In a way, it is pretty difficult to explain the wide receiver situation for the Cleveland Browns. Are we comfortable with what the team has? The front office gave the impression of comfort when they waited until the fourth round of the draft before adding a receiver this offseason, but then they went ahead and spent a second-round pick in 2013 on Josh Gordon in last week's supplemental draft.
There is one guy on the team who has a distinct role, and that is Greg Little. There are a couple of other players whose roster spots seem "safe," but how do you determine the depth chart? Based on Pat Shurmur's history, the Browns will keep six receivers on the 53-man roster. I have listed those six players in today's preview. The complication is this: for as bad as this group of receivers has been billed, you don't really look at any one of them and say, "we should get rid of him."
Greg Little? He's a definite.
Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin? They will make the team since they were drafted this year.
Mohamed Massaquoi? Praised heavily by the front office this offseason, and a former second-round pick.
Joshua Cribbs? A Pro Bowl kick returner who is coming off his best season as a receiver.
Jordan Norwood? A water bug who has worked his way up and had some big plays in the slot at the end of last year.
Individually, it looks like the Browns have some promise with this unit. Collectively, it will be up to Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress to determine how often each of them get used to maximize the potential of the offense and fit the strengths of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. Let's get to the preview of these six players.
1. GREG LITTLE - NO. 1 STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
The Browns entered last season with Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi as their starting receivers. That was a pretty bleak tandem, which made it easy for a guy who was completely out of football for a year (and deprived of a normal offseason due to the lockout) to be able to crack the starting lineup during the first half of the season.
Overall, Little was a pleasant surprise. He brought something unique to the team's receiving unit -- a guy who was very physical and could use his size to make a few tough catches. Little led the team in receiving as a rookie with 61 catches for 709 yards and 2 touchdowns. It was far from a dream-like season for Little, though. He had a team-high 14 dropped passes, many of which came during a funk he had past the mid-way point of the season.
This season, Little has made an effort to change his reputation en route to having a breakout sophomore season. He reportedly lost 11-15 pounds in the offseason while maintaining his strength in an effort to get quicker (he'll also stop eating the cupcakes that Chris Gocong's mom routinely distributes). During the team's offseason programs, Shurmur said, "[Little] has caught the ball at a much more consistent rate. He just looks like a different guy to me — a guy who's been through it once." I don't know if Little is poised to be a superstar No. 1 receiver, but if he can do what he did last year minus the dropped passes, he will be a stable No. 2 receiver for a long time.
Player Quality: B-
Job Security: A+
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. MOHAMED MASSAQUOI - NO. 2 STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
Massaquoi has not been able to improve upon his rookie season over the past two years. In starting 13 games last year, Massaquoi had 31 catches for 384 yards and 2 touchdowns.
One of the concerns you have with Massaquoi is his history with concussions at this early stage of his career. Two years ago, he was knocked out by James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year, he suffered a concussion in Week 7. Over the next six weeks, Massaquoi was either inactive or not very involved in the offense, and some of that can be attributed to recurring concussion symptoms.
Prior to the team drafting Gordon, Massaquoi was the "darling" of the offseason, receiving high praise from the likes of Shurmur and Holmgren. It's hard to say whether the staff was just trying extra hard to express confidence in whoever they planned to start alongside Little, or whether they truly believe Massaquoi can be a key contributor this year. Massaquoi seems to have a niche for catching quick passes right off the line, and he's really not too bad of an intermediate route runner. I think he is terrible at adjusting to the ball down the field, and squeezing the ball to him in tight coverage over the middle might not be the best idea. He is currently slated to start, and I can't seem him being a mid-season cut like Robiskie a year ago.
Player Quality: C-
Job Security: B-
Final Roster Odds: 99%
3. JOSHUA CRIBBS - SPECIALTY WIDE RECEIVER
Entering his eighth season in the NFL, Cribbs is coming off of his best season as a receiver. Last year, Cribbs started seven games at wideout, finishing with 41 catches for 518 yards and 4 touchdowns. I personally believe he is the team's most polished wide receiver right now. He's not a superb route runner, but he is very good at catching the ball in traffic, including down the field. When you give him the ball on a quick hitter, with the right blocking, he can turn nothing into something.
