(The OBR will do a position-by-position review of each of the Browns positions as the team heads toward the 2015 season. The third part will be the wide receiver position.)
There was a good case that the Browns had a need at wide receiver before Josh Gordon’s season came crashing down in 2014.
It appeared the Browns receiving corps actually played better before the return of Gordon. Brian Hoyer spread the ball around to a number of different receivers throughout the season, but when Gordon returned he seemed to be the focal point of targets.
However, Gordon and Hoyer were not in sync on routes and Gordon seemed disengaged as the season wore on. Gordon was suspended for the final game of the season for missing the team’s final walk through.
Mike Pettine said Gordon’s future with the Browns was at a “crossroads” and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Browns try to trade him during the off-season as his talent is obvious but it’s not sure if he truly wants to ‘Play like a Brown’.
Andrew Hawkins paid big dividends as the team’s biggest free agent addition from the previous season. Hawkins had the best season of his career and did so playing on the outside when he was pegged to play the slot position before Josh Gordon was suspended.
Miles Austin was a pleasant surprise and was a key contributor in the passing game, particularly on third down.
Rookie Taylor Gabriel displayed big play ability as he finished first in the AFC in his receiving yardage and third in the NFL. Travis Benjamin showed flashes of big play ability, as well, especially in the record-setting come-from-behind victory over the Titans as he caught two touchdown passes, including the game-winner.
Here are the receivers who finished the season with the team:
Andrew Hawkins — Hawkins led the team with 63 receptions for 824 yards (13.1 avg,) including two touchdowns in his first season with the Browns after signing as a free agent. Hawkins opened the season with a season high of eight receptions and had 112 yards against the Jaguars for a season and career high. He also had three rushes for 15 yards.
Miles Austin — Austin finished second on the team with 47 receptions for 568 yards (12.1 avg.) and two touchdowns in 12 games. Austin’s best game was against the Bills when he had 7 receptions for 86 yards before suffering a kidney injury that finished his season and placed him on injured reserve. Austin is an unrestricted free agent and the Browns have indicated they would like to re-sign him.
Taylor Gabriel — Gabriel was a long shot to make the team as an undrafted rookie free agent but he ended up third on the team with 36 catches for 621 yards (17.3 avg.), including one touchdown. Gabriel showed big play ability as his 17.3 yards per catch led the AFC and was good enough for third-best in the NFL. Gabriel had four receptions of over 40 yards in two starts. Gabriel had five receptions for 92 yards against the Texans. Gabriel also had four rushes for 10 yards and four kickoff returns for 96 yards.
Josh Gordon — Gordon returned from his 10-game suspension from the NFL for substance abuse to catch eight passes for 120 yards in his first game back. It was his ninth career 100-yard game. Gordon had seven catches for 75 yards in his second game, but had 2-, 3- and 4-catches in his final three games played to finish the season with 24 receptions for 303 yards (12.6 avg.) with no touchdowns. Gordon was suspended for the final game of the season for missing the team’s final walk through.
Travis Benjamin — Benjamin led the Browns with three touchdown receptions and had 18 receptions for 314 yards. Benjamin had four catches for 48 yards, including two in the come from behind win over the Titans. Benjamin returned 15 punts for 127 yards, including a long of 37 yards. Benjamin returned 12 kickoffs for 246 yards.
Marlon Moore — Moore was a core special teams player that played sparingly at receiver. He had no receptions, but he had 13 kickoff returns for 322 yards (24.8 avg.), including a long of 32 yards.
Rodney Smith — Smith was inactive for most of the season, but when he was active he caught no passes.
Phil Bates — Bates was on the Browns practice squad from the middle of the season before being promoted to the active roster in the final week of the season when Gordon was suspended. However, Bates was inactive for the game.
Summary: The Browns still need to add a top-flight wide receiver despite what Ray Farmer said about not needing a ‘silver bullet’ at receiver, especially with the organization growing weary of Gordon’s behavior.
Last year, Nate Burleson, Hawkins and Austin were the veteran receivers added in free agency and the Browns should target at least one more in free agency this off-season. Last year, the Browns didn’t draft a receiver but were able to find Gabriel. Even if the Browns cannot land a receiver as a free agent, they should address the position in the draft.
Some of the unrestricted free agents scheduled to hit free agency as of now: (Dez Bryant, Demarius Thomas, Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, Torrey Smith, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Cecil Shorts and Wes Welker)
(Next up, we’ll take a look at the tight end position)