Could Browns receiver Greg Little be on the precipice of a career year?
Even before the Cleveland Browns' impressive first-team performance in their Week 1 preseason defeat of the St. Louis Rams, there was extensive chatter about which of their offensive players seemed primed to break out in 2013.
Running back Trent Richardson is one of them. He's healthier than last year and has the benefit of running back guru Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. So is tight end Jordan Cameron, who has little clear competition for the starting job and the new system seems to suit his skills as much as it does quarterback Brandon Weeden. Even running back Dion Lewis is drawing attention, especially after his touchdown catch against the Rams last Thursday.
But there's one Browns player who is flying under the radar despite his work to shake off the poor reputation he's earned in the past two years—wide receiver Greg Little.
Little, more than any of the other members of the Browns' offense, might just be the one to really break out this season.
The Browns' second-round draft pick in 2011, Little came to the NFL after sitting a year out in college and missing out on the typical minicamp/OTAs/training camp regimen that rookies experience, thanks to the 2011 NFL lockout.
He gained notoriety in his first season by dropping the second-most passes in the league (14) despite seeing the 17th-most targets (113). His reputation as a drops-prone disappointment has haunted him since.
Little is doing a lot to shake this perception, however, and the result could be his best season yet, and by a wide margin.
He's taken a last-to-leave-the-field mentality during training camp, working either with Weeden or a JUGS machine after formal practice breaks in order to improve both his route-running and his catch concentration. He's even trying out defensive line drills to make him a better receiver.
Love what I've seen from #Browns WR Greg Little so far in camp. He's running crisper routes, staying after practice to work and seems driven— Tom Withers (@twithersAP) August 3, 2013
#Browns WR Greg Little said he did some D-line drills today to work on hands fighting, which helps get off press coverage.— Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) August 2, 2013
In two years, Little has caught 114 passes in 212 targets, for 1,356 yards and six touchdowns while dropping 23 passes. He has worked with three quarterbacks—Colt McCoy, Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden—while entering each of the past two seasons as Cleveland's expected top receiving weapon.
He struggled in his first year. There were inconsistencies in his quarterbacks, he hadn't played football for a year and his ability to get up to speed with his new team was stymied by the work stoppage.
In his second year, things changed. Eventually, he wasn't considered the big-play, deep-passing threat and in many ways, this was a major help to his development. The emergence of Josh Gordon might be the best thing to happen to Little while with the Browns.
Gordon's path to the Browns has echoed that of Little. He had a year off the football field before becoming a second-round draft pick (albeit a supplemental one). Both have had a shortened acclimation period, although Gordon has heated up much more quickly than Little, becoming the team's go-to on speedy, out routes.
With additional attention given to Gordon, Little didn't need to be relied on as heavily. He could then hone his skills with less scrutiny and work to become an all-around player.
Little's performance last year backs this up. He started the season with six drops in the first five games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but had only one dropped pass after that, owing to Gordon becoming a bigger part of the passing game as well as Little's incremental improvements.
While Little never lost his starting job and played a significant number of snaps per game, as the season wore on, he became more involved in run-blocking and did a good job at it.
But clearly, Little is not comfortable simply playing second fiddle to Gordon and being a No. 2 read. Instead, he's working to build his quarterback's confidence in his skills and help the Browns win games. With a new offense, a new coordinator and a new head coach, the timing is perfect for Little to start turning heads.
Though the preseason is still young, there is already evidence of an improved, more focused Little. Take the opener against the Rams. Although he played only 23 snaps and caught two of four passes thrown his way for 20 total yards, one of those catches was a pass intended for tight end Jordan Cameron.
Cameron tipped the pass up in the air and Little, with a seemingly new awareness of the football, was able to leap and catch it before it could become a turnover. Just that one play alone speaks volumes about the hard work that Little has put in this offseason and how it could pay off come September.
Who do you think will be the Browns' biggest breakout player this year?
Though it's not wrong to focus on Richardson, Cameron or even Lewis as a potential game-changer for Cleveland's offense this year, Little has fallen unjustifiably to the wayside.
Little is doubtlessly aware of the impact he can make this season, especially with Gordon facing a two-game suspension to start the year, and how he has fallen short in his first two seasons with the team.
After all, Little averages 11.9 yards per reception. With 23 drops, that's a loss of 273.7 yards to not just his stat line but to the Browns' passing game over the past two seasons.
The fact that Little is trying to reverse the notion that he's a marginal, disappointing talent, and succeeding, certainly paves the way for his contribution this year not to be dropped passes or shaky routes but instead be yards, touchdowns and game-changing plays.
This could certainly be the year Little eclipses 1,000 receiving yards, which would certainly make 2013 a breakout season for the third-year player.