Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry has spent a considerable amount of work rebuilding the team’s wide receiver room over the past few years.
From a 2020 roster that was topped by a slowing down Jarvis Landry, a declining Odell Beckham Jr. and the over-achieving Rashard Higgins, to the current group led by Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones, along with newcomers Elijah Moore, Marquise Goodwin and third-round draft pick Cedric Tillman, the transformation is difficult to ignore.
Of course, new faces mean change for the familiar ones as the club can only realistically keep so many players at the position and there are only so many offensive snaps to go around during the season.
Barring injury, Moore will likely move into the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Cooper, and the Browns will be eager to see what Tillman can do after selecting him in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
After those three, however, the competition for a roster spot will be strong, which is a good problem to have as Berry pointed out following the draft (quote via a team-provided transcript):
“I think for all the guys in that room, it really is just about competition. I think if, for any player that comes in the NFL, if you’re not ready to come compete for your job, then it’s just not the league and it’s just not the sport for you. That’s the reality for young players, rookies and vets. That’s just kind of the way it is and that’s kind of the way that we’ll build out the roster.”
So which players are the ones that might be facing the toughest battle for playing time this summer?
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell took a stab at answering that question in his latest (paywalled) column and landed on Peoples-Jones and Anthony Schwartz:
General manager Andrew Berry & Co. keep adding players to their receiving corps. After acquiring Elijah Moore and blocking 2022 third-round pick David Bell’s path to a starting job, the Browns used their first selection in this draft on another third-round wideout: Cedric Tillman. The 6-foot-3 Tillman should stick outside, with the Browns hoping his frame and 86th-percentile hand size give quarterback Deshaun Watson an inviting target on downfield throws and contested catches.
In the process, Tillman is expected to take snaps away from the outside receivers in Cleveland who aren’t Amari Cooper. Peoples-Jones was a starter last season and is entering his contract year, while Schwartz is yet another third-round pick who hasn’t been able to get untracked in a Browns uniform. Schwartz has never been able to deliver on his potential as a speed threat and could be a cut candidate this offseason, while the arrival of Tillman suggests Peoples-Jones’ future will be with another organization in 2024.
Schwartz was an easy selection as he has struggled to turn his speed into production (14 receptions for 186 yards and one touchdown in two seasons) and has dealt with injuries. Even if Berry had not selected a wide receiver in the draft, Schwartz was likely facing a tough fight to claim a roster spot in Cleveland.
Peoples-Jones is a bit of a surprising selection, however, as he has been on a solid career trajectory that has seen him go from 14 receptions for 304 yards as a rookie to 61 receptions for 839 yards last season. To be fair, those numbers are a little bit misleading given that Peoples-Jones’ targets increased from 20 as a rookie to 96 last year, so his season stats should have seen a corresponding increase.
Still, Peoples-Jones has turned into a reliable wide receiver, but the Browns are moving into a season where they will be looking for more from their pass catchers and DPJ could be surpassed by both Moore and Tillman if they live up to their potential. (Although Moore needs to work on his career catch rate of 56.3 percent, which doesn’t exactly scream “more playing time.” But the quarterbacks he has played with also don’t say “NFL quality,” so there is hope on that front.)
The competition for playing time at wide receiver is going to be a good one this summer, which should help make Cleveland’s offense better when the games start for real in September - even if it means that some familiar faces may no longer be part of the fun.