The Browns live and die by the running game. Nick Chubb just received an extension that will keep him in-house for another three years while his running mate Kareem Hunt is signed until 2022.
But have you looked at the wide receiver room this year? Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. are the starters and seasoned veterans. But look at the young talent Cleveland now possess in this group.
This year’s third-round draft pick Anthony Schwartz will ultimately become the Browns answer to Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs. Donovan Peoples-Jones is having a great training camp and is pushing for more snaps per game. And he will get them. Rashard Higgins is a Baker Mayfield go-to guy.
But there is this other guy in camp. And he is turning heads.
Who is Alexander Hollins?
Glad you asked. For one, he is not a big guy standing just six-foot and weighing just 166 pounds. But that is okay. Schwartz is 6’-0”, 185 pounds and runs a 4.29 in the 40. The Chiefs’ Hill is just 5’-10”, 185 pounds and also runs a 4.29.
Hollins is another speedster being clocked at 4.48 in the 40.
He grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi and went to Yahoo County High School where he wore #13. During his junior season he hauled in 33 passes for 680 yards and 15 touchdowns. In just his senior year alone he had 64 catches for 1,346 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He also returned kickoffs and really shined on punt returns. Hollins was named 4A First Team All-State.
Despite his high school accolades and good numbers, the amount of colleges interested did not formulate. He made a decision to attend Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Mississippi. In his first season he caught just 11 passes for 214 yards and scored three touchdowns. He had sustained an ankle injury which kept him sidelined for longer than expected.
There were a lot of colleges including several D-1 schools who were in contact with him. But once his playing time decreased and his numbers plummeted, all of the colleges who called, wrote and visited Hollins disappeared. He suddenly had injury concerns which hovered over his future.
Hollins was quoted in his hometown paper, The Yazoo Herald:
“In the end, Eastern Illinois was the only one to offer me, and of course, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to play football for a full ride to further my education. It felt like a second home immediately. The players treated me like I was already family. The coaches were all so welcoming. Why would I say no to a place like this? Things worked out well for me.”
Before his next school year, he transferred to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, IL for the final two years of his NCAA eligibility.
There was a problem, however. In Mississippi, there are very few exceptionally cold days to content with. Illinois is, well, frigid at times.
“It was cold when I first got there I called my dad and said, ‘Dad, I think I made the wrong decision.’ But I slowly adapted to it. Over time, it got better, and while I’m not a cold weather guy, I got used to it.”
Hollins led Eastern Illinois in receiving his first season with the Panthers with 47 receptions for 694 yards and seven touchdowns. He won the 2017 All-Newcomer Award for the Ohio Valley Conference.
In his senior year, he elevated his numbers to 1,102 yards with 80 catches and 16 TD’s. Against Indiana State he had 10 receptions for 167 yards and three touchdowns. He was named First team All-Ohio Valley Conference while his 16 scores ranked second in the FCS.
During his senior year, he was quoted on the DailyEasternNews.com as saying:
“I am still trying to prove to people that I am that type of player, that I am good player, that I can play at any type of level and against any competition. Coming out of high school I didn’t have very many offers, with the JUCO I had to work hard and try to get where I am at now, so I am here and I am just going to make the best out of it.”
In the end, he had scored 23 touchdowns in 22 games. He was a finalist for the 2018 Walter Payton Award as the best player in the FCS category and was also named to the FCS All-American Team. He later participated in the College Gridiron Showcase in Ft. Worth, Texas in order to be further exposed to professional scouts.
“The biggest difference between high school and college was that the playbooks were more complicated. You really had to study them, and we held each other accountable for that. The game was also faster. Things were moving so fast early.”
The 2019 NFL draft came and went for Hollins. FCS players can roll up huge numbers and often are not considered viable professional players at the next level. Another Eastern Illinois grad, QB Tony Romo, would also go undrafted years later in 2003.
So, was his dream of playing in the NFL gone? What was next? The Canadian Football League? Get a regular job?
This didn’t mean that NFL clubs weren’t seeking out his services. He was being highly-recruited as an NFL free-agent and had his pick of clubs to sign with including the Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens. Two days after the draft had concluded, he inked a three-year deal worth $1.755 million with the Vikings who had also signed University of Washington free agent QB Jake Browning.
Having to work hard for everything that football offered him all his life, he did the only thing he knew to do. After rookie camp with the Vikings, Hollins put in the work and found the weight room. He studied film. He ran more in order to improve his already extraordinary speed. Footwork needed some work along with his route running.
Part of his workout included pushing a truck down the street.
The Vikings already had Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as their starting receivers. Hollins had a very good camp but was a final day cut. He was re-signed with a designation to the Vikings practice squad.
