Cleveland Browns: Derrick Willies comes through in the clutch

DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 30: Derrick Willies #84 of the Cleveland Browns looks for running room after a first quarter catch while playing the Detroit Lions during a preseason game at Ford Field on August 30, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 30: Derrick Willies #84 of the Cleveland Browns looks for running room after a first quarter catch while playing the Detroit Lions during a preseason game at Ford Field on August 30, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns lost Rashard Higgins late in their Week 5 victory, but undrafted rookie Derrick Willies came through in the clutch off the bench.

In the Cleveland Browns victory over Baltimore, rookie Derrick Willies seemed to come out of nowhere to replace veteran Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Willies hauled in three passes for 61 yards, and none bigger than a 39 yard reception on a 3rd and 8 with less than two minutes remaining in overtime. Talk about performing in the clutch!

So, who is this guy? This is a fellow who left the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2014, then thought better of it and came back to play with Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas. At TVCC, he was a superstar, snagging 49 passes for 1156 yards, averaging 23.5 yards per catch.

From there he was able to transfer to the Red Raiders of Texas Tech where he was used as an extra receiver in the prolific offense of Kliff Kingsbury, catching passes from the likes of Nic Shimonek and Patrick Mahomes.

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Willies impressed the Red Raiders with his athleticism, but ultimately he was benched in favor of players like Keke Coutee, Dylan Cantrell, T. J. Vasher and Cameron Batson. Word out of Texas was that he had some issues with dropped passes, but suffice it to say that there are a number of players in Lubbock, Texas who are pretty good at catching footballs.

It is not necessarily a disgrace to get beat out in that program. Consequently his senior year saw him with only 304 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Still, he had caught the eye of John Dorsey, who had seen him in action while studying film of Mahomes.

Dorsey, of course, thought so highly of Mahomes, that he traded up to take the quarterback 10th overall in the 2017 draft, even though he already had previously traded draft picks for Alex “Game Manager” Smith. After getting two questionable quarterbacks in a row, Kansas City fired Dorsey. Really, a Red Raider as a starting quarterback in the NFL? How good could he be?

At his Red Raider Pro Day, Willies made an impression on Dorsey and Browns scouts because of his height (6’4” 207 Lbs), athleticism, and 41 inch vertical leap, which is higher than Odell Beckham Jr’s. That’s the same as Myles Garrett, which tells you what an athletic anomaly Garrett is.

Willies also posted a 4.57 which is more than adequate for a big man. Needless to say, the AFC North is a cold weather, natural turf division, and wide receivers who are tall and physical with good hands have an advantage over the speedy short guys (though Antonio Brown might advise us to not take that generalization too far). Willies has the physical qualities that teams like the Browns are looking for, and there is an opportunity here, given that the Browns were not particularly adept at catching footballs last year.

Still, because of his unimpressive stats, Willies was not drafted and was able to sign with Dorsey and the Browns as an undrafted free agent. During preseason, he impressed by hauling in two touchdown passes (called back by penalties, but that does not diminish the ability and effort he demonstrated).

Just as importantly, in a preseason game against Philadelphia, Baker Mayfield threw an interception that looked like it would be a pick-six, but Willies ran down Avonte Maddox to prevent him from scoring in what turned out to be a shutout win for the Browns. That’s a big deal.

In addition, Willies has been doing a respectable job on special teams, which are a weak spot for the Browns so far this year. He has appeared in 48 percent of Browns special teams plays, ahead of fellow rookie receivers Antonio Callaway (5.3 percent of total special teams snaps) and Damion Ratley (11.8 percent).

Related Story. The Browns special teams are a disaster. light

During interviews with the Red Raiders and now the Browns, Willies appears to be a little shy and soft spoken, but also has a quick smile and seems to be intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate. The stereotype for guys who transfer from community colleges may be that they are not that swift on the uptake, but this is not the case for Willies.

Willies was a long-shot to make the the team this year, but made a good impression on the coaching staff. Hence, when Higgins went down with a knee sprain against Baltimore, Willies was the next man up. Mayfield, who had a lot of practice snaps with Willies since they were both backups on the depth chart throughout training camp and early on during the season, was able to start connecting with Willies without missing a beat, leading to the 39 yard reception that got the Browns within field goal range.

This is already the most productive rookie class in the history of the new Browns, with Mayfield, Denzel Ward, and Nick Chubb already winning the NFL Rookie of the Week award. One team getting the award three times out of four weeks with three different players is unheard of, and the Browns may not be done yet.

Callaway, drafted in the third round, is the starter at wide receiver and has made some great catches along with his share of rookie mistakes. Genard Avery has been doing major damage from the linebacker position, and Desmond Harrison, yet another undrafted rookie, is the starting left tackle. Greg Joseph has supplanted strong legged Zane Gonzalez as the team’s kicker, though it is far from clear that Joseph is the ultimate solution at kicker.

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We’ll see if Willies’ promising start leads to additional contributions to the team.  It’s too early to make a judgment, but early signs are that the arrow is pointing up for Willies, as he apparently has moved ahead of Ratley on the depth chart. If “Hollywood” is not able to go next Sunday versus San Diego, Willies is probably going to get some more snaps at wide receiver.