The Cleveland Browns’ choice to release wide receiver Brian Hartline earlier in the week means there is now a dearth of longstanding veteran experience in the team’s position group. But it’s clear that this isn’t a concern—no, talent, potential and building for the future are the primary driving factors for players keeping a roster spot during the early days of this latest rebuild. The Browns drafted four wide receivers and a pass-catching tight end last month and those players are positioned to be the foundation for the future. But it does mean the position group is young and that it will be interesting to see what coaches Hue Jackson and Pep Hamilton have up their sleeves when it comes to devising an offensive plan that can bring them along both quickly and yet carefully.
Currently, the Browns have 11 wideouts on the roster, but that won’t be the case come September when the roster has to be reduced to its eventual 53-man state for Week 1. The elder statesmen are now Andrew Hawkins (age 30), Marlon Moore (age 28) and Terrelle Pryor (age 26 and in his second year of transitioning from quarterback to receiver). Six are 23 years old or younger. As such, the average age at the position presently is 23.9 years and could feasibly get even younger if Moore or Taylor Gabriel (age 25) are released at some point in the future.
For now, it appears that Hawkins is safe. While he suffered numerous concussions in 2015 that limited him to eight games, he did start each game he appeared in, and caught 27 passes for 276 yards. The concussion history is certainly of concern—in addition to Hawkins suffering multiple, his age and his specializing in working out of the slot puts him at heightened risk for further injury. But he does have history with Jackson working in his favor.
Two of Hawkins’ first three seasons in the NFL were spent around Jackson with the Cincinnati Bengals. While Jackson had not yet been elevated to offensive coordinator at that point, working first as an assistant secondary and special teams coach and then the running backs coach, Jackson gets to know all the players he works with as a personal point. He already had a good idea of who Hawkins is as a person and an athlete the moment he was considering taking the job.
It’s obvious anything is possible with this new regime, as evidenced by the choices they made (or the decisions that were forced on them, in some cases) in free agency and the “veteran” (in an NFL sense but not necessarily in a playing-for-Cleveland sense) players already released. There is no reason for Hawkins to breathe easy. But the more nervous of the incumbent receivers doubtlessly must be Gabriel and Moore.
Moore came to the team in 2014 but didn’t catch a pass—he was solely used as a kick returner, totaling 13 on the season for 322 yards. In 2015, he had just seven receptions on 10 targets for 81 yards and a score and his kick returning duties dwindled to just three attempts for 77 yards. Hamilton has expressed willingness to use Round 1 2016 draft pick Corey Coleman as a returner in addition to receiver this year.
Should that come to pass, Coleman’s status as a returner and the presence of so many younger draft picks at the receiver position makes Moore expendable. The salary cap wouldn’t be negatively affected in a significant way, either, with Moore costing only $133,334 in dead money this year.
Gabriel, meanwhile, had a promising first year in Cleveland, also in 2014. He had 36 receptions of 72 targets for 621 yards and a touchdown. But his opportunities in 2015 did not produce similar results. Though his starts doubled to four, in part because of Hawkins’ numerous missed games, his 28 catches only netted 241 yards. His yards per reception dropped significantly, from 17.3 to 8.6. Though also a product of other offensive limitations, Gabriel’s dip in production in his second season doesn’t help when he is a smaller receiver, like Hawkins, and again, there are simply so many receivers on Cleveland’s roster that the coaches are interested in developing.
The long-term vision Jackson, the rest of the coaching staff, the front office and team owner Jimmy Haslam are trying to make a reality means that getting appreciably younger at a number of positions, wide receiver included, is part of the package. Though winning in 2016 is a priority (because it has to be), the ultimate payout is to have a promising young receiving corps now that develops into a top-flight veteran group in a few years’ time. Hawkins’ leadership is appreciated and an asset, but veteran status and leadership ability alone cannot guarantee him maintaining job security this season without also being among the 53 players who gives the Browns the best chances for victory.
Hartline’s release was only remarkable in that it didn’t come sooner. Perhaps Jackson and his staff wanted to get a closer, in person, on-field look at him in early workouts and OTAs given that Hartline had only one (injury-truncated) season in Cleveland to his name before making the final decision. But the inevitable came to pass this week and serves as yet another sign that the moves made by the former regime are constantly being upheaved and that not every incumbent player should consider their roster spot safe.