The Cleveland Browns have a wide receiver problem: they have too many of them.
Before the NFL draft this past April, the franchise had 12 on the roster. Then Michael Woods, II tore up a knee while performing off-season drills in Texas with QB Deshaun Watson.
In the draft, GM Andrew Berry took University of Tennessee receiver Cedric Tillman with the team’s first pick they owned in the draft in Round 3.
Last season Isaiah Weston tore up his knee early in training camp and found IR his home. Anthony Schwartz suffered a concussion in the win over the Houston Texans and was subsequently placed on IR. The team then signed Jaelen Darden who is still a roster member. Schwartz had also missed three games in his rookie year due to another concussion.
Currently on the Browns roster for the receiver group are Marquise Goodwin, Elijah Moore, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Amari Cooper, Demetric Felton, Jakeem Grant, Ra’Shaun Henry, Mike Harley, Daylen Baldwin, David Bell, Darden, and Tillman. Felton jumps from the receiver room to the running back group while Grant is considered more of a return man.
This brings us to how many receivers will this coaching staff retain this year. Yes, it is obvious that players such as Harley, Darden, Henry, and Baldwin will most likely become practice squad additions. It will take astronomical training camps for both Schwartz and Felton to make the roster this year. Felton may find a home as the third running back but will have to beat out journeyman John Kelly and undrafted rookie Hassan Hall and free agent Nate McCrary.
But with the talent that remains, who will be a surprise camp cut?
The guess here is David Bell.
Bell came to Cleveland as a rookie last year taken in the third round. He had projections of being a late second-rounder, but Berry found him sitting there at pick #99 and instantly he was tagged as one of the draft’s best steals with his size of 6’-2”, 205 pounds.
There were headlines that asked, “Could David Bell be a breakout player for the Browns in 2022?”, “Bell’s skills are ripe for the slot position”, and “Is David Bell the steal of the 2022 NFL Draft?”
Why all the hoopla over a third-round selection? The answer to that question remains in his college days.
Usually, college freshmen have minimal production or are redshirted. With Bell, coming in as a true freshman with Purdue University, he had 1,035 receiving yards with seven TDs. He finished his college career with 2,946 yards on 232 receptions with 21 touchdowns and a 12.7 yards per catch average. In his senior year alone Bell had 93 receptions. 93. With 1,286 yards.
Want accolades? Gatorade Indiana Football Player of the Year. Indiana State Male Athlete of the Year as a senior in high school. Indiana state champion (football and basketball). Big 10 Freshman Player of the Year (Purdue). Second Team All-Big 10 as a freshman. Two-Time First Team All-Big 10 his sophomore and junior years. Also in his junior year, he won the Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award as the Big 10’s best receiver and was selected consensus First Team All-American as a junior.
So yes, getting a guy like this in the third round who had a second-round grade was considered a huge plum for Berry. What a find. And, the Browns needed another blue-chip receiver to pair with Amari Cooper and DPJ. Bell was considered the next great slot receiver.
Bell had a decent training camp. The NFL is not college, and training camp for rookies is a huge eye-opener. The amount of data the club insists an athlete to learn is enormous. Especially if you are an offensive player. Then there are the physical aspects because in this league, guys come at you hard and fast.
In 12 college games, Bell might have faced six really good cornerbacks. In the NFL, that number would be 18 because every team has an excellent cover guy and his backup is usually better than a rookie wide receiver. At this level, a player must rely on his abilities and try to assimilate how the mental portion works.
On opening day at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina against the Carolina Panthers featuring former Browns signal caller Baker Mayfield, it was Schwartz who lined up as WR3 instead of Bell. Schwartz had two jet sweeps and one catch while Bell did not gather any stats. In the debacle that was the 31-30 loss to the Jets in Week 2, Bell had one target with one reception for six yards. He had 20 snaps, six of which were on special teams.
These two early games were pretty much the story for the remainder of the season. At season’s end, Bell had 35 targets with 24 receptions playing in the slot for 214 yards and 3.1 yards-after-contact average. He also netted three starts and one punt return for 12 yards with 516 offensive snaps and 123 special teams snaps. Bell had two games with four catches and 10 contests with one of fewer receptions.
He did have toe and thumb issues down the stretch and missed nearly two full games. .
How does a player with all that hardware in three full injury-free seasons in a very tough conference end up with three targets a game with two catches?
The Browns offense in 2022 failed David Bell. How can a player come from one of the most difficult conferences and shine, yet will have one or two balls thrown his way in an NFL game as decorated as he was? How does that happen?
Now suddenly, Bell is the invisible man.
He will compete for a roster spot just like he did as a rookie, but his competition then was mainly undrafted free agents, other rookies, and Schwartz.
Now, instead of him being the next man up and hoping to grab that WR3 spot opposite DPJ and Cooper, he is competing against slot receiver Elijah Moore who is a former second-round pick. Cleveland traded with the New York Jets to get him. Teams don’t generally give up their own second-round pick for a guy unless they plan on keeping him.
Bell’s spot on the roster seemed secure to this point.
Bell is also going up against veteran speedster Marquise Goodwin who was viewed as a key addition when he signed in free agency.
Then the draft happened. Two years in a row the Browns’ very first pick was in the third round. Last year it was cornerback Martin Emerson, Jr. This time around, with 11 receivers already on the roster, the pick was Tennessee WR Cedric Tillman.
Bell can get open under man-coverage. That isn’t an issue with him.
How often the 2022 rookie WR class was charted as open against single man coverage this season. Khalil Shakir should probably get more snaps next season? pic.twitter.com/2q6vyuAfAA— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) February 16, 2023
The third round is a popular spot for Berry’s selection of a receiver. In 2021, he took Olympic track star Schwartz out of Auburn University.
Exactly how many receivers will this coaching staff retain? The norm is six. At season’s end in 2021 and 2022 the roster only had five.
A quick count reveals Cooper, DPJ, Moore plus the rookie Tillman. That leaves two spots. Bell is competing against Goodwin, another slot-heavy guy, and return man Jakeem Grant who is now completely healthy. Both of these guys are ultra-fast. Bell runs a 4.65.
One would assume if Grant remains healthy and has a very good camp, he will be one of these six for his return prowess alone. Anyone who has seen his punt return videos on YouTube has visions of Josh Cribbs. Grant should make the squad due to his return abilities because the return game last season was horrendous. With a new special teams coach hired this year, you can bet they will have a jet installed as kick returner. That man is Grant.
Essentially, that leaves one spot - if indeed the number is six. Will it be Goodwin or Bell? Or maybe someone who has a terrific training camp instead?
It is usually a foregone conclusion that it takes a full year for a rookie receiver to learn the nuances of the pro game. The passing game appears to be more of an offensive tool this upcoming season.
Berry didn’t sign the speedy Goodwin just to release him. He also didn’t spend a valuable third-round pick on Bell just to cut him after one year.
Or will he?