Cleveland Browns: What to do with all these wide receivers?
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns added four wide receivers in the draft. What will the position group look like come the fall?
The Cleveland Browns surprised everyone during draft weekend as they unveiled a new attitude toward the wide receiver position.
After only drafting four wide receivers since 2010 – none of whom are still on the team – the Browns went out and took four in this year’s draft alone in Corey Coleman, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins.
“I said when I got here that I was looking to improve that position,” head coach Hue Jackson told the team’s website. “I wanted to get some bigger targets on our football team, but I’m also very happy with the group we had. I think you can never have too much talent or competition at that position because I think it helps improve your quarterback position.”
“You have to have targets for (the QB) to throw at, and we have accomplished that in this draft.” – Head coach Hue Jackson
The Browns accomplished their goal of getting bigger, as Louis (6-foot-2, 215 pounds), Payton (6-foot-1, 207 pounds) and Higgins (6-foot-2) all fit the bill. Only Coleman, who is 5-foot-10, would be classified as short, but he is so fast that the Youngblood principle (“you can’t hit what you can’t catch”) may apply to him.
The new group (with one exception) can also do one important thing: catch the ball.
Payton is UCLA’s record-holder for career receptions, Coleman took home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best wide receiver in 2015, Louis led the Tigers in receptions last fall, and Higgins is Colorado State’s record-holder for career receptions.
Related: Browns may have found a big play threat in Corey Coleman
While it is not realistic to think that all four rookies will make the final roster this fall, their arrival does signal a shakeup among the receivers. The team will most likely carry six wide receivers, so who will make the cut?
If he is not suffering any long-term issues from last season’s concussions, Andrew Hawkins seems likely to hold onto his roster spot as he was a productive player when healthy in 2014. He also brings veteran presence to the position group, which is something that will be needed with so many rookies in the room.
Less certain is Brian Hartline‘s future with the club. His production was already in decline before signing with the Browns in free agency, and he continued to trend in the wrong direction before suffering a season-ending injury. The Browns are looking to get younger, and if they are only going to keep one veteran around they may prefer Hawkins over Hartline.
Taylor Gabriel‘s season was also curtailed by concussions last fall, and after a promising rookie season his production fell off in 2015. He is still young enough, however, which could give him an advantage in the team’s new world order.
Darius Jennings and Rannell Hall are almost certain to be early cuts, and while there are still people who cling to the fantasy that Terrelle Pryor is an NFL receiver, the position is getting too crowded for such a long-shot prospect.
Among the draftees, Coleman is a lock to make the roster and, even before taking the field, is the team’s No.1 wide receiver. Payton should also have no trouble making the team as a solid compliment to Coleman because, as Go Joe Bruin points out, he can catch the ball:
"When the ball was thrown Payton’s way, you could almost guarantee he would pull it in. He can catch the ball in traffic, can shift away from defenders in the open field and his strength allows him to take hits and continue to get extra yardage."
"Though he does need to work on getting faster and separating from his defender, for the most part he is a quick receiver with great hands, perfect for short yardage pass plays."
Louis may be a little less of a certainty. He is almost as fast as Coleman, but had a problem with holding onto the ball, according to Fly War Eagle:
"I don’t think his route running was the main concern while he was Auburn, it was all of the dropped passes. He had no problem getting open in Auburn’s offense, and I figure he’ll be able to exploit defenses with his speed at the NFL level, but you still have to catch the football when you’re open. Also, in the NFL you have to worry about a crushing safety knocking your helmet off – even though the NFL is trying to limit those types of hits, making it easier for wide receivers to go across the middle."
"Louis versatility out of the slot where he can carry the football and out-run linebackers gives him the chance to break this lineup, but he’ll need to have a very impressive training camp and preseason if he’s going to get some playing time."
Even with his difficulties in holding onto the ball, Louis’ athletic ability should be enough to earn him a roster spot, which only leaves us Higgins.
The numbers that Higgins put up last season – 74 receptions, 1,061 yards and eight touchdowns – would be enough for the Browns to take notice. But when you factor in what he did the previous season – 96 receptions, 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns – you have to wonder how he lasted until the fifth round.
The answer, at least according to Pro Football Focus, is that teams may have put too much emphasis on Higgins’ profile and not enough on his actual production:
"The NFL draft is often a fascinating case study over the debate between measurables and on-field production, and Higgins is clearly a player who fell due to below-average measurables. While they are a concern, to get him in the fifth round, as the Browns did, is a gamble worth taking. Consider this: Two wide receivers had a higher overall PFF grade than Alabama’s Amari Cooper in 2014. One was Tyler Lockett, who had an impressive rookie year for the Seattle Seahawks. The other was Higgins. And while his grade slipped a little in 2015, he still had the sixth-highest receiving grade in this class this past season, and forced 31 missed tackles over the past two years."
We came into this thinking that Higgins was going to be the weak link, but now we’re not so sure.
In fact, looking at the returning group of wide receivers for the Browns, there probably shouldn’t be a single player that should be considered a lock for the roster – at least not based on their performance in 2015. So while the idea of four rookies making the team at one position may seem out of the ordinary, the promise of this young group outweighs that of the current wide receivers.
So barring injury, look for Coleman, Louis, Payton and Higgins to join Hawkins, Gabriel and Marlon Moore (who is listed at wide receiver but is on the team for his special teams play) on the final roster this fall.