Hollins told The Yazoo Herald:
“Everything will not happen the time you want it to happen. If it’s meant for you it’ll come to you. I worked hard to be here, and the things that got me here I’m going to continue to do. Giving it my all every day and trusting and believing in God’s timing because his timing is always on time.”
That timing occurred in early December, Minnesota placed LB Ben Gedeon on IR and elevated Hollins to the active roster.
At the time, the Vikings move was more for depth rather than necessity as their starting receiver Thielen, another undrafted FCS player out of Minnesota State, was nursing a hamstring issue and wasn’t exactly 100 percent. Hollins played the final four games of the 2019 season and saw 71 snaps. He also started Week 17 and made his first two NFL receptions and ended the year with four targets with two catches for 46 yards and a 23-yard per reception average. He suited up for that overtime win over the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.
The following season the Vikings drafted WR Justin Jefferson out of LSU in the first-round. Again Hollins had a good training camp and had gotten some good press. When WR Bisi Johnson suffered a torn ACL during camp, Hollins was being considered for the WR3 job. Again he was a final cut and once again was assigned to the practice squad.
He was known as a burner. His 4.48 time tied him with receiver K.J. Osborn as the fastest players on the roster aside from Jefferson.
Hollins remained on the Vikings practice squad until December 28, 2020.
On December 28, Hollins was claimed by the Browns and subsequently placed on their active roster. At the time of the signing, Cleveland had four receivers placed on the Reserve/COVID list heading into the game against the New York Jets.
Hollins was signed with the idea he would be on the active roster for the rest of the 2020 season and into the post-season. In all indications, Cleveland signed him with the intent to keep him especially since he was a former Vikings player who had participated in Browns’ head coach Kevin Stefanski’s system. Stefanski came to Cleveland as the former offensive coordinator of the Vikings.
Hollins had instant knowledge of Stefanski’s offense and filled a key backup need for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. This also meant Hollins would be able to spend the entire off-season with the Browns. Cleveland eventually chose to keep Hollins over Marvin Hall. His salary this year will be $780,000 which is also his cap hit.
Hollins might be a long-shot to make this team, but he is having a very good training camp despite some hamstring issues. Everyone has their eyes on WR Donovan Peoples-Jones this year, but they are also noticing and asking who is that Number 83? His favorite number is 13, which he wore in high school. In fact, his Twitter handle is @ahollins13.
Being in his third year and already gotten some NFL reps behind him, Hollins has had some time to see what he needs to do to compete and has improved his game. He has quite a bit of upside. Stefanski already knows him and Hollins already knows this offense. GM Andrew Berry sees Hollins as a value prospect meaning he has talent without costing a lot.
Rashard Higgins is due to make $2.1 million this year. If Hollins can be a younger and faster version of Higgins he could end up a roster player that Berry would like to keep.
The competition in this year’s receiver room is fierce. Add to the names of the most well-known wideouts Jarvis Landry, OBJ, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Rashard Higgins plus Anthony Schwartz and add Ryan Switzer, Ja’Marcus Bradley, JoJo Natson, Davion Davis and KhaDarel Hodge to the list of guys Hollins is working to beat out.
Would Cleveland change their offense?
During the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s, the Miami Dolphins were known as a smash mouth running team with guys like Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, Jim Kiick, Don Nottingham, Norm Bulaich, Delvin Williams and Tony Nathan. Then in 1983, they drafted QB Dan Marino and suddenly their running attack took a backseat to the passing game. And the results were felt immediately.
While it is unconscionable for the Browns to go four and five-wide consistently this year, they could with the talent level they have this season. No, really.
Jarvis Landry, OBJ, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Rashard Higgins, Anthony Schwartz and now add Alexander Hollins to the mix? Who could cover these dudes? And which do you double-cover? This means that any receiver who steps onto the field would be fresh and ready.
Add either tight end Austin Hooper or David Njoku or one of the running backs who are both very capable pass receivers to the scheme and drop one receiver and it would be lights out for opponents. Mayfield would throw for over 400-yards on a weekly basis and could resemble the Dallas Cowboys’ offense that Browns’ fan know have the ability to score a ton of points and score often. Remember last year’s contest when Cleveland shot out to a 41-14 lead only to have that veritable Cowboys offense roar back to which the lead was just 41-38 with less than four minutes to play?
Hollins could give the Browns some much needed depth at a position that is already one of the best groups in the NFL. He is a proven kick returner. He could also conceivably become a starter one day when veterans such as Landry and Beckham move on.
And then, jersey Number 13 would become available.