By Steve DiMatteo
Cleveland is a receiver-starved city, desperate for any kind of reliable production from its WR corps. Since Braylon Edwards’ departure during the 2009 season, finding wide receiver help has been an exercise in futility.
Mohamed Massaquoi, a second-round pick in 2009, was supposed to be the No. 1 option, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Brian Robiskie was a disastrous second-round pick from ’09 and is no longer with the team. TE Ben Watson actually led the team in receiving in 2010 with 763 yards. The Browns have even tried to convert KR Josh Cribbs into a viable receiving option, which has produced mixed results.
With that desperation reaching a fever pitch after yet another dismal season of offense in 2011, the Browns took a chance on WR Josh Gordon in the second round of this year’s supplemental draft.
Despite displaying intriguing talent at Baylor in 2010, when he caught 42 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns during his sophomore season, Gordon's off-field behavior is a cause for concern. From failed drug tests to a marijuana arrest, he has a checkered past that led him to transfer from Baylor to Utah after being suspended indefinitely before the 2011 season.
Rather than play his senior year at Utah (after sitting out last season), Gordon chose to enter the supplemental draft this summer. And, other than his off-field issues, scouts have had many good things to say about him. He has the size, strength, and athleticism to become a standout receiver and could have been a second- or third-round pick in the 2013 draft had he played college ball this season.
Naturally, the inclination will be to compare Gordon’s rookie campaign to that of 2011 second-round WR Greg Little. For starters, Little has had off-field problems of his own. The Browns took him in the second round despite the fact that he had sat out the previous season after lying to investigators about receiving travel accommodations and jewelry from agents while at North Carolina.
The two receivers even have similar builds — Little is 6-2, 220 pounds and Gordon is 6-3, 225 pounds — so the comparisons were bound to happen.
In his rookie season, Little caught 61 passes for 709 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a major problem with drops (12) and was dealing with a stagnant offense that finished 29th in the league in yards per game.
This doesn’t mean Little’s stats should be used as a barometer for Gordon, however. Consider what Gordon has working against him. His quarterback — Brandon Weeden — is a rookie; his running back, while full of potential, is a rookie as well; the offensive line has been inconsistent; and, perhaps most importantly, Gordon is expected to quickly become the No. 1 receiver for a group with few proven weapons.
The fact that Gordon is already working with first-teamers in training camp points to illustrates the expectations the team has for him. GM Tom Heckert called Gordon an “eventual starter,” though the hope is that he will produce right away.
On the other side of the coin, many of those obstacles can turn into strengths that work in Gordon’s favor. Weeden and his stronger arm would appear to be an upgrade over Colt McCoy and defenses will have to prepare for Trent Richardson. There's no doubt there will be growing pains, but Gordon isn’t exactly walking into a hopeless situation.
However, no one should expect even 900 yards from him. WR Julio Jones, a player of comparable size and talent, caught 54 passes for 959 yards in his rookie season, and that was in a much more mature offense.
It’s obviously difficult to be a rookie at the NFL level, and sitting out an entire season beforehand doesn’t make the transition any easier. Like every other aspect of the Browns’ offense, Gordon will face a steep learning curve. He has the talent to succeed — just don’t expect it to happen right away.