The Wide Receivers: When Will Potential and Reality Collide?
December 30, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon (13) and wide receiver Greg Little (15) on the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 24-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
The Browns wide receivers have a world of potential but they also have several questions to answer coming into training camp. The combination of bringing in additional talent as well as leadership in addition to the growth of the players that the team already had could be a dynamic group. The team has some talented, young receiving options but as has been crystallized by Josh Gordon’s suspension, they have some maturing and growing up to do. There has been a good amount of guesswork and projection as to see how the Browns want to put all these guys together and see how they gel with the quarterbacks, but the time to actually see it in action is quickly approaching. Between having to adjust to the suspension to start the year and having guys come into their own combined with the new blood, the potential is there to be a good group but it could have some growing pains in the process.
Josh Gordon was a revelation last year after being selected by Tom Heckert as a second round pick in the supplemental draft. His physical talent was fantastic but he was raw as a player and came with baggage in the form of a history with drug suspensions that ultimately caused him to leave Baylor and spend a year just practicing with Utah before he declared to be in the supplemental draft. Gordon was expected to really have a tough year as he tried to adjust to the NFL and play far more like Stephen Hill did from the New York Jets, but he was far ahead of schedule as a rookie and left fans both of the Browns and onlookers around the league excited about where Gordon could go and ready to call the move a brilliant one. Gordon has all of the talent to be a true #1 receiver and really set the table for the rest of the group with his ability to make plays all over the field and stretch the field deep, which works well with the offense the Browns want to run. The only thing that might prevent him from reaching his potential is immaturity and his own decisions.
Gordon reminded everyone why he was viewed as a reach and a gamble after he was suspended. Gordon has not been the savviest guy when it comes to the local fan base and made people around northeast Ohio and around the league collectively hold their breath after he had pictures of him on social media smoking hookah. There was nothing illegal about it, but it was probably not the message Gordon’s representation wanted their client to put out there. When Gordon was suspended for what was revealed to be codeine in cough syrup, fans did not give him the benefit of the doubt and assumed the worst. This was in part due to his history, the perceived immaturity, and of course, the natural pessimism of the fan base. Gordon has growing up to do and that was clear the previous regime drafted him. They took a risk because they needed to win games. The new regime has all but said they would not have taken Gordon, so there is a little animosity between the two sides but they have him, so they need to make it work.
And while the situation on Twitter with Gordon and fans arguing about the Miami Heat and LeBron James winning the NBA Championship was another example of Gordon not being terribly savvy, it was an incredibly overblown situation where too many fans were looking for an excuse to be angry and were overly sensitive. Social media is great because it allows fans to get in touch with pro athletes but then some of those same fans get indignant and upset when they are honest and do not act the way the fans expect. Gordon is a young kid who was born and raised in Houston, who happens to like the best basketball player in the world. People getting angry about that and expecting him to toe the line for the entire region’s tastes across all of sports is silly. As long as he does his best to be a productive member of the Cleveland Browns, he can like whatever other teams he wants in other sports. If he up and decided to love the Cavs and Indians, chances are there would be fans who complained about that, because he had no loyalty to the teams or players he grew up watching. Joe Haden is a player who has fully embraced the Cavs and Cleveland as a whole and fans give him a ton of breathing room as a result despite the fact he was suspended for cheating; a four game suspension due to performance enhancing drugs. There seems to be some disconnect there.
The trade to bring in Davonne Bess was made in no small part due to Josh Gordon, but he was brought in for the benefit of everyone on the team. Bess has been a consummate pro who had to scratch and claw to get to the NFL and has not taken it for granted. He works his butt off in practice and raises the level of expectations in terms of working hard for the group as well as bringing more of a sense of ownership to the position. He is not only a guy who leads by example but he has been vocal since arriving in Cleveland, which has been a welcome sight. The hope is that the rest of these young guys soak up as much as they can from Bess, grow up, mature, and push themselves to reach their potential.
As a player, Bess comes in as the only true slot option on the team. He has never been particularly fast, but he is quick, gets open and catches the football. While it will depend on how the team wants to use him, Bess is a guy who catches somewhere between 60 and 70 passes and move the chains. He is not someone who tends to get into the end zone often but he just extends drives and makes himself a reliable target that should be able to work underneath and find areas to settle into to catch passes. His ability to work underneath and find ways to get open could work to open up opportunities further down the field as well. Bess should be a good player on his own merits but his contributions could be felt far more in the locker room if the other guys are willing to buy into what he is offering.
Greg Little is a divisive player to this point in his career, but he is a player who could take a major step forward this season. People forget that Little has played more games in the NFL as a wide receiver than he did in college. Little was recruited to be a running back and was moved to wide receiver where he played one season before being suspended for what would have been his second year after he was one of a few Tar Heels that took impermissible benefits.
The focus for Little has been on his hands and his inconsistency as a pass catcher, which was true up until the halfway point of last season. Whether coincidence or genuinely a turning point, Little had a talk with former NBA great, Alonzo Mourning. Whatever was said, bottle it and sell it as Little went from a frustrated player trying to find his way to being extremely reliable as a pass catcher and really had a solid second half of the year. Coming into his third season, if Little is not trying to get over issues with his hands, he could be in position to make a major step forward and really own being the #2 option in the Browns offense. Little’s size, strength and ability to run after the catch make him a threat in short and intermediate routes and a nice player opposite of Gordon. He can play on the outside or move inside to the slot depending on the situation and take advantage of corners who are smaller than him or linebackers and safeties who are not as quick.
