Potential Impact of Josh Gordon's Return to the Cleveland Browns' Offense

Surprise, surprise: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conditionally reinstated long-suspended Cleveland Browns wideout Josh Gordon, opening the door for his return to the team's on-field offense in Week 5. What impact will Gordon's return have on the new-look Browns in 2016?

On Monday, the NFL announced that erstwhile Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who has spent the last year and a half on indefinite suspension due to repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, will be reinstated on a conditional basis. While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in the spring, when Gordon failed another test, that August 1st would be the earliest date the two sides would meet about a potential reinstatement, the discussion came early and the decision—for once—came swiftly. Gordon will be allowed to participate in Cleveland’s training camp, which begins at the end of July, and though he will serve a four-game suspension to open the season, he will be allowed to spend those weeks still with the Browns, as a way to prevent the wideout from falling into trouble while alienated from the organization. 

A letter from Goodell to Gordon read:

“As we discussed at our meeting, as Commissioner, I want nothing more than to see you turn your circumstances around and succeed. Countless others including your agent teammates and coaches, Mr. Haslam and the leadership of the organization, the Program professionals and Jim Brown also have pledged to provide you with every resource their disposal. But as you acknowledged, ultimately, your future is your responsibility. I have every belief that you can make the right choices, but it will be up to you to do so.”

The cautious optimism throughout the offseason that a positive outcome would result from Goodell and Gordon’s summertime meeting has now shed a bit of that caution. Of course, Gordon is not out of the woods yet; he needs to comply with treatment programs, will remain in Stage 3 of the NFL’s substance abuse program, meaning one more slip-up has him out of the league for life and Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole is reporting that Cleveland’s coaching and front office staffs aren’t going to exercise limitless patience with Gordon. But, in a refreshing turn of events, it appears that both the Browns and the league are giving Gordon every avenue of support in his bid to return to the sport.

Gordon’s presence—should he stick—is both a boon and a burden for the Browns. Gordon was the NFL’s leading receiver back in 2013, amassing 1,646 yards and nine scores on 87 receptions despite serving a two-game suspension to open the season. If he can return to that kind of form in Hue Jackson’s offense, then that certainly makes life easier for whoever emerges as the starting quarterback as well as the other receivers and tight ends on the field. But there are a number of “what-ifs,” between now and that point, and there are other consequences of Gordon’s reinstatement that could make roster decisions markedly more stressful once training camp and the preseason have concluded.

The immediate bullet dodged is that Gordon was granted reinstatement at such an early date; Goodell had no real reason to act quickly aside from that he chose to. This period of limbo could have easily dragged out well into camp and the Browns’ four preseason games, putting Gordon even further behind in absorbing Jackson’s offensive system. Now, Gordon is behind: He has missed OTAs and minicamps and thus the initial installation period for the new offense. But he’s not as far behind as he’d guarantee to be had Goodell waited even just two more weeks to make his ruling. And it also helps that Gordon can remain working with the team during the four-game suspension, giving him further opportunity to build comfort and chemistry with his teammates, many of whom are new faces.

Gordon’s presence, though, does affect those new faces, especially the four receivers the Browns selected in the 2016 draft (as well as even rookie tight end Seth DeValve). There are six tight ends currently on the roster, 11 receivers (not including Gordon) and five running backs all in the mix to get reps in some capacity during training camp. Add Gordon into this group—and, ostensibly, with the second- and then first-teams—and his presence results in the passes from all quarterbacks being divided even further. On-the-bubble receivers a week ago are now even more in danger of dropping off the roster, especially if Gordon rejoins the team in football condition and ready and willing to put in the necessary work.

But the way for these other wideouts to stand out even with Gordon on the field is to perform to or above expectations, a factor that is entirely in their hands and not Gordon’s. The real excitement, though, would come in Week 5 when Gordon can finally be an active game-day player. Gordon’s presence should serve as a relief for Round 1 draft pick Corey Coleman, Pro Bowl tight end Gary Barnidge and would allow for even more creative usage of the shorter-passing game that will feature running back Duke Johnson, among others. When Gordon is good, he’s really good; his career yards-per-reception average of 17.1 and the 14 touchdowns he scored in his first 27 games are testaments to this fact. While the specter of his five-game 2014 campaign lingers as a reminder of what happens when an unmotivated Gordon is coached by a politically-motivated staff, Jackson and Company have already proven a change of climate in Cleveland. And if there’s any group of coaches who has a solid chance to turn Gordon’s career around, it is this one.

At least on paper, Gordon’s reinstatement looks like something that will eventually pay positive dividends for Cleveland’s offense. It does place the roster spots of Taylor Gabriel and Marlon Moore—and potentially others—in even more tenuous positions and could force otherwise promising rookies to the practice squad (whether prior to Week 1 or upon Gordon’s Week 5 return). But that’s not a terrible trade-off for having a receiver with such explosive potential like Gordon bringing his big-play assistance to an offense that needs it. If Gordon can refocus his energies on football, comply with the league’s and the Browns’ demands and stay clean, he’ll not only be able to continue his career in Cleveland but contribute in a potentially very big way in 2016.

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