complemented by the mismatches caused by the tight ends, Colt McCoy and the Browns’ offense could surprise more than a few opponents in 2011.

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Tags: Brian Robiskie Carlton Mitchell Cleveland Browns Greg Little Jordan Norwood Josh Cribbs Mohammed Massaquoi

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