Other than the 2013 season in which Josh Gordon streaked through the league with a first-team All-Pro effort, the Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver unit has since their return to the NFL been, for the most part, a bit of a joke. From the failed draft picks a la Greg Little to the disastrous free agent signings epitomized by Dwayne Bowe, as much as the Browns have lacked a quarterback, they have rarely had anybody to throw the ball to.
That is why the new front office, with a new head coach, virtually rooted their entire unit this offseason, allowing Travis Benjamin to sign with the Chargers without putting up a fight, releasing veteran Brian Hartline, whom they signed just last year, and expending not one, not two, but, in fact, four 2016 NFL Draft selections on wide receivers.
I think the point is that the general idea is the unit doesn’t have much of anywhere to go but up. Benjamin was the only significant contributor with 68 receptions—on nearly twice as many targets—for 966 yards and five touchdowns. But a player like Benjamin simply can’t be your primary target, which is why they let him go.
Hartline contributed 46 receptions for 523 yards and two touchdowns. One of the few returning players, Andrew Hawkins caught 27 passes for 276 yards, and Taylor Gabriel, also returning, put up extremely similar numbers. Bowe caught five passes for 53 yards.
Along with Hawkins and Gabriel are, possibly, Gordon returning after a year-long suspension, if he is reinstated, although his last season of play was far from his 2013 self, and Terrelle Pryor, who is learning the position. He caught one pass for 42 yards.
The only player in that group who can even conditionally be considered a roster lock is perhaps Hawkins, who had a down year that included injuries. Gordon, if he is reinstated, would have to earn his way back onto the roster, I would think.
The new focal point of the group will be first-round draft pick Corey Coleman, and joining him are fellow rookie draft picks Rashard Higgins, Jordan Payton, and Ricardo Lewis. It is not at all unrealistic to suggest that all four could make the Browns’ opening-day 53-man roster.
What we have here is a somewhat remarkable situation in which we could see a tremendous amount of contributions from an entire position group that is dominated by rookie performers, which is a fairly uncommon occurrence in the NFL, and, frankly, I’m interested to see how everything pans out. Coleman, at the least, is likely to be a day-one starter and significant contributor.
For whatever it might be worth, Pro Football Focus believes the Browns’ receiving unit is one of the league’s 10 most improved units through this offseason, though that rests largely on how far they had to go. They believe in the rookies’ abilities to excel, however, pointing out that Coleman and Higgins finished in the top five in college football last year in yards per route run.