Many fans have assumed that because the team has added two receivers this offseason, Cribbs will take a back seat and return to being more of a special teams stud. While I would understand that move in a way, I also have a hard time believing that limiting Cribbs' reps on offense is for the better. That is where I hope we see Cribbs in a dynamic role on offense. By dynamic, I am not referring to the Wildcat. Instead, he should be used all over the place in various packages. On one play, he should be the only receiver on the field. On the next play, maybe he lines up on the outside in a three-receiver set. When four guys are in the game, maybe you take him out. With Cribbs' blocking and receiving abilities, he can be an asset when Cleveland tries to pound the rock with Trent Richardson.
Maybe we should consider this with Cribbs, too: what if we have him focus more on receiving and let him hand over the kick or punt return duties to a Jordan Norwood or Travis Benjamin? Again, there are a lot of things that need to be weeded out in camp. Cribbs is entering the final year of his contract, and I can't imagine him being a surprise cut.
Player Quality: C+ (as a receiver)
Final Roster Odds: 99%
4. JOSH GORDON - COMPETING FOR SLOT WIDE RECEIVER
Will Gordon play in 2012? If so, then how soon?
Based on how the team handled Little last season, I think the answers to those questions are "yes" and "right away." I'm not really concerned with Gordon's marijuana use at Baylor. When it becomes an issue at the NFL level, then I'll start worrying about it. Until then, I'm more interested in how Gordon projects as a prospect.
In terms of size, he seems like a clone of Little. Scouting reports seem to indicate that he also has good speed and "sure hands," attributes that would put him at a superior level to Little. If he pans out, it would allow Little to slip into a more natural role as a No. 2 receiver, and Gordon can be the go-to-guy. I don't think they'll push things too quickly with Gordon, though. Even though Little was out of football two years ago, he had the benefit of everyone on the offense trying to learn a new offensive system at the same time. This year, Gordon is a year behind the likes of Little, Massaquoi, Cribbs, etc in that regard. I think Gordon will be one of the top four receivers to start the year, but won't crack the starting lineup until late in the year (if at all).
Final Roster Odds: 100%
5. JORDAN NORWOOD - COMPETING FOR SLOT WIDE RECEIVER
Norwood is another guy who the coaching staff needs to step back and ask, "should we really step in and halt this guy's progress?"
Norwood first joined the Browns in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. He later made the Eagles' practice squad and was briefly promoted to their active roster. In 2010, Norwood was brought back to the Browns on the practice squad. Last year, he was with the team the entire season and actually made four starts. He finished the year with 23 catches for 268 yards and 1 touchdown. His season ended in Week 15 after he suffered a concussion, but prior to that, he really seemed to find his niche as the team's slot receiver.
Norwood is quick and can probably make better moves in the open field than all of the other receivers on the team. His size limits what he can do in terms of breadth on offense, but I think he has a legitimate chance at remaining in the slot to begin the season. At the very least, he should be in that role to start training camp. Out of the six guys in today's preview, his roster odds are the least because of two other guys (Benjamin and Josh Cooper) who could end up taking his role in the slot and on special teams away from him.
Final Roster Odds: 70%
6. TRAVIS BENJAMIN - SPEEDY ROOKIE WIDE RECEIVER
Taken in the fourth round of the draft, when you look at the team's rookies, Benjamin's stock had to take a hit with Gordon bound to see reps ahead of him now.
The thing that stands out with Benjamin is his speed, and that's where a guy like Norwood could become expendable. Benjamin reportedly registered a 4.36 40-time, and in offseason programs, he seemed to fulfill the role of being the guy who sprints down the field and catches the bombs from Weeden.
We'll see how Benjamin transitions to the NFL, though. He is undersized and might have difficulty in traffic. Although his hands weren't labeled as a concern in scouting reports coming out of college, the media reported on a few drops by the rookie receiver in minicamp as the team tried to also work with him on his route running ability. I wouldn't be surprised if Benjamin ends up being a gameday inactive to begin the year, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he's utilized often in three- to four-receiver sets as someone who stretches the field, even if he's not the intended receiver.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
That is it for part one of our wide receiver preview for training camp! As you can tell, compared to all of the other positions, it is difficult to project who will fall where on the depth chart after Little. In the comments section, please discuss what type of role you envision each of these guys playing to begin the season. The poll asks how soon you think Josh Gordon will become a full-time starter at receiver.