It would have been nearly impossible not to notice the abundance of playmakers streaking across the turf of Cowboys' Stadium last Sunday. While the Packers were led by a newly-minted legend in quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the team's diverse set of wide receivers were dominant in capturing the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title. In yet another reminder of how the NFL has become a league that rewards the passing game, the Packers proved that modern day success is found through the air.
Green Bay's playoff run was predicated on the play of perhaps the deepest set of wide receivers any NFL team can claim. The quartet of Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson proved too much for a traditionally solid Steeler defense. The Packers continually were able to spread the field against the Steelers, causing some immense matchup problems, which led to three Rodgers' touchdown passes.
Naturally, the NFL being what it is – meaning a copycat league – there will be a stampede of teams trying to emulate Green Bay's success this offseason. Already in Cleveland, elements of the West Coast Offense are being installed, at least in the hypothetical, "let's hope that football is actually played in 2011" sense.
And while the Browns may appear to be slightly ahead of the curve in this regard, it's painfully obvious that the current talent level on Cleveland's roster is lacking.
While the Packers boast four terrific wideout options, the Browns are still searching for a primary target. In 2010, the team's leading receiver was veteran tight end Ben Watson, who became a reliable underneath target for the Browns' triumvirate of starting quarterbacks. Perhaps as a necessity of the team's flawed offensive design, check down passes to Watson and running back Peyton Hillis seemed to be the norm of the 2010 offense. While these two players essentially carried the offensive passing game, receivers such as Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie appeared lost running mostly meaningless vertical routes downfield.
The hope is that in 2011, an offensive system spearheaded by new Head Coach Pat Shurmur will allow the Browns' receivers to run more efficient routes – the kind that create more spacing on the horizontal edges of the field. Far too often in 2010, the likes of Massaquoi and Robiskie were non-factors beyond the occasional short slant route. The results were typical of a Browns' offense that has struggled for years to generate any real momentum. Short check down gains on first down did little to alleviate the crippling third-and-long situations the offense repeatedly faced throughout the year.
The idea of Shurmur's West Coast offensive system – much like all the related hybrid systems around the league – is to give the team's receivers a chance to make plays after catching the ball. Success here leads to opposing defenses relaxing their downfield coverage, which results in the occasional big play down the middle of the field. This past Sunday, Green Bay was able to exploit Pittsburgh's defense in just this manner.
As it stands now, the Browns' primary receiving options would seem to fare better in a West Coast type of system. Particularly in the case of Massaquoi, the second-year receiver was simply not physical enough to get open down the field. Opposing cornerbacks and safeties simply outmuscled Massaquoi throughout the season and typically disrupted his timing. A change to a more quick-strike type of passing attack could do wonders to alleviate Massaquoi's biggest weakness.
The same could be said for Robiskie, who shows some late-season flashes that suggest he may succeed in becoming a quality NFL wideout. While also not the most physical of wideouts, Robiskie does run some smooth routes and has proven to be more effective near the edges of the field. In an offense predicated on timing, Robiskie could find himself as a key early down receiver in 2011.
Of course, any projections for 2011 have to be centered on talent. While the passing game's timing and efficiency should improve next season – at least in design – it's obvious that the Browns still need to add some talent at the wide receiver position. Currently, the Browns feature only Chanci Stuckey, Josh Cribbs and Carlton Mitchell behind Massaquoi and Robiskie.
While Stuckey had some moments last season, it appears that he is simply nothing more than a slot option, which in theory is primarily the role Robiskie should be playing. Cribbs – although injured for most of 2010 – is not a natural wide receiver, while Mitchell barely saw the field during his rookie campaign.
And in a painfully obvious Cleveland way, this brings us back to our original problem.
Simply put, the Browns need to invest in at least one wide receiver this coming April. Past history has suggested is never a sure bet.
During the expansion era, the Browns have held to a near annual tradition of finding wide receivers in the second round of the draft. From Kevin Johnson in 1999, to Dennis Northcutt, Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis onto Massaquoi and Robiskie, this strategy has yielded some less than positive results. Heading into this year's draft, this history could again repeat itself, at least if Tom Heckert's history with the Eagles provides a clue to the team's direction in April.
In this sense, it's at least comforting that the entire front office seems geared towards finding a specific type of receiver. Heckert's Eagles tended to draft smaller wideouts with speed – players capable of making a play after catching a short pass. Perhaps the same could be said for Holmgren's Seattle drafts. Also, Shurmur's brief history with the Rams involved plugging in an assortment of pass catchers, most of whom possessed a slight build.
On this note, it's probably not likely that the Browns will spend their first-round pick on a prime receiving option such as Georgia's A.J. Green or Alabama's Julio Jones. Especially considering the staggering number of needs found among the team's aging defense, such a move could be considered a reach. However, if we look further down the projected draft board, there are some mid-round gems to be found.
Maryland's Torrey Smith is among the fastest wideouts coming out in 2011, and could be a prime candidate for selection in the second round. Similar thinking could be extended to a trio of small-school prospects, such as Boise State's Titus Young, Troy's Jernel Jernigan and San Diego State's Vincent Brown. Also, in terms of an all-around receiving prospect, Kentucky's Randall Cobb could be an intriguing choice.
And while these names may not conjure up images of Calvin Johnson, it's worth noting that the Packers' core of wide receivers consist of two second-round picks, a third-rounder and a seventh-round choice in Driver.
But of course, reading the blueprint is the easy part. Successfully building a strong foundation of quality receivers is much more difficult.