The Cleveland Browns signed former Buffalo Bills wide receiver David Nelson on Monday in another attempt to help boost their overall offensive production. The move adds age and experience to the Browns' rather young receiving corps and gives them a battle-tested starter in the slot.
However, Nelson's health is an issue—he tore his ACL in last year's season opener against the New York Jets—which explains why the Browns were only willing to give him a one-year deal. Though Nelson anticipates he'll be ready by the time OTAs begin and will be a full participant once training camp starts, the nature of the injury could carry with it setbacks.
If Nelson can fully recover, he'll be an upgrade in the slot receiver position. The job fell to first-year players Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper in 2012 and Greg Little often lined up in the slot as well, all to mixed results. The Nelson signing buys the Browns time to develop Benjamin and Cooper and allows Little to work the outside of the field, which suits him better.
Nelson spent his last three seasons with the Bills, with 2011 being his best. He caught 61 of the 98 passes thrown his way, for 658 yards and five touchdowns in that season. In contrast, Cooper and Benjamin combined for 26 catches on 55 targets in 2012, for 404 total yards and two touchdowns, both belonging to Benjamin.
The signing is not necessarily a long-term solution in the slot unless Nelson is consistent and impressive this year and Benjamin and Cooper don't seem ready to match that production in 2014, but he does help complete the unit immediately. It also drastically reduces the odds that the Browns bring on yet another receiver in this year's draft.
Nelson is the fourth receiver the Browns have added in the past 12 months in their attempt to turn their passing game around. In 2011, they ranked 24th in the league in average passing yards per game at 193.1; that number rose to 214.7 in 2012, ranking them 19th, which is an improvement but still nowhere close to what they'd prefer.
Having a more experienced player in the slot will help both Little and second-year wideout Josh Gordon. Any opportunity for Brandon Weeden (or whoever winds up with the Browns' starting quarterback job) to spread the ball around to more players and feel confident in doing so will do wonders not just for Weeden's development but for the team's overall bottom line.
Though Weeden may be more familiar with Benjamin and Cooper—especially considering Cooper was one of Weeden's favorite targets in college—Nelson is more seasoned and comfortable, which makes him a far more reliable option, even if for just one season.
The question is how completely Nelson's knee will recover and how effective he'll be when entirely healthy. If he can pick up where he left off in Buffalo in 2011, he should give Cleveland's offense some significant help and could even help Weeden keep his job.