Josh Gordon has recently gone through his appeals process for his potential suspension. It’s now just a waiting game until we find out if, and how long, he’ll be suspended.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the numbers that Flash was able to put up last year, which are absurd (despite missing the first 2 games). I also want to take a look at the numbers of some of the other receivers that the Browns brought in. The point of this exercise is to see if we can wrap our heads around what life without Gordon will be like, statistically speaking.
First, for those that perhaps were living under a rock last year, let’s examine what Josh Gordon was up to in the 2013 season. I’ll then take a look at the free agent signings, as well as what the Browns return from last year (hint: not much). Finally, we’ll take a look at how they stack up against Gordon’s potential absence and see if that void can be filled.
Let’s get to it.
*Note: statistics used in this piece are from Football Outsiders, and Pro-Football Reference.
*Caveat: In the interest of time/space, I’m not going to plagiarize Football Outsiders (FO) breakdowns of their statistics. If you’re unfamiliar with them, or would like further info on exactly what they represent, all that can be found here.
Alrighty, whoah. That’s a lot to digest. Yes, it is. However, I’m here to help. First, let’s take a look at Josh Gordon’s 2013 a little closer.
Josh Gordon's 2013
Statistically speaking Josh Gordon had a phenomenal year in 2013. He not only led the NFL in receiving yards, but he also chipped in 9 TD’s, and that was in only 14 games.
I know what you’re thinking, Zach, we already know all this. And of course you do, why wouldn't you? But let’s just touch base for those folks that were living under a rock last year.
87 receptions, 1,646 yards, 9 touchdowns. Pretty solid year by any one, but in 14 games is just damn impressive. Now, consider the fact that almost half of his production came in a four-game stretch where he amassed 774 yards, 5 touchdowns on 36 catches. Pretty solid, no?
What’s interesting to note about the above statistics that Football Outsiders shows, is that even despite leading the league in receiving yards and finishing tied for 14th in TD’s, they rank him 9th in DYAR and 17th in DVOA. I really enjoy the FO stats and digging into them further, but let’s call it for what it is, Josh Gordon had a phenomenal year. So don’t let the FO rankings deter you from thinking anything less. I’m not here to bash their rankings, quite the contrary. I’m here to use them to try and figure out, in the event that we’re without Gordon for extended time, what the remaining receivers can/will bring to the table.
Gordon’s aforementioned DVOA and DYAR are still very good numbers. Since DYAR is a cumulative statistic, that shows his value over the long-haul of the season. Granted, he missed the first two games of the season, and one could suspect that would have something to do with his lower DYAR than I imagined. DVOA is a rate statistic that aims to place value on a receiver, per pass play.
Gordon’s DVOA of 14.4% ranks him 17th among qualifying receivers. Still very good. It becomes even a better indicator of how good he was when you consider who ranks in the top-10 for last season’s DVOA rankings. The top 5 were: Kenny Stills, Doug Baldwin, Marvin Jones, Eddie Royal, and Keenan Allen.
So while Gordon ranks below those guys in DVOA, he ranks ahead of them in DYAR due to DVOA being a rate statistic and Gordon’s cumulative season was better than all 5 of those guys, thus his higher DYAR ranking.
What does all this mean?
Well, the point of this exercise wasn't to get lost in how great a season Josh Gordon had, but to see if/when his suspension is handed down, what are we going to be left with?
To do so, I took a look at the guys that the Browns brought in this offseason. The "major" WR signings for the Browns were: Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, and Nate Burleson. I also added Travis Benjamin to the list for perspective on what the Browns would be returning, given that Benjamin is the Browns only receiver returning that registered some real stats (and he was hurt half the year). Greg Little and Davone Bess are gone, so the cupboards really were bare and needed restocking.
*Note: for the purpose of this article, Jordan Cameron is considered a TE and will not be included in the WR analysis. I understand that he caught 80 balls and almost 1,000 yards last year, but if the league considers Jimmy Graham a TE, then so is Jordan Cameron.
The New Guys
It’s easy to poke fun at the Browns and the way the went about addressing the WR position this offseason. Even before the news of Josh Gordon’s potential suspension broke during the draft, we were all clamoring for the Browns to address the WR spot in the draft. However, they did not. So now we are left with a mod podge of free agent signings, all with major question marks. Let’s take a look at what they did last year.
Austin played in 11 games last year for the Cowboys, starting in 8. He nursed a hamstring injury for the better part of the season and never really seemed fully healthy. His week 1 performance showed promise, 10 catches for 72 yards, however he only amassed 14 more catches the rest of the year. After he struggled with injuries the past few seasons in Dallas, he signed with the Browns as a FA in May.
Austin caught 24 passes for 244 yards and 0 TD’s last year. That was easily his worst year in the league since his second season. His FO numbers were just as ugly as his standard stats: DVOA -25.9% and DYAR of -51. Translation: not good.
