When current Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins was with the Cincinnati Bengals, he was a bit player. Though he was fast and elusive, he didn't often start and instead worked as part of Cincinnati's receiver rotation. This year, however, he looks destined not only to start but also to become a star.
At 5'7" and 175 pounds, Hawkins could easily be pigeonholed as a minor role player, someone to catch the football and make a splashy play when opposing defenses are caught off guard. That was primarily his duty in Cincinnati.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he played just 175 snaps in 2013 coming off of an ankle injury. In 2012, healthy for the whole season, he played 575 snaps—or 58 percent of the Bengals' total offensive plays. Despite averaging 11.6 yards per reception in his three years in Cincinnati, he was never a major part of the team's offense. He caught only 86 passes for 995 yards and four scores.
Things appear to be different for Hawkins in Cleveland. And with fellow receiver Josh Gordon's suspension still looming, Hawkins would be welcomed as the Browns' breakout offensive player this year.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto said Hawkins was "the best receiver on the field—by far" at last week's OTAs. His work ethic, speed, hands and route running have all been on display, and everyone from head coach Mike Pettine to quarterback Brian Hoyer has taken notice.
Hoyer said of Hawkins, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, "The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with [Wes] Welker, where the guy runs every route to win. He's going full blast. You see him out there and you can tell when he walks back to the huddle, he gave his all on every play."
Pettine added, "He's been one of our most consistent guys through spring. He's one of the hardest workers. [He] doesn't know any speed other than full speed."
Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert said he prefers to cover Gordon over Hawkins because of Hawkins' ability to use his speed and footwork to consistently beat coverage.
Justin Gilbert on shifty Andrew Hawkins: "I'd rather cover Josh (Gordon) than him"— Tom Reed (@treed1919) June 3, 2014
Despite possessing the body type of a slot receiver, Hawkins is a versatile player who should make significant plays on both the inside and the outside this year. The Browns' receiver situation will demand it—they're still quite thin at the position and will only get thinner when Gordon's situation is made clear.
Hawkins deserves a prominent role regardless of how deep Cleveland's receiver pool could eventually run.
The Browns were committed to landing Hawkins, giving him a front-loaded offer sheet the Bengals could not match. Now that he's turning heads in practices, it looks like the Browns may have been on to something when they set their sights on him.
Hawkins' footwork and speed certainly make up for his lack of size. His reliable hands—he has a career catch rate of 65.1 percent and just four drops in the past two years—will be a significant upgrade to the receiving corps, which has dealt with the drop-prone Greg Little and Davone Bess in recent years. Hawkins was on the margins in Cincinnati, but he's not a marginal player.
Everything seems to be lining up for Hawkins to have a big season, whether Hoyer or Johnny Manziel is throwing him the football. He's already earned effusive praise from his coach, from Hoyer and from the defenders tasked with trying to stop him in practices.
It looks like Hawkins is quickly distinguishing himself as the most reliable playmaker in Cleveland's receiving corps. There may be no better team to maximize his talents. Though he's not likely to lead the NFL in receiving yards, as Gordon did last year, his ability to move the chains, make defenders miss, and create opportunities with his speed and feet should turn him into a star in Cleveland this season.