If there's been a headline out of Cleveland this year that hasn't involved Johnny Manziel's weekend proclivities, odds are it's been about wide receiver Josh Gordon.
A potentially year-long suspension. Two offseason run-ins with the law. "B" samples and secondhand smoke.
However, it hasn't all been bad news where Cleveland wide receivers are concerned this year. Lost in all the smoke (sorry, couldn't be helped), a diminutive wideout has impressed. And it's that diminutive wideout who could wind up being the key to the Browns passing attack in 2014.
Ever since Andrew Hawkins joined the Browns in free agency, it's been one rave review after another.
Back in June, it was Terry Pluto of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
I've been to the three OTA sessions open to the media, and the best receiver on the field -- by far -- has been Andrew Hawkins. This type of football (no tackling) is perfect for a 5-foot-7, 170-pound speedster. I knew he was quick, but he has shown outstanding hands. Rookie Justin Gilbert said he'd rather cover Josh Gordon than Hawkins.
Earlier this month, it was receivers coach Mike McDaniel while speaking with Scott Petrak of The Chronicle-Telegram:
I’ve been extremely impressed with him for two different reasons, physically and mentally. It doesn’t take long to see how quick he is, how explosive he is. The way he approaches his day-to-day work, there’s no question why he has put himself in this position. He’s a truly special individual in that regard.
Then, as training camp got underway, it was Aditi of the NFL Network:
It's been a steady stream of praise. Hawkins' speed and quickness have been as advertised. His physicality and work ethic even more so.
And that couldn't have come at a better time for the Browns.
Because make no mistake, Gordon isn't going to be around for a while.
Sure, the discussion of Gordon's marginally positive sample and talk of a secondhand smoke defense have raised hopes that the NFL's leading receiver in 2013 may just beat the rap.
However, as Pat McManamon of ESPN.com reports, NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello made a point of stating that the next player to successfully utilize the "secondhand smoke" defense will be the first.
"A cornerstone of both of our drug testing programs has always been that you are responsible for what is in your body," Aiello said via email Tuesday. "It is stated that way in the policies."
Frankly, if all Gordon gets is eight games, he should smile, nod and get the heck out of there before Roger Goodell has a chance to change his mind.
While Gordon's out, someone is going to have to serve as Cleveland's top wideout. Veterans Miles Austin and Nate Burleson haven't been able to stay on the field in recent years, much less do anything remotely resembling carrying a passing game.
Tight end Jordan Cameron would be glad to do it, but after his breakout season in 2013, Cameron is going to be a