The Cleveland Browns have themselves quite the situation right now when it comes to the wide receiver position.
Star wideout Josh Gordon, who led the league in receiving yards last year, is facing a potential one-year suspension for a failed drug test. Veteran free agent Nate Burleson refractured his arm and, while expected to be ready for training camp, will be on the shelf until then.
Both of these developments struck the team prior to the start of the 2014 NFL draft, but yet the Browns didn't pick up a receiver with their six selections.
They preferred instead to add receivers via the pool of undrafted rookies, including Florida State's Kenny Shaw and San Jose State' Chandler Jones. They also brought on a trio of veteran receivers—Miles Austin, Earl Bennett and Anthony Armstrong were all signed after the draft.
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Even if the news about Gordon ends up being better than expected, the Browns still have questions to answer at receiver. They'll need someone to step up as the No. 1 receiver during Gordon's presumed absence, and the No. 2 receiver position is still up for grabs, especially after the team released Greg Little, who held the job last year.
Aside from Burleson, the recently signed trio of veterans and the undrafted rookies, the other options at the position are slim.
Only Charles Johnson, who joined the Browns last October with a torn ACL he had been playing and practicing on unknowingly, seems capable of taking hold of either vacancy. But his health is clearly a major factor when it comes to getting onto the practice field, let alone playing in a regular-season game.
Johnson is 6'2" and 215 pounds and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash prior to his injury. If he can return to that level of speed, he's an intriguing candidate to take some of, if not all of, Gordon's snaps. However, Johnson hasn't been a participant in practice yet, and it's unknown when he'll be ready for full-time work.
If Johnson isn't ready in time, it appears that the Austin-Bennett duo will have to hold down the receiving fort, with Andrew Hawkins working in the slot. However, there are risks to starting either Austin or Bennett whether it be for the short- or long-term.
Austin was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Dallas Cowboys, catching 301 passes for 4,481 yards and 34 touchdowns in seven seasons.
However, he's missed 11 games in the last three seasons, mainly due to repeated hamstring injuries. He's been handled cautiously in the Browns' offseason program, working off to the side rather than participating in all drills and workouts in an attempt to preserve his health for September and beyond.
Bennett's risks are more about production rather than health. In five seasons with the Chicago Bears, he caught 185 passes for 2,277 yards and 12 scores. However, he never had a truly standout season, with his rookie year the only one in which he had above 700 receiving yards.
At best, Bennett has been a possession receiver and at worst a bit player. He's not a reliability risk like Little—according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Little had eight drops on 88 targets last year while Bennett had two on 42—but he's also rarely been called upon to do as much as the Browns may need him to this year.
Burleson seems ready-made for at least the No. 2 job, which is where he did his work alongside Calvin Johnson in Detroit. However, he turns 33 years old in August and has broken the same arm twice. While he should be healed up enough to play come Week 1, the rebroken arm looms.
What if he hurts it again? Then where will the Browns be? Add into that Austin's injury history, and the Browns receiving corps looks thinner than it really is.
Armstrong isn't likely an option to take Gordon's roster spot temporarily or be in real competition for the No. 2 job. He was more than likely brought aboard to provide the Browns with a veteran receiver well-versed in Kyle Shanahan's offense—the two worked together in Washington in 2010 and 2011.
Armstrong has had only one good NFL season, in 2010, when he caught 44 passes for 871 yards and three scores; his career total is just 54 catches for 986 yards and five touchdowns. He will be spending his summer struggling to make the Browns roster rather than trying to crack the starting lineup.
Though the Browns responded to the reports about Gordon and Burleson by beefing up their receiving corps with veteran players, Austin's fragility, Burleson's arm, Bennett's low ceiling and Armstrong's long-shot status still doesn't engender much confidence in the position.
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However, the Browns boasted the league's top receiver last year and still won only four games. Gordon isn't the magical, final component that will turn the Browns into playoff contenders. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard receiver; in contrast, the three leading receivers in the NFL in 2013 all were on teams that missed the playoffs.
This is a fact not lost on Browns general manager Ray Farmer, who downplayed the necessity of having a "superstar" receiver when speaking with 92.3 The Fan last week (via the Cleveland Plain Dealer):
I would say 'how important are those guys?' Name the last big-time receiver to win a Super Bowl. Name the last mega-guy. [Gordon] matters to me because I like the guy and I think he's a really good player, but at the end of the day, when you look at the teams that have these mega-receivers, name the last guy that won a Super Bowl?... There are none. The last guy that really helped his team get there was T.O. [Terrell Owens].
While there is the temptation to panic about Cleveland's wide receiver situation, the organization clearly doesn't see it as a crisis. There is a lot of time—around 100 days—between when teams are in their offseason programs and Week 1 of the regular season. The Browns will have ample opportunity to make adjustments to the roster in the meantime.
For example, Farmer didn't rule out trading for another receiver. While he doesn't necessarily believe the Browns can find someone comparable to Gordon's level of skill, there are ways to compensate using players currently on the roster and those who could join it later:
The reality is that you put guys in there that can play roles. If a guy is a mega-talent, you're not just going to go out on the street and find another one. If a guy is not there, you've got to parcel it. You've got to take a guy that can take the top off, you've got to take a guy that can be a possession guy. You've got to take a guy that can play a variety of roles and then you hodgepodge it. You move guys around, you put them in different situations, you use a rotation.
As such, the Browns could field a group of receivers—Austin, Bennett, Armstrong, Hawkins, Johnson, Burleson and others—playing in a variety of roles, none being a clear-cut No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.
If one emerges, especially if Gordon's suspension is not season-long, then that man would likely be the No. 2 receiver upon Gordon's return. If Gordon's suspension is indeed for 16 games, then the Browns will work out of their receiver rotation for as long as they need to, even if it takes all season.
Right now, the biggest concern shouldn't be whether Gordon will be suspended and for how long or who will replace him. It's about getting all the receivers on the field, from Browns veterans to experienced new faces to rookies, and learning and executing the playbook. The depth chart will fall into place in time because it has to be done.
Besides, if the presence or absence of a single receiver can make or break the Browns' season, then there is more trouble in Cleveland than the wideout depth chart. What the Browns are facing at the position isn't ideal, but it is only a piece of the larger picture.
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