The Cleveland Browns may wait until training camp before deciding whether to trade for a high-value wide receiver as a Josh Gordon insurance policy. The reason? There's a wideout already on the Browns' roster who has given the coaches and front office a moment of pause before pulling the trade trigger.
From halfway across the practice fields of Berea, Charles Johnson physically looks like an answer to what ails the Cleveland Browns at wide receiver. In fact, he looks an awful lot like Gordon – minus the baggage Gordon has been toting around ever since he arrived in 2012 via the supplemental draft.
As Browns fans already know, Gordon, 23, is a magical combination of size and speed. He stands 6-foot-3, weighs 225 pounds and his personal best in the 40-yard dash is 4.38 seconds. In his pro day in 2012, he achieved a 36-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-1 broad jump, and lifted 225 pounds 13 times on the bench press. Gordon hurt his quad before he could run the short shuttle or three-cone drill.
Johnson, 25, has freakish measurables similar to the Browns' Pro-Bowl wideout – 6-foot-2, 215 pounds plus big and soft hands. At his pro day in 2013, Johnson turned the heads of NFL receiver coaches in attendance, according to draft guru Gil Brandt and this video. Johnson bested Gordon's 40 time at 4.35. He had a 4.31-second short shuttle and 6.96-second three-cone drill. He bench-pressed 14 reps. Most notably, Johnson's range proved to be stunning. He had a 39 1/2-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot-1 broad jump. His profile numbers not only put him at or above Gordon's range, but also among the combine results for Julio Jones, Stephen Hill and Dez Bryant.
How much physical ability he still possesses is a question after a tear was discovered by Browns' doctors in Johnson's anterior cruciate ligament, a major knee ligament. If Johnson can recover most or all of his raw, eye-popping abilities by the time he's cleared to practice again – predicted to be by the start of training camp in late July – then no wonder the Browns' coaching staff is eager to see what Johnson can do in the NFL.
Johnson has yet to play in the pros despite being drafted 14 months ago. In his two seasons (2011-12) at Grand Valley State University he caught 128 passes for 2,229 yards and 31 touchdowns. Unlike many college receivers, he showed good habits by catching passes with his hands rather than trapping the ball against his body.
So how did this physical specimen end up falling to the seventh round, 216th overall, in the 2013 draft?
Johnson's college football career was, at best, inconsistent as he bounced from one small school to another. According to Bill Huber of the Packer Report, the two-time, all-state receiver at Lloyd Memorial High in Elsmere, KY applied but didn't qualify for the University of Louisville until after signing day. So in 2007 he landed at Eastern Kentucky where he and his roommate, a former high-school classmate, were caught with a stolen laptop in their dorm room. Neither man would implicate the other, so Johnson was suspended for two football seasons. Johnson ran with a rough crowd and it had caught up with him.
He transferred to Antelope Valley Community College in California and posted forgettable numbers in 2008 – 24 receptions, 231 yards and three touchdowns. Then his father suffered a life-threatening disorder called scleroderma. Johnson returned home and sat out the entire 2009 season to be with his father. The ordeal caused Johnson to re-evaluate his own life.
In considering where to return to college football, the NCAA said he’d have one year of eligibility at a Division I school but could have two years at Division II. He landed with the GVSU Lakers near Grand Rapids, MI and was redshirted his first year. In his second year, he got by on his raw talent. By his third year, GVSU head coach Matt Mitchell became a drill sergeant to Johnson and instilled good workout habits in him.
Despite, the new focus, Johnson wasn't invited to the 2013 NFL Combine which relegated him to obscurity. The Packers, known for molding quality receivers, found Johnson. He was on target to be the team's fifth receiver on a roster that already had top-notch talents Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin. But Johnson's route to the active roster took a bad turn when Johnson injured his knee in a June 2013 practice.
As good as the Packers were at cultivating receivers, their medical staff blew it with Johnson. His injury was mis-diagnosed as an ACL sprain and he wasn't recovering by the start of the regular season. The Packers waived him in October and, if he cleared waivers as their front office expected, he would be placed on the team's practice squad.
But he didn't clear waivers. The Browns saw Johnson's release on the waiver wire and grabbed him right away. When their medical staff investigated his knee injury, they discovered the sprain was actually a tear. Had the Packers made the same diagnosis, they would have put him on injured reserve and the Browns would never have had a chance to grab him.
As Johnson's recovery nears its conclusion, Browns coaches, fans and fellow players like QBs Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel are surely eager to learn in training camp what kind of receiver they've got. Admittedly he's raw coming from a Division II school that lacked advanced competition, play-calling and coverages, meaning it will take time for him to adjust to the NFL.
But the term "sleeper" was invented for players like Johnson. In fact, the fantasy football publication Rotoworld described him as "a super-deep sleeper." Here's hoping he wakes himself and the NFL soon and helps the Browns recover quickly from Gordon's suspension.