When last season ended, Cleveland Browns fans were focused on two needs: Quarterback and Pass Catchers. Unfortunately, the first was very limited in upgrade options. The Browns were not trading up into picks #1 or 2 and Josh McCown may be the best free agent QB that switched teams this off-season. The Browns beat out the Buffalo Bills, among others, for McCown.
The wide receiver and tight end positions were far more intriguing. Free agent receivers like Jeremy Maclin, Andre Johnson, Cecil Shorts and others all moved around while the NFL Draft was once again loaded. Amari Cooper, Kevin White and DeVante Parker led a exciting group of WR draftees that the Browns could make a move on to instantly upgrade the top of the WR depth chart.
Tight end Jordan Cameron was a free agent but the Browns made a play for him to return. Charles Clay was the other free agent tight end that drew both the team's interest and had Browns' fans hoping for a big upgrade. The draft didn't provide as much depth or excitement, outside of Maxx Williams and, for some, Clive Wolford, but with 10 draft picks fans hoped for a chance to upgrade the team's tight end with a young guy as well.
Yet most fans were disappointed coming out of the off-season. Even though we know that quarterbacks tend to raise the stock of their pass catchers, but not vice versa, fans wanted a big name, or two, added. Instead the Browns signed veteran WRs Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline and TE Rob Housler while drafting WR Vince Mayle and TE Randall Telfer None of those additions did anything to satiate fans desires.
Signing Terrelle Pryor brought the requisite excitement but was tempered by the big task of the former Buckeye QB transitioning to WR.
Yet, as we prepare for tonight's second Pre-season game, the Browns sit with some difficult decisions to make at these two positions as they prepare for their final 53 man roster. Unknown players have stood out at both wide receiver and tight end, while a couple of the "known" commodities have either disappointed or not been able to participate much in Training Camp.
Given all that, lets take a look at both the tight end and wide receiver positions. Who is locked into a roster spot, barring injury, who is on the bubble and who is unlikely to make the team? In addition, how do each fit on the team and what might their role be if they make the roster?
Dwayne Bowe - Bowe was everything the Browns had hoped for in OTAs but has been unable to participate in Training Camp. Still he is, as long as his hamstring comes along at some point, locked in as the Browns #1 reciever and will make the team. Bowe gives the Browns a big receiver who can catch fades, back shoulder throws and go across the middle. His size and body control will give McCown some room for error.
Brian Hartline - Hartline has been even better than expected. Another former Buckeye, Hartline has shown the kind of talent that got him a big contract before the 2014 season. The Dolphins changed offenses and Hartline struggled, leading to him being cut after one season. In the Browns offense he fits perfectly as the do everything, #2 possession receiver.
Andrew Hawkins - Hawk came on strong for the Browns last season and isn't going anywhere. The prototype slot receiver, Hawkins has the short area quickness to get open against any coverage. With the upgrade in accuracy that McCown is over Brian Hoyer, Hawkins numbers should increase this year as he will get more yards after catch.
Taylor Gabriel - Gabriel, the undrafted free agent last year, is solidly a foundational piece for the Browns. While small, Gabriel plays best on the outside where his route running and speed got him open often last year. Gabriel can take the top off the defense as well as hurt teams on bubble screens. Finding time for Taylor on the field will be vital to the Browns passing success but with Bowe, Hartline and Hawkins it may be more difficult than it seems.
CLOSE TO IN
Travis Benjamin - A surprising name here, "The Rabbit" has shined through OTAs and Training Camp. Benjamin is almost a lock to make the roster, barring injuries, with his speed, improved route running and hands giving him value. With Duke Johnson not being able to perform, the Browns are relying on Benjamin to return to his old form as a returner as well. He can work both inside and out while also providing a dynamic element on end arounds and reverses.
Terrelle Pryor - Pryor has impressed the Browns with his dedication to the position. He was given specific expectations after OTAs and was successful with those when he returned at Camp. Pryor has soft hands, good speed and a great frame. His route running is a work in progress, he rounds off most of his routes, but his work ethic has stood out. He can play outside as a receiver but also gives the team flexibility as a "move" tight end inside. If his injury lingers to the 3rd game, his status could drop to on the bubble. For now he is close to in as well, giving the Browns 6 receivers.
