The Cleveland Browns successfully drafting wide receivers isn’t something the franchise does often or well. The last drafted receiver to spend any significant time on the active roster was Travis Benjamin, who didn’t truly have a breakout year until the 2015 season and who has since moved on in free agency to sign with the San Diego Chargers.
While the Browns did take a wideout in 2015’s draft, one heavy at the position, they still managed to get their choice wrong, taking Vince Mayle in Round 4. Mayle never made it to the regular season, being released in the final rounds of roster cuts, spending a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys and is currently unemployed in the league. And there is the suspended Josh Gordon who was a supplemental draft pick in 2012, costing the team a second-round pick in 2013. But he’s no use to the team now.
It is unfortunate that the Browns addressed other positions in the 2015 and 2014 drafts, years when the receiver talent was vast and deep. Cleveland needs to add receivers—young receivers, tall receivers, game-changing, touchdown-scoring receivers—and the 2016 class simply doesn’t boast the same bounty as the past two. Still, that doesn’t mean the Browns can afford to neglect this position on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. It’s not a crisis situation, to be sure, but with the quarterback situation not yet settled, equipping any would-be starter with playmaking weaponry is a necessity.
Though the Browns have 12 picks at their disposal this year, just two come in the top 50, where the draft’s better receivers are expected to be selected. That doesn’t mean Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell isn’t on their radar with the No. 8 pick in Round 1, or that they won’t be able to use No. 32 on Baylor’s Corey Coleman or TCU’s Josh Doctson if they are there. But if they don’t, and they don’t use their considerable assets to move up, there may be few starter-capable receivers available to them at picks 65 (round 3), 77 (Round 3) or 99 (Round 4).
Cleveland could still find a diamond-in-the-rough receiver in later rounds or even from the pool of undrafted rookies. And even if they do not, their current receiving corps isn’t particularly bad—it’s just small, and one-note. Of the eight receivers currently on the roster, four are six feet tall and above, with two of them—Terrelle Pryor and Rannell Hall—both lacking experience at the position. Brian Hartline, the team’s most veteran receiver, is 6’2”, and Marlon Moore is six feet tall. The rest of the receiving corps are rounded out by Taylor Gabriel (5’8”), Andrew Hawkins (5’7”), Darius Jennings (5’10”) and Saalim Hakim (5’11”). All were outgained in receiving yards last year by the departed Benjamin, tight end Gary Barnidge and running back Duke Johnson. Hartline had only 523 yards on an injury-shortened season, while Hawkins had just 276 yards, Gabriel 241 and Jennings, 117.
With a new coaching staff and its attendant changes to the offensive system, all of these players could prove to be far more productive this year. And even if they are not, Barnidge remains a top receiving target (he saw 123 passes thrown his way in 2015, yielding 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine scores) as does Johnson, whose role as a receiver should only increase under Hue Jackson, Pep Hamilton, Al Saunders and others. There are ways the Browns can have a creative, and even explosive, passing offense without snagging the likes of Coleman, Doctson, Will Fuller or Michael Thomas at the end of the month.
But it will be slightly maddening to see the Browns yet again forego the receiver position in the draft, or to take a marginal talent in a middle round who ends up amounting to nothing for the team, as Mayle was last year. Perhaps the Browns would have been better off with DeVante Parker instead of Danny Shelton a year ago, or Odell Beckham Jr. instead of Justin Gilbert in 2014, or DeAndre Hopkins instead of Barkevious Mingo or Keenan Allen instead of Leon McFadden in 2013. But would-have, could-have, should-have helps no one; these drafts, and these choices are all in the past. Using 20/20 hindsight, clearly the Browns should have paid more attention to the higher-quality receivers in those classes, but unfortunately the decision-makers at that time lacked the foresight or simply the interest in the wideouts they ultimately chose not to draft.
Ultimately, the Browns’ choice to draft or not to draft a receiver or two this year comes down to numerous factors, including the hierarchy of their board, who other teams take, their view of the receivers currently on the roster and what kind of offense they plan to run and how. This could lead them down any number of paths, including completely ignoring the position altogether. After all, no team, the Browns included, are simply one receiver away from playoff contention.