The AFC North has not necessarily had the greatest luck in drafted tall and talented but raw and troubled wide receivers. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns were two teams that gave it the old college try for many years with Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon, respectively, but both of them elected to cut ties in 2018, both via trades.
The Steelers managed to squeeze a third-round pick out of an apparently desperate Jon Gruden in his first season back on the sideline for the Oakland Raiders, a trade consummated on the first day of the 2018 NFL Draft.
As for Gordon, he was still on the Brown’s roster to start the season, meaning that he actually played against the Steelers in the opener. In fact, he caught the game-tying touchdown against Cameron Sutton late in the fourth quarter after Joe Haden was injured, which set the table for the Steelers’ first tie game since 2002.
Gordon would later be traded to the New England Patriots, though, and it actually wouldn’t take him long to become the team’s leading receiver. But he would receive an indefinite suspension late in the season, missing his team’s Super Bowl performance.
Bryant, too, would be hit with another indefinite suspension while with Oakland, also struggling on the field and with injury. Both of them relapsed with their vices, Gordon in spite of nearly round-the-clock help from the Patriots. They continue to finance his in-patient rehabilitation treatments.
Still, the league is feeling the pressure to soften their stance on substance abuse, and they have already taken steps to become more lenient in recent years more formally. They have also taken softer approaches on the fly without adopting official changes, which could be good new for Bryant and Gordon.
Both of them will be eligible to apply for reinstatement in May some time following the draft. The Patriots will still control Gordon’s rights as a restricted free agent, I believe, but Bryant would be able to be an unrestricted free agent should he be reinstated. The belief is that they could be with their teams by training camp.
I think the league is seeing that people would rather see players with substance abuse issues such as Gordon and Bryant on the field rather than shunned. Many find the juxtaposition between indefinite suspensions for using drugs and short-term suspensions for abusing women to be a hard sell.
I expect that this will be an important topic during the next CBA negotiations and will be a bargaining chip the league will be quietly content to concede. Perhaps that could exchange leniency for more practice time, which I believe many of the players also would quietly like to get back.