The Browns have two Pro Bowl wide receivers, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckman, Jr.; and this season, a revamped offensive line to help protect QB Baker Mayfield which invariably has given their signalcaller more time to throw.
This Cleveland offensive is built to run the ball. So far, the formula has been pretty successful. 307 rushing yards against Dallas, 138 in the Baltimore Ravens loss, another 158 in the win over the Football Team, plus 215 yards in the Cincinnati victory.
Those 818 rushing yards currently lead the league. Get that? The Cleveland Browns are Number 1 in rushing. They are also Number 1 in rushing attempts (139), yards per carry (5.9), rushing touchdowns (8), runs of 20-yards or more (11), and rushes for first downs (42).
So, while all this running is going on, the passing game does not get their fair share of attention.
Why is the passing game so important? Why the need for two Pro Bowlers who make Pro Bowl salaries? And while we are on the subject, let’s mention signing Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper to add to this potential explosive offense.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense relies on several things. One of which is a lot of two tight end sets. Another is the use of a fullback in not only the running game, but also another capable blocker in passing situations. Quite another item is the use of a lot of three wide receiver formations whether it is a passing down or not.
And a capable passing game keeps the defense from playing eight or even nine men in the box waiting for the run.
That third WR must have capable skills to off-set all the attention Landry and OBJ are getting while both are on the field. Currently, that third wide receiver is KhaDarel Hodge.
But didn’t Rashard Higgins win that job in training camp? So the question is: where is Higgins?
Grinding to be a Brown
Higgins loves the City of Cleveland. He also loves his teammates and believes that this offense can and will become lethal. That is why he decided to stay with the Browns.
In this year’s free agency period, Cleveland did not protect Higgins nor sign him to a contract which enabled him to field offers from other NFL clubs. And the offers did indeed come his way.
As he was contemplating of what to do, where to sign and what aspects of a new contract he wanted, he called Mayfield to discuss his options.
“I talked to Baker, of course. I was like, ‘You know what, Bake, I’m not even going to second-chance this thing. Cleveland is where I want to be. You’re my boy, let’s do this thing, bro. We’ve got another year, nothing’s promised. Let’s just live it up, do what we can, best foot forward and not look back.’ It meant a lot to me,. He basically said, ‘Why would you try to second guess? This is where you belong.’”
Which was what he decided to do. He inked a one-year deal worth $910,000. But so far, that decision has not been paying off for the Browns.
Always a Brown
Higgins was drafted by Cleveland in the fifth-round of the 2016 NFL draft after a stellar career at Colorado State where he started all 14 games as a freshman and then his sophomore season was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best receiver. That season, he led the nation in receiving yards with 1,750 and also led the nation in receiving touchdowns with 17. He averaged an astounding 145.8 yards per game. Colorado State Hall of Fame named him their 2014 Male College Athlete of the Year among all of their sports teams. If Higgins could have qualified for the draft after his sophomore season, he would have been a sure-fire first-round pick.
He tapered off his junior year with 1,062 yards with six touchdowns and a 14.2 yards per catch average plus an 88.5 yards per game average.
In the NFL draft, then-Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown snagged Higgins in Round 5. The pick was instantly mentioned as one of that year’s draft steals. Higgins signed a four-year deal worth $2.52 million. Cleveland had just signed Hue Jackson to be their next head coach and was considered an offensive guru who liked to throw the ball.
In Higgin’s rookie year, the club won just one game. Only six balls were thrown his way all year for 77 yards despite playing in all 16 games mainly on special teams.
The following season, he was a last day cut but was signed to the practice squad. He was brought up to the active roster 13 days later and proceeded to gain 95 yards on seven receptions in his first game back. He caught his first NFL touchdown in the final game of the year – a season in which Cleveland went 0-16-0.
One thing for certain: Higgins has stuck it out despite the Cleveland bad.
In the opening game against the Ravens, Higgins played only 16 snaps with a single catch for nine yards in his only target. The loss was pretty lopsided, and no Browns’ receiver had a good game. But something started to vegetate in this game: Hodge had 40 plays. Like Higgins, he only had a solo reception and a minimalist three targets, but he got playing time.
In Game 2 against the Bengals, Higgins participated in just five plays and did not record any stats while Hodge got 33 snaps and JoJo Natson received three snaps. This plainly placed Hodge into the unofficial third receiver slot.
Then, it happened - Higgins went MIA. The team sent him out to get some smoked turkey club and Chorizo meatball sandwiches from the Herb ‘n Twine on Lorain Road, and just never returned. It’s not like anyone cared about the money, but the team needs receivers to show up and produce.
