When the Cleveland Browns decided to cut bait on running back Trent Richardson just 18 games into his NFL career, the prevailing thought was that the Browns were trying to tank their season, admit defeat and regroup next year. After all, what team ditches their previous season's top draft pick, no matter how many changes befall the front office and coaching staff in the interim?
However, their performance in their Week 3 win over the Minnesota Vikings showed that while many on the outside saw Richardson as Cleveland's best offensive weapon, it was clearly not a feeling shared by the organization. Tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Josh Gordon are who really matter for the offense.
Gordon's impact was seen early and often in Cleveland's defeat of the Vikings. Showing no signs of rust following his two-game suspension, he caught 10 of 19 passes thrown his way for 146 yards and a touchdown. His presence on the field helped Brian Hoyer find solid footing in his debut as a starter for the Browns.
Cameron has been a breakout performer this year, meeting the expectations the Browns had for him in his third year in the league. So far this season, he's been the most-targeted receiver on the team, with 31 passes thrown his way. On 20 catches, he's had 269 yards and four touchdowns, with four receptions going 20 or more yards and he's had 13 first downs.
The Browns had been criticized for seemingly abandoning the run game, something that was assumed to be a centerpiece of their offensive attack. Before he was traded, Richardson was the only running back on the team to get carries, and he had just 31 of them over the course of two games.
After he was traded, little changed, with just 17 carries against the Vikings (including safety Josh Aubrey's 34-yard run on a fake punt) compared to 54 passes thrown by Hoyer (and one, by punter Spencer Lanning, on another fake punt). This is not the run-heavy team we anticipated; no, the Browns offense is rooted in the passing game, and weaponry like Cameron and Gordon are the cornerstones of it.
Following the Richardson trade, it appeared that the Browns might not be done trading away some of their key players. ESPN's Adam Schefter remains convinced that the team is shopping both Gordon and fellow receiver Greg Little in order to further stockpile draft picks for 2014.
However, with Gordon's performance on Sunday, it's likely Cleveland's asking price—a first-rounder, potentially—is too high for any team. It's also possible that the performance has taken Gordon off the trade table entirely, instead of being a showcase for other teams.
While trading Richardson clearly sends the message that practically no Browns player is safe, few players in the NFL truly are.
It's just that no other team recently traded away what was considered to be one of their biggest assets last week. Gordon is more valuable to the Browns than Richardson, especially now that they've tipped their hand and admitted the passing game is what they'll be relying on this year.
Cameron's growth has been impressive, both an example of how hard he's worked to acclimate himself to the game and of how good the change in coaching staff has been for him. He's already matched his 2012 reception total and has surpassed both his yardage and touchdowns. He's on pace for over 1,400 yards for the year.
A reliable tight end is extremely useful to inexperienced quarterbacks, which both Hoyer and Brandon Weeden (should he regain the starting job) are. Cameron is also a big, fast tight end in the mold of the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham. This forces defenses to treat him like a wide receiver, albeit often using linebackers who aren't suited to that kind of coverage. This mismatch is one the Browns can exploit all year long.
The Browns are a young team that is still evolving, most notably on offense. They will continue to change—the quarterback could be someone new next year and the group of running backs almost certainly will be a different as well. However, they do need anchors, playmakers who can provide them with continuity, beyond their veterans on the offensive line.
Gordon may be on a short leash—another violation of NFL policy means a one-year suspension—but there's no denying the impact he makes on the field. Part of the reason the Browns notched their first win of the season is directly related to his return. Cameron has met the immense pressure he was under by performing like a seasoned veteran through three games.
These are the players the Browns offense will run through this season, regardless of quarterback. They are the foundation of the downfield passing attack as put forth by head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and they are the foundation for what comes next for the offensive side of the roster. That's not the case for Weeden nor Hoyer, and, as we now know, it wasn't for Richardson either.