Our next training camp preview for the Cleveland Browns looks at the wide receiver position. In Part 1, we will take a look at the top five players on the depth chart, including two new faces and three familiar ones.
1. DWAYNE BOWE - STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
After spending the first eight years of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, Dwayne Bowe was released by the team in a cap-saving move. Cleveland appeared to go after him more than any other team in free agency, in large part because general manager Ray Farmer was a believer in him.
Farmer was part of the Chiefs organization when Bowe was having his best season in 2010 -- he finished with 72 catches for 1,162 yards and 15 touchdowns. Although the touchdowns were very high that year, it wasn't a complete anomaly of a season for Bowe, who showed he could consistently reach the 1,000-yard, 6-touchdown type of mark. Over the past three seasons, Bowe's production has seen a dropoff in Kansas City. It's not all his fault, as the Chiefs have been a run-oriented team with Jamaal Charles. During those three seasons, Bowe is averaging 742 yards and has 8 total touchdowns, including zero all of last season. Bowe expressed to the Plain Dealer how the Chiefs simply didn't target him in their offensive system when they got to the red zone:
"I didn't get one shot in the end zone,'' he said. "I think it's in Ripley's Believe it or Not.' ... I got us down in scoring range and with our offense, it was based on running back to the tight end and my job was to play football. I never complained. I always did my job to get us down there but the chips just didn't fall my way. That's all I can control."
Bowe seemed a little frustrated with his role in Kansas City, but I think one of the reasons (besides the money) that Cleveland interested him is because the front office and the coaching staff have been vocal about their intentions to make him a significant part of the offense. As he told the Plain Dealer, he wants to fill Josh Gordon's shoes. I'm sure he was speaking in terms of being a No. 1 receiver, as opposed to smoking marijuana.
Bowe still has good speed and can be a red zone threat. I think the Browns should consider not utilizing Bowe as an every-down receiver. Cleveland has a group of four receivers, and then can use the other three (at times) to get down the field and then have Bowe focus his energy on creating mismatches in the end zone. Josh McCown likes throwing the ball up to taller receivers, so the combination might just work.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
2. ANDREW HAWKINS - SLOT RECEIVER
I almost had to do a double take when I looked at Andrew Hawkins' stat line from 2014, as I forgot how good of a year he had despite the issues at quarterback. Hawkins caught 63 passes for 824 yards and 2 touchdowns.
When the Browns "stole" him from the Bengals, one of the concerns was whether he could last a full season given his size and injury history in Cincinnati. Although he was a bit banged up for a stretch, Hawkins played in 15 games.
I listed Hawkins second in this position preview because although he's effective and known as a slot receiver (Bucky Brooks ranked him the 5th best slot receiver in the entire NFL), he can and probably will play on the outside too. I'm projecting him to receive more snaps than Brian Hartline, and maybe even Dwayne Bowe.
For the final five weeks of last season, the Browns kind of lost their way with including Hawkins enough in the offense. During that stretch, Hawkins averaged 2-3 catches for just 26 yards. I've said before that Josh McCown likes to lob the ball up to taller receivers, so we'll see how well he can place the ball on smaller targets like Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
3. BRIAN HARTLINE - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
The receiver I least know what to expect from in 2015 is Brian Hartline. He spent the first six years of his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins before "coming home" to the Browns. That "home spirit" is starting to bleed into several positions on the Browns, which is something fans can get behind.
Hartline has proven he can be effective in the NFL, too. He's not a touchdown threat, but from 2012-2013, he had two seasons in which he went over the 1,000 yard receiving mark and averaged 75 receptions. He even had a 12-catch, 253-yard performance in 2012. In six years, he's only missed four games, all of which came in 2010.
The big question mark when it comes to Hartline is, "what happened in 2014?" Last season, Hartline finished with 39 catches for 474 yards. He started all 16 games but was clearly less of a factor on offense despite having the same quarterback and head coach from the year before. One reason was the presence of receiver Mike Wallace, and the team also started giving more looks to Jarvis Landry. The team made an effort to commit to running the ball more too.
When asked about Hartline, Browns wide receivers coach Joker Phillips said:
"He is one the best double-move guys I’ve seen. He sets the cornerbacks up on his routes. Brian’s older and he understands how to get open."
Hartline might start on the stat sheet, but I expect him to receive the third-most snaps at receiver.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
4. TAYLOR GABRIEL - COMPETING TO BE A STARTING WIDE RECEIVER
A lot of people were excited about Josh Gordon returning late last season. Unfortunately, it had a negative impact on the offense, partially because it completely put a halt to the impressive rookie season that Taylor Gabriel was having.
Before Gordon played last year, Gabriel had 29 catches for 527 yards in 10 games as a backup player. He also contributed as a good blocker in the running game, despite his smaller size. After Gordon returned, there Gabriel's snap count took the biggest hit. In the next 5 games (Gordon was suspended for Week 17), Gabriel caught a total of 4 passes for 28 yards. Blasphemy!
Pro Football Focus also explained how Gabriel could've had a lot more productivity last year if it hadn't been for awful quarterback play:
In Part 1 of this series, we determined that Brian Hoyer wasn’t very good last year. This latest chart shows that Taylor Gabriel was one of his victims. Gabriel was overthrown on 11 (or 15 percent) of his 71 targets. That’s nearly three times the league average. Hoyer was the quarterback on nine of those throws. A whopping 29.6 percent of passes thrown at Gabriel were inaccurate (over- or underthrown, in front of or behind), which is well above the 12.3 percent league average. Gabriel is somewhat buried in Cleveland, so there’s not a ton to get excited about, but don’t blame him for his 54 percent rookie-season catch rate.
When asked about Gabriel, Browns wide receivers coach Joker Phillips said:
I walked in here and had no idea who he was. But the guy is so, so explosive. He’s a smooth athlete. If you aren’t a cornerback aware of him, you will be quickly – ‘cause he’ll burn you.
I hope that Gabriel doesn't get too buried on the depth chart because of the two veterans who were brought in.
Final Roster Odds: 100%
5. TRAVIS BENJAMIN - DEEP THREAT RECEIVER
It feels like Travis Benjamin played a significant role in the Browns' offense last year, and although he did post career highs, his stat line didn't appear to be anything special: 18 catches for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The thing that drove me nuts last season is that Benjamin was supposed to be our deep threat receiver, and yet Brian Hoyer couldn't connect with him once downfield. When asked about Benjamin, Browns wide receivers coach Joker Phillips said:
You can feel his speed out here on the field unlike anyone else on the whole practice field. He has warp speed. His role will be to become a big-play guy for us, a guy who can stretch the field.
The blueprint has been stamped on Benjamin for years and it'll remain the same in 2015. Benjamin is also likely to be the Browns' punt returner, which helps solidify -- but not guarantee -- his spot on the roster as a wide receiver.
Final Roster Odds: 75%
Today's poll focuses on who you think should receive more snaps in a given game -- Brian Hartline or Taylor Gabriel?