There are a lot of things—players, coaches, play calls—one can point to when trying to parse blame for why the Cleveland Browns are currently 0-4, but one name that should come up over and over again is wide receiver Greg Little.
Little, who had an astounding 14 dropped passes last year despite having just the 17th-most targets (according to Pro Football Focus, subscription required) hasn't fixed the problem at all—instead, it appears to be getting worse. Through four games, Little has dropped five passes, putting him on pace for 20 on the year.
The most dropped passes last year belonged to Roddy White, with 15 (he was also the most-targeted receiver in the league) and the only receiver to even come close to that number in recent years was Braylon Edwards in 2008, when he played for—yes—the Cleveland Browns.
The last thing the Browns need right now is a starting receiver being compared to Edwards—not when they're 0-4, not when they have rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who has mostly done his part in trying to nudge Cleveland into the win column, not when the NFL as a whole is becoming such a pass-dominant league.
In fact, if it weren't for fellow starter Mohamed Massaquoi being sidelined with a hamstring injury and Josh Cribbs out while recovering from a Week 3 concussion, chances are Little could have found himself benched last Thursday against the Baltimore Ravens, so woeful has he been thus far.
Clearly, after what he did (i.e. didn't) do against the Ravens, with his three drops (two of which would have been drive-extending first downs and one that was likely a touchdown), Little's time as a starter in Cleveland is running out.
You'd think that this would present a good opportunity for Little to redeem himself, but so did last week, and his actions helped cost the Browns their first win of the season (and a divisional one at that). Another three-drop outing on Sunday, and the team must respond.
That's not to say the Browns need to bring on a free agent like Chad Johnson (shudder) or anyone else who is clearly past his prime to add some veteran leadership and reliability to the receiving corps. Massaquoi already—somewhat—provides this (and he is Weeden's most reliable target, though not presently healthy). Instead, they should work with what they have, sans Little, at least for a week or three.
How about more passes thrown Trent Richardson's way? Now that he's had four weeks on the field, it's safe to say he can handle more third-down work—and he's obviously the better, more powerful back compared to Chris Ogbonnaya, who has handled this role thus far. There's at least five passes per game that don't have to go to Little.
Jordan Norwood had a costly drop of his own last week, but that may also be attributable to his overall lack of playing time—he's had just 37 snaps, nine targets and four receptions this season. Give him more reps in practice during the week, and whatever rust he's dealing with might be sloughed off come game time.
Rookie Travis Benjamin has explosive speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, but he's raw in many areas. However, if he can be used more effectively—he's a right-place, right-time kind of receiver at this point—that can at least make up for a few of Little's targets.
Josh Gordon is in a similar situation, and his year off the college field last year makes him quite the parallel to Little. He'll need to be watched closely, because the last thing Cleveland needs is two receivers like Little. Still, his ceiling appears to be higher, though it is also too early to know much about him.
And finally, it may be time for Cleveland to consider calling up Josh Cooper from the practice squad. Cooper has the rawness of the other two Browns rookie receivers, but he also has an advantage over them—working with Weeden in college as one of his more targeted teammates. Cooper and Weeden have inherent chemistry that they can use to their advantage immediately, and no one on that roster has caught more of Weeden's passes.
More tight end passing could also make up for Little's benching. Ben Watson is again dealing with injury issues, but Jordan Cameron isn't getting the kinds of snaps that would result in him being an offensive impact player (he had only 26 last week of the Browns' total 71 offensive snaps).
There are ways Cleveland can improve their passing with the weapons they currently have at their disposal without being harmed more by benching Little than by playing him. At the very least, Little must be sent a message that he cannot continue on the path he forged last season.
In 2011, it was easy to explain away Little's drops—not playing college ball in 2010, the player lockout, having two starting quarterbacks. But this year, he's had ample time to prepare, one quarterback to work with and a year of playing experience under his belt, yet nothing has seemed to change.
Little's job, after all, is to be a starting, NFL-caliber wide receiver, with a primary job description of catching passes. If he's not doing his job, he simply doesn't deserve to be on the field. When a starter is clearly harming his team as much as Little is, the Browns absolutely need to be thinking of how to structure a passing game without him.
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