Austin is now 30 years old and will look to bounce back in Cleveland. The thing that does bode well for his season’s chances, is that he appears to be healthy. We've probably heard that more than we’d like to with Austin, but if he can find any resemblance of his 2009-2010 form, we’ll all be very, very happy. Hell, I’ll even sign up for any form from 2009-2012, just not 2013.
What’s interesting to note about the above stats mentioned earlier for Miles Austin, is the far right columns could provide some insight into the ways that the Browns will use Austin in the event Gordon is gone. 91% of his passes from last year came within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Granted, that is an incredibly small sample size of 24 passes.
The two seasons prior to last year, his percentage of catches that FO labels as Short (0-5 yards), were much lower. 2012 was 25% and 2011 was 31%. For perspective, revisiting Josh Gordon’s numbers, last year his catches were 25% Short, and 38% Mid. Those numbers are much closer to what Austin’s breakdowns have been.
I’d venture to guess that if Gordon is gone for extended time, that he’d flip over to be the X receiver replacing Gordon. No one guy the Browns brought in (or return) is going to be able to replace Josh Gordon, that’s just not possible. But, if I were a gamblin’ man, I’d roll the dice and say that Miles Austin has the best shot to step up and lessen the blow (if he can stay healthy).
Unfortunately for Nate Burleson, last year he had a rather interesting injury that sidelined him for part of the season. If you’re unfamiliar with the pizza incident, it's a classic (see to the right).
This has lead to now, when you search for him on Google, one of the suggested searches is "nate burleson pizza". Burleson was never a HOF candidate in Detroit, but to be relegated to pizza related searches is no fun for anyone.
So that’s what everyone remembers now about Burleson. "Oh the dude that wrecked his car reaching for a pizza..."
What is good news for the Browns though, is that despite re-aggravating said pizza-related injury early in the offseason workouts, said injury has healed. He's now nursing a hamstring injury, but is expected to be ready to go soon. The veteran receiver signed with the Browns in April, he’s 33 years old and had spent the last 4 seasons with the Lions.
Taking a look at last year’s numbers for Burleson need to the aforementioned injury as an asterisk, as he only played in 9 games. Burleson caught 39 passes for 461 yards and 1 TD. That’s not too shabby considering that was in just 9 games.
As with all the receivers we’re covering, there’s some injury concerns, but if he’s healthy, he appears to be a valuable slot receiver. I know we said this last year about Davone Bess, but that went up in smoke (joke never gets old).
What’s interesting about the small sample size of Burleson’s 2013 season, is that unlike Miles Austin, he received positive rankings for DYAR (56) and DVOA (0.4%). They’re not ringing endorsements of his performance, but better than what we had. For perspective Davone Bess, in theory the man Burleson is replacing, had a DYAR of -135 and DVOA of -32.3% last year for the Browns.
Even if Burleson is able to replicate his 2013 numbers, it’s still a win. Bess posted a paltry 49% catch percentage for the Browns last year. That’s down from 58% in 2012, and 59% in 2011. We all know something was off with Bess last year. But, Burleson posted a 72% catch percentage last year. That’s up from 63% in 2012, and 66% in 2011.
It’s also worth noting, that despite his limited reps, FO still ranked Burleson in the top-20 in yards after catch. He posted a YAC of 5.5 for 2013, good for 20th of qualifying receivers. Josh Gordon posted 7.3, ranking 4th.
It seems like we've been down this road before.. Reliable slot receiver comes over to Browns, supposed to sure up the slot position and add a reliable pass catcher...Stop. Let’s not compare apples and oranges. I’m interested to see what Burleson can bring to this team outside of veteran leadership. If he can catch the ball at a clip like he did the past few years, I think we’ll all be satisfied with the signing.
Andrew Hawkins, to me, has the most upside of anyone that the Browns brought in. That has a large part to do with his age, 28, compared to 30 and 33 for Miles Austin and Nate Burleson, respectively.
What’s also interesting about Hawkins is he’s fast. Like, really fast. He’s also one of the shiftiest receivers in the league.
A part of Hawkins’ game that really excels is his ability to get yards after the catch. I mentioned that as well with Burleson, and a lot of that has to do with the routes ran. Over the last 3 seasons, Hawkins has averaged about 55% of his catches within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s primarily due to his ability to make the short grab on screen plays, quick outs, etc, and get the yards with his feet after the catch.
Catching the vast majority of his receptions within 5 yards also contributes to his high catch rate as well. Last year Hawkins caught 67% of his targets, 64% in 2012, and 68% in 2011. Ideally the Browns would like to have Josh Gordon on the outside, Miles Austin opposite him, and Burleson/Hawkins in the slot. Clearly that scenario is what is in question with Josh Gordon’s suspension.
Rookie CB Justin Gilbert sung Hawkins’s praises earlier in training camp:
"I'd rather guard (Josh) Gordon than him, he's so little and quick. Those guys are hard to get a handle on. He's out there making plays every day."
We'll see if he's able to bring that on Sundays.
