Wow. How many receivers does an NFL club actually need? That would depend upon the offensive scheme and personnel.
For the Cleveland Browns, to answer that question of how many receivers a team need seems to be 14 since that is how many are under contract. No, really - not a misprint.
Last year it was Pro Bowler Amari Cooper with Donovan Peoples-Jones along with an assortment behind them in David Bell, Anthony Schwartz, Demetric Felton, Jaelon Darden, and later Michael Woods. And those were just the guys on the 53-man roster. On the practice squad were Daylen Baldwin, Marquez Stevenson, and Mike Harley while the IR list housed Isaiah Weston plus Jakeem Grant.
Since last season, there has been plenty of activity with this group.
First, Elijah Moore was brought over from the New York Jets in a trade. Right behind that transaction, the team signed free agent Marquise Goodwin. Both players are track guys with misguided production numbers.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, shortly after this posted, we got reports that Michael Woods would be lost for the season with an Achilles injury.
One thing about the receiver room going into training camp, there is speed on top of speed. Look at these 40 numbers:
Of course, being fast is one thing. Running great routes is another. Catching the ball is yet another aspect. Being able to become elusive is a must. The very act of leaping to snag balls at the catch point is predominately through experience.
Bell came out of the Big 10 Conference with all kinds of accolades, yet was lucky to get three targets in any Browns contest. Schwartz is known for being jet fast and yet will drop passes just as quickly. Felton just now this season is hanging up his running back cleats. Harley is a return man, and yet when Grant went on IR, Harley never saw the 53-man roster. Weston was known in college as a deep threat, something the Browns sorely need, but had issues securing the ball on deep throws.
Stevenson is also a kickoff return man who was never called upon and has consistency issues. Baldwin does not have a single trait to hang his hat on. Woods looked great in training camp, then became injured before he came back with just five receptions. Darden is 5’-8”, has small hands, and is a light 173 pounds who does not work well in traffic.
Those are just the guys who are the non-starters. Cooper, DPJ, Moore, and Goodwin are on another level.
Something definitely had to change this year. After all, Cleveland went out and spent all these high draft picks on QB Deshaun Watson plus is paying him like a king, so his receiver room must be qualified personnel in order to get this 2023 offense going.
The Browns’ passing attack was ranked #21 last year. They were 23rd in total yards (3,710), 24th with completion percentage (62%), 15th for first down conversion percentage (33.7%), 19th in touchdown passes (19), and 14th with fewest interceptions (12).
Cleveland went into 2022 as a running team. These numbers represent a club that will run quite a bit and pass some. The league leader in passing attempts was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 751 attempts. Compare that to the Browns’ 540 and it is clear that the franchise was set on running the ball.
But going into 2023, the pendulum has switched. This new-look offense is ready to get Watson going and allow him to do what he does best: survey the field and run when needed. But in order to go through progressions, Watson must have receivers and tight ends that will run great routes and know how to gain separation.
Bringing in depth and experience
GM Andrew Berry made a cooperative effort to give this offense a lot more pop going forward.
Cooper again was named to another Pro Bowl and remains a viable threat. DPJ is on the cusp of becoming an All-Star himself. What has been the crutch, however, is the slot guy plus WR4.
Schwartz has proved he is not that guy. Bell played quite a bit, yet wasn’t a target in most games. He is the obvious choice for making this position work, but for whatever reason, he had just 35 targets in 16 games with a mere 24 receptions. In a lot of games, his final numbers would be two targets, and two receptions for something insignificant like 17 yards.
But now, Moore and Goodwin should provide that step forward in this department.
Division foe Cincinnati Bengals displayed to the Browns that three-receiver sets with one being an exceptional receiver coupled with two very good pass catchers will evoke havoc on a defense. Who do you double? Which receiver should always receive a safety over the top? That limits the number of bodies covering the other receivers which inevitably will cause a shortage of personnel.
Is Moore the new slot guy? The perception already is that he will simply move into this position. But hold those thoughts. In his entire career, Moore has never strictly been labeled the slot. Last year alone with the Jets, he played outside one-half and in the slot the other half of his offensive snaps. And the year before that he was utilized just 28% of his field time at the slot.
This is not to say that WR coach Chad O’Shea won’t attempt to place Moore in the full-time slot. He does have experience there, and his skill set is perfect for this position. After all, Cooper and DPJ are the outside guys, so Moore would need to fit somewhere, right? And that somewhere else fittingly, is the slot. He can win separation on his route running alone.
What if O’Shea experimented with Cooper playing the slot? Then he could allow Moore and Goodwin to play outside with DPJ. As Coop becomes older, his outside speed is beginning to diminish some, while Goodwin and Moore are still track stars playing football.
With Cooper inside, this might create some mismatches for the defense with either a linebacker or a bigger/slower safety that will have coverage responsibilities. And since Cooper is a fine blocker, this would work perfectly during running downs as well as the short passing game.
Which receivers will emerge?
It is difficult to imagine Felton and Schwartz making the roster this year. Felton’s appeal was that he was a Swiss Army knife who was expected to return kickoffs, play backup running back, and man the slot on occasion. He has performed well in none of these positions. Schwartz will go into training camp with an opportunity to make this squad since a valuable third-round pick was used on him plus his elite speed, but the dude has to run elusive routes that fool somebody, and the drops must cease.
Cooper, Moore, and DPJ on the field at the same time with two tight ends is going to be an awesome look. And then switch in Goodwin at selected intervals? Or toss out their speed package with Moore, Goodwin with Cooper. Great googly-moogly.
There is no doubt that Goodwin is Cleveland’s option if Schwartz does not have a terrific training camp. Both are track guys with Olympic experience and will take the top off the defense downfield.
If Bell does not become a part of the rotation, the biggest projection guy to step up is Darden. He was brought up to the main roster last year and has been given a taste of the offense. He is on the smallish end but is a nightmare for the deep zone if he gets loose. He has turbo acceleration with long speed. His breaks are tight and arrive every day with loose hips. Darden will need a great camp but would be an instant asset and a perfect player to insert for depth while resting players without losing speed or guys who can separate.
Both Harley and Bell were very productive in college.
One thing is for certain: the receiver room looks incredible going into training camp. Could Berry still draft a receiver during this year’s NFL draft? Certainly, but why? There is plenty of talent and plenty of talent that simply needs more playing time and instruction. You can point to any of these younger guys and watch them grow into productive athletes.
The surprise addition of Goodwin late in free agency plus the unexpected trade for Moore just might transform what this receiver group was missing last season.
Hang on, it’s going to be a great ride.