Our training camp preview for the Cleveland Browns wide receivers beings today, and it gets a bit tricky to diagnose the position due to the Josh Gordon situation. Another interesting note: last year, the four receivers listed in Part 1 of our WR Preview had an average age of 24 years old. This year, the top four receivers listed below have an average age of 28 years old. Today's preview looks at the players who are expected to be in the mix for significant playing time in 2014.
1. JOSH GORDON - STATUS UNKNOWN
The 2013 season was an up-and-down ride for Josh Gordon, and it only continued into 2014. Last year, Gordon was suspended for the first two games of the regular season due to substance abuse. Heavy rumors were initiated that the Browns' front office -- then consisting of Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi -- were trying to trade Gordon, in fear that he would get in trouble again and face banishment from the league.
There were no takers for their asking price, which most fans rejoiced in because we did not want to let go of a player with Gordon's potential. No one could have seen just how quickly Gordon would transform into an elite talent, though. In just 14 games, Gordon led the NFL with 87 catches for 1,646 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns.
The pinnacle stretch of Gordon's career came in a three-week span against the Steelers, Jaguars, and Patriots. During that stretch, he had two straight 200-yard receiving games, the first receiver in NFL history to accomplish such a feat. The three-game stretch saw him post the following stats: 31 catches for 649 yards and 4 touchdowns. The most talked about play was the breakaway speed he showed against Patriots CB Aqib Talib.
Gordon would undoubtedly make the receivers around him better, but he has an appeal hearing in late-July, where he likely faces a suspension. It could even be a one-year ban. The waiting process has made it very difficult on the Browns' coaching staff because he really is irreplaceable. Yes, Gordon needs to sort out his personal life, but selfishly, I want to see Gordon playing in a Browns uniform this season. It still makes no sense to cut him, though, so I hope the Browns don't choose to go down that path.
Job Security: Suspension Pending
Final Roster Odds: Suspension Pending
2. ANDREW HAWKINS - STARTING / SLOT WIDE RECEIVER
Whether Gordon plays or not, one of the best and boldest moves made across the NFL this offseason came when Browns GM Ray Farmer made just the right type of offer to Andrew Hawkins to "steal" him away from the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.
Hawkins is a small guy at 5-7, but he's probably one of the quickest guys you'll see in the NFL in terms of faking out defenders. If you don't believe me, check out this video of his 1-on-1 skills with the Bengals. There is also this video of him in live game action.
If Hawkins is so good, then why let him go? Because of circumstance and great timing by the Browns. Hawkins went undrafted in 2008, but had a workout with the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland didn't sign him, and Hawkins went off to the CFL. He resurfaced in the NFL again in 2011 with the Bengals. In 2012, Hawkins was on the rise with a solid season. Unfortunately, his decline was derailed in 2013 with an injury that forced him to miss the first half of the season. While he was out of action, all of the Bengals' draft pick receivers started to shine, including A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu. They had also already committed to a two-tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. To an extent, running back Giovani Benard did some of the "waterbug" type of duties that Hawkins would have. The Bengals liked Hawkins, but they rode the momentum of the players who were healthy the first half of the year.
This offseason, the Browns made their offer sheet lucrative enough that the Bengals couldn't justify matching for a player who would probably be listed as the No. 4 receiver on their depth chart heading into training camp. Hawkins has been active on social media and was impressive in all of the team's offseason programs thus far. If anyone is bound to break out as the new fan favorite in 2014, it'll be this guy.
Job Security: A+ (to be a top three receiver, either in the slot or the outside)
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. NATE BURLESON - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
Nate Burleson will be entering his 12th season in the NFL. He began his career as a third-round draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2003. He played there for three seasons before becoming a members of the Seattle Seahawks from 2006-2009. From 2010-2013, he was with the Lions, usually as the No. 2 receiver opposite of WR Calvin Johnson.
While Burleson played second-fiddle to Johnson, he might be asked to be the Browns No. 1 receiver this year if Gordon is out. He's still recovering from the injuries to his arm, but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp. While I think there is room for both Burleson and Miles Austin on the roster, I am giving Burleson the slight edge because the Browns signed him well prior to the draft. It wasn't until after the Gordon news became public that Cleveland latched on to several other veteran receivers, including Austin.
Don't let the pizza story distort your opinion of Burleson. He's always been known as a very media-friendly guy and he does his job well as a receiver, plain and simple. The issue won't be Burleson's lack of talent, it'll be whether he is in the right role. As a contributing receiver, he's a nice option. As the No. 1 receiver? That's not going to get defenses fretting very much, but that's not his fault.
Job Security: B+ (assuming Gordon isn't available)
Final Roster Odds: 90% (assuming Gordon isn't available)
4. MILES AUSTIN - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
"What's that? Another hamstring injury?"
In 2011, Miles Austin pulled his hamstring, forcing him to only play in 10 games. He returned to play 16 games in 2012, but last season, a hamstring injury plagued him again. Austin started 8 games and played in 11, but was a non-factor on offense, notching 24 catches for 244 yards all year.
The Browns have kept Austin out of most of their offseason programs to date because they don't want him to risk straining it again. He's expected to give-it-a-go once training camp begins, but how confident are we that his hamstring won't just pop again? That's the reason he's not rated higher here on the Browns' depth chart.
When Austin is healthy, he's a borderline No. 1 receiver, although certainly more fit to be a No. 2 receiver. In the three seasons Austin was healthy enough to play in all 16 games with the Cowboys -- 2009, 2010, and 2012 -- he averaged 1,101 yards and 8 touchdowns per season. Getting that version of Austin in 2014 would be terrific, but can he still do it at 30 years old with a hamstring that consistently plagues him?
Job Security: B (assuming Gordon isn't available)
Final Roster Odds: 90% (assuming Gordon isn't available)
We'll dive into some of the other receivers in Parts 2 and 3 this weekend. Our poll today asks how you view the Browns' depth chart looking if Gordon isn't available.