A foot injury and a deep Bengals receiving core limited Hawkins to just 12 catches for 199 yards and 0 TD’s last year. However, using FO’s rate statistic, we see that he posted a DVOA of 8.7%. Last year was the first year of his 3-year NFL career, that he posted a positive DVOA.
As I mentioned, Hawkins excels at gaining yards after the catch. Last year is hard to gauge with such a small sample size, but he averaged 11.3 YAC, which is wild. But, with just 12 catches, those numbers can be easily skewed. His first two seasons in the league, he averaged 6.3 in 2011, and 6.7 in 2012. His 2012 numbers qualified him for FO’s rankings, and in YAC he ranked 6th. So while last year’s numbers are more than likely skewed, the data still shows he’s great after the catch.
To further validate his ability after the catch, look at his YAC+ (YAC+ is Football Outsiders’ proprietary metric that aims to estimate how much YAC a receiver gains compared to what to expect from average receiver in similar situations.)
Hawkins posted a YAC+ of +4.1 last year, but we've mentioned that’s probably skewed. In 2012, Hawkins still posted a YAC+ of +1.4, and in 2011 +0.1. For perspective on YAC+, anything over +1.0 is pretty solid. So he’s been consistently in the positive for his first 3 seasons, a trend that will hopefully continue. One last thing on YAC+, Josh Gordon had a YAC+ of +1.5 in 2012 and +2.8 in 2013, both very solid figures.
Hawkins may not be the field stretcher that Josh Gordon is, but then again, not many are. But, hopefully he can bring that speed element that Gordon has so much of. The Browns without Josh Gordon will be without one of the best playmakers in the league, so adding at least some playmaking ability in Hawkins was a wise choice to snatch him away from a division rival.
The Returning Guy (bad pun intended)
The last remaining piece to examine, is what’s returning to the roster from last year. Benjamin had a breakout year for the Browns returning punts last year, however that season was cut short with a torn ACL in week 8.
Benjamin has rehabbed and is back healthy, and appears to be ready to contribute, not only on special teams, but as a receiver as well.
When you look at what he did last year as a receiver, it’s not overwhelming. He caught only 5 balls for 105 yards and 0 touchdowns in 8 games. The Browns receiving core did look very different than it does this year, however. Greg Little and Davone Bess are no longer on the roster, so in the event that Josh Gordon is suspended for a good amount of time, the Browns may need to call upon Benjamin to step up.
As has been a recurring theme, the FO stats again show the YAC to be a plus for Benjamin, much the same as the aforementioned Hawkins and Burleson figures. Benjamin averaged 12.0 YAC for his 5 catches, granted that’s absurd to analyze 5 catches, but that’s all we've got. His YAC+ was 7.7 last season, and +0.4 for his rookie season in 2012.
It’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, Travis Benjamin will be used in the offense this year. One thing he always had prior to his ACL injury was speed, and a lot of it. So if he’s able to still have the top-end speed we’re accustomed to seeing, and be able to contribute in the receiving game, Benjamin may end up a quality piece to the receiving core.
After looking at all the data we've got on both Josh Gordon and the receivers that the Browns brought in this offseason, it’s easy for one to be doom-and-gloom about the Browns prospects of replacing Josh Gordon’s production.
In short, they won’t be able to replace Josh Gordon.
But, that wasn't the purpose of this exercise, we knew that coming in.
What we can see now, though, is that the Browns may have some interesting pieces assembled in the receiving core. A lot of that depends on health (all the receivers I looked at have had some sort of semi-serious to serious injuries), but the success of the receiving core is also equally dependent on the QB play and running game.
I wanted to use the Football Outsiders stats for a good chunk of this because they try and account for more than just the basics: catches, yards, TD’s, etc. They take into account: opponent, down and distance, situation, etc. So we can get a better idea, "Okay, Nate Burleson only had 39 catches last year, he sucks," but that doesn't tell the whole story. The whole story is more, "Burleson was hurt a good portion of the year, but excelled at gaining yards after the catch on short throws near the line of scrimmage, and was actually a top-50 receiver in FO’s rate production stat, DVOA."
I’ll concede that anyone can twist statistics, especially advanced stats, into finding a silver lining for almost anyone. I get that.
But, I also get that while the guys the Browns brought in may not be Andre Johnson (whom many Browns fans want(ed) to trade for), they’re also sure as hell no Greg Little.
One last "for perspective’s sake." In 2013, Greg Little had a DVOA of -34.1% and a DYAR of -171. Of the qualifying top-50 receivers, take a guess where Greg Little ranked? You guessed it...50th. And number 49? You guessed it as well...Davone Bess.
So my 3,000 word point is, while we may not have a ton of reasons to be overly excited about our WR prospects, it could be worse. The Browns 2014 wide receivers should be much better than their 2013 counterparts. While that may not be hard to do, it’s at least somewhat comforting, especially comforting that Greg Little is in Oakland.
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