Remember last season when then-head coach Freddie Kitchens refused to play Higgins? Has Stefanski decided to do the same thing? Is Higgins in the dawg house? Is the new boss same as the old boss?
Hold on a sec. Higgins does show up for practices every day. And someone spotted him in the weight room last week and took a Snapchat while a neighbor of his said they see him jogging the streets to keep his stamina up.
The big question is: where is Higgins on game days?
In the game against the Football Team, Higgins was on the list of inactives. What was his injury? None - healthy scratch is the term. Hodge was the game’s third wide receiver although he had only one target and zero catches. However, he was very active with downfield blocking. Hodge also didn’t complain about his role and 35 snaps. Natson was kick returner Number 1 and receiver Number 4 before he became injured with a torn ACL.
Stefanski attempted to explain why Hodge is playing but not getting receptions, while Higgins isn’t getting either:
“I would say everything is based on the matchup week-to-week, and that’s us for every one of our personnel. We feel strongly about our depth at those positions, and we just want to utilize all of our guys to the best of their ability.”
Enter the game against the Dallas Cowboys. Once again, Higgins was listed as inactive. Hmmm......
And not that it probably would have mattered. OBJ had a breakout game against a team he basically owns going back to his stint with the Football Giants. Landry had his usual good cop/bad cop game and was instrumental in two of Beckham’s touchdowns.
Wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea attempted to shed some light on why the offensive minds have decided to omit Higgins from not only the gameplan, but from the actual game itself:
“Rashard Higgins has been outstanding in all areas. He’s worked extremely hard. He’s playing in multiple positions for us on the practice field. He’s been very professional in everything that he’s done with us. I enjoy coaching him. I enjoy having him in the room with us. I know that the other players - whether it’s the receiver position or other positions - have respect for him. Unfortunately because of some of the issues you have on a game day roster and so many people being active or inactive, there are always decisions to make and what’s best for the team. I’m encouraged by Higgins. I’m glad he is here, and I’m glad I have the opportunity to coach him.”
Which is Hollywood talk for “KhaDarel Hodge beat him out of his job shortly after he won the job to begin with.”
Another domino in this storyline is the fact that sixth-round draft pick Donovan Peoples-Jones is progressing at a very rapid rate. With Natson down, Peoples-Jones took all kickoff and punt return responsibilities and was listed as active for the first time. Against Dallas, Peoples-Jones had three kickoff returns for 73 yards including busting one out for 32 yards. He also returned one punt for 13 yards.
This equates that he will no longer be considered for inactive status for the remainder of the season as long as he remains healthy for the return game. With OBJ, Landry, Hodge and now Peoples-Jones, why would the Browns activate more than four receivers for any game?
Early on, the club emphasized the chemistry between Higgins and Mayfield. So, what changed all that? Did Hodge progress so rapidly in practices?
O’Shea on Hodge:
“KhaDarel is a very dependable player for us. I know we have a lot of trust in him. The quarterback trusts that he’s going to do the right thing. He works extremely hard. He studies hard. He’s outstanding in his preparation. We’ve talked to them a lot about putting the team first, and I’d say Hodge definitely falls in that category. And I’d say I feel like our group falls in that category of we’re putting the team first. Whether it is doing some things in the run game blocking or playing maybe in different role that what they expected to play.”
Next, O’Shea had good things to say about Peoples-Jones:
“Donovan has made progress every day he’s been there. He really has embraced everything we have asked of him. He has worked extremely hard in learning the playbook. Once he has been on the field, he has worked hard and improved every day. He has made some progress for us.”
So, with all of that narrative, unless Hodge or Peoples-Jones gets hurt, are the Browns moving on from Rashard Higgins?
The upcoming game against the Indianapolis Colts should provide a clue. Before the win over the Dallas Cowboys, Hodge hurt his hamstring in warmups and did not play a single down. Peoples-Jones was already active while Higgins was already inactive. Needless to say, if the Hodge injury had been earlier, it is assumed that Higgins should have been listed as active with Hodge on the inactive list.
Or, would he? The practice squad already has WR Taywan Taylor ready to be elevated to the active roster. The four-year veteran has been there before and played in three games for the Browns. Other practice squad receivers, undrafted rookie Ja’Marcus Bradley and five-year veteran Ryan Switzer, are an option and might be roster additions as well. Would Stefanski choose one of these guys instead of making Higgins active on gameday?
Currently, Natson has been placed on IR. Hodge is listed as “week-to-week” with his injury. Will Peoples-Jones become the new Number 3? Will Higgins finally get a real chance to play?
In the interim, if you see Higgins, tell him extra Bertman’s Mustard on those sandwiches.