Of the 53 passes Little caught last year, 36 of them were for first downs with four for touchdowns. The potential is there for him and if he can take a step forward with his ability after the catch in particular, he could make some big plays. He is incredibly strong as a former running back so he has the ability to make big plays with the ball in his hands, but was inconsistent last year. Often times, it seemed like he was rushing himself too much and would lose his balance while occasionally showing flashes of his raw strength by overpowering opponents. Little is a good fit in the division and the offense as a result, if he can have the light go on, the Browns could go from possibly looking to draft another receiver to having their group going forward that can continue to develop and improve. Because of the suspension to Gordon, Little will need to step up the first two weeks of the season and could be a big reason the Browns are able to win, giving fans reasons to be excited for when Gordon is back week three.
Travis Benjamin was drafted as a pure speed threat who could line up on the outside and go down the field and he did just that last year with some big plays. He was also able to show he could take over as the full time punt returner. When Benjamin was drafted, it was clear that he would need to add significant strength to his frame, assuming he is able, as he was dwarfed by teammate and fellow small receiver, Jordan Norwood. With any luck, Benjamin has a sleeping bag in the weight room in Berea and is currently lifting at this moment. Benjamin’s speed is a weapon and will always be a threat, but he was easily overpowered too often and there was a genuine fear that he was going to be broken in half last season. It is unlikely he is ever a major weapon but he can be a nice fourth or fifth option can make the occasional some big plays and be a threat on special teams. If the rest of the offense can put pressure on the defense, it will open up opportunities for Benjamin to light them up down the field. If the Browns were to go with four receivers, Gordon and Benjamin could be on the outside with Little and Bess in the slot.
When the announcement was made the Browns were bringing in David Nelson, the immediate name that came to mind was Joe Jurevicious. For all of the contributions made by Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards and Jamal Lewis in the 2007 season, Jurevicious was incredibly important as a possession receiver with his huge size, ability to get open and make catches as well as his leadership and mentality as a pro. That appears to be the type of role that is being envisioned for Jones. The first hurdle Jones needs to get over is the knee injury he suffered last year, which is why Jones is not in Buffalo and why Cleveland got him on a one year deal. Jones is looking for an opportunity to get back to being healthy and effective so he can cash in on a bigger deal. The Browns get a one year try out from a big receiver that fits something both Chudsinski and Turner have developed an affinity during their coaching careers.
Because of the variety the Browns have at the position, a healthy Jones gives the Browns a ton of options. They can go big in short yardage or down near the goal line or go smaller and faster with more space. Jones could be an important role player even if he is never getting a ton of snaps in the offense. Not having to use guys like Benjamin or Josh Cribbs in short yardage or down near the goal line will be a welcome sight and if Jones can prove to be healthy, could function in a role like the second tight end the Browns desperately need.
Those five guys are the favorites to make the final roster but right behind them should be a nice competition to see if anyone can be a pleasant surprise. Jordan Norwood came to the Browns as an undrafted free agent the same year as Little, so this will be big for him. Norwood has terrific hands and has had flashes of being a good player that appeared to be a nice cog in the offense and someone who appeared to be getting on track before something would prevent him from taking the next step. Norwood had a terrific game against the New York Giants last year where he was caught 9 passes on 9 targets for 81 yards. It was one of only two games Norwood was able to play last season. Norwood may ultimately be working to audition for other teams in camp this year and preseason could be a big stage for him to find himself his next team, should be he be released. If someone goes down with injury, he might be the first call to replace them.
Going against him is a guy who is extremely similar in Josh Cooper, Brandon Weeden’s former receiver at Oklahoma State. Cooper had some buzz going last year for his ability to catch the football. He and Norwood are virtually identical in size and both catch the ball well, so each is trying to find a place where they can set themselves apart and ultimately get a job with the Browns or get one elsewhere. It would hardly be surprising to hear Cooper get some buzz again in this year’s training camp but the numbers are going to be a tough hurdle for him and either Cooper or Norwood is going to have to be simply too good to let go.
Behind them is a group of undrafted free agent rookies and a second year player in Tori Gurley who are trying to be impressive enough to make the team but could be fighting for a spot on the practice squad. Gurley left South Carolina as an underclassman and brings a nice amount of physical ability, but needs to put it all together as a technical player. The rookies include Keenan Lewis from Iowa, Dominque Croom from Central Arkansas, Mike Edwards from UTEP and Cordell Roberson from Stephen F. Austin. Of these, Lewis might have the best chance to make an impact based on his size and performance in college but it would take an injury combined with an impressive performance in camp for any of these guys to make the final roster. One of them could end up making the practice squad; perhaps two.
The group of receivers had more promise and enthusiasm before Gordon’s suspension which really put the fragility of the position into focus as well as fear about Gordon’s career as a whole. There is plenty of reason to be excited both with the talent and the youth of this group but in addition to these guys proving to be a good unit and coming in their own as individual players, they are working to show the Browns will not need to draft another receiver early in the upcoming draft. This could be a group that develops over the course of the season as they get accustomed to the offense, but as a unit, it could be unrecognizable from opening day to the last game of the season depending on their development.