Marlon Moore - Moore has not provided much for the Browns on offense but is a big player on special teams. He can return kicks and punts but his real value is as a gunner. He and Johnson Bademosi are both bubble players that provide this skill. It seems one is likely to make the team but with the players ahead of Moore it may be tough. Seven receivers is highly unlikely but if they keep an extra it will be due to special teams work.
Josh Lenz - Lenz has been a breakout star in Training Camp but is caught up in a numbers game. He runs good routes, has good enough speed and good hands. Nothing spectacular stands out about Lenz but he has been able to make plays when given a chance. An injury could open up the door for him to stick but at this point Gabriel and Hartline provide similar traits.
Darius Jennings - Jennings has opened some eyes as well with his dynamic speed, especially in the return game. Benjamin likely takes the spot that Jennings was fighting for but the Browns would love to get him to their Practice Squad. That may be unlikely based on his Pre-season.
Shane Wynn - A much smaller player that the team has also been impressed with, local product Wynn has some versatility that the Browns like. It is possible that he could play a Darren Sproles type role for the team as a RB/WR combination. With the uncertainty at the RB position that may be Wynn's best hope to make the team. He likely would make it to the Browns practice squad if cut.
Vince Mayle - Mayle may be the most forgotten 4th round pick in Browns history. The big, 6'2", 225 pound receiver out of Washington St. has a lot of upside but is a year or two away from contributing. The Browns value production over contract or draft position but it would be tough to see them cutting Mayle. He may make it to IR somehow so the team can take a look at him next year but don't be totally surprised if he is cut due to the talent depth on the roster.
Gary Barnidge - Barnidge has developed as a pass catcher after being brought in primarily as a blocker. He has impressed in camp with his 6'6", 250 pound frame as both the in-line and blocking tight end role in Coach Flip's offense. He is currently running with the starters most of camp. Barnidge isn't overly dynamic but his solid, consistent play is a positive for the team.
Jim Dray - Dray also was brought in more as an in-line blocker at the position but has made strides as a pass catcher. He also has a big frame that helps him both as a blocker and in the passing game. Dray made some big catches for the Browns last season, even though he only had 17 overall, with a solid 14 yard average and 1 TD. Like Barnidge, Dray isn't overly dynamic.
Rob Housler - Housler was the free agent addition that had fans excited about a dynamic tight end. Mostly due to injuries, the former 3rd round pick never really put it together in Arizona. In four seasons he totaled 105 receptions and over 1,100 yards and 1 TD. So far he has been a disappointment in camp. He has had drops, bad route running and some trouble in-line. He has started to come on over the last week but the Browns may decide to move to keep Pryor or another WR instead of Housler.
E.J. Bibbs - Full disclosure, I love E.J. Bibbs. He has a big, solid frame, soft hands and great feet. He is shorter than the previously listed tight ends but that also allows him to play a little fullback in the Browns offense. He has been outstanding so far in camp. He works hard, is humble and is willing to lower his shoulder in to players. His ability to catch the ball and make people miss is surprising for a player his size. Strong belief that Bibbs is more likely to make the roster than Housler at this point in time, he has played that well.
Randall Telfer - Telfer's college production was severly limited due to injuries and he is highly unlikely to play at all this season. Long term, the Browns see an athletic tight end that can do a lot of things if he can get healthy. He is currently on the Non-Football Injury list and is likely head to the IR for the season.
Manasseh Garner - The Browns haven't seen enough from Garner to keep him around and need roster spots for their unique depth at wide receiver as well as both the defensive line and defensive backfield. He may get a spot on the Browns Practice Squad but it is more likely the rookie is looking for a team in one of the first cuts the Browns make.
So while most Browns fans are still worried about the team's pass attack, Bowe, Hartline, Hawkins, Gabriel, Dray and Barnidge have a lot of talent and are locked in to the roster. Benjamin, Pryor and Bibbs would give the team some exciting upside and big play potential if they are able to take their roster spots. That leads to some tough decisions for the Browns with a few receivers that have been impressive and free agent acquisition in Housler.
The Browns may not have a Top 10 passing attack but they clearly have talent to make an impact and balance out their offense. Can Josh McCown and OC John DeFilippo put it all together? That is why they play the games and tonight's Pre-season game against the Buffalo Bills is another chance to analyze the team.
What do you think about the Browns WR and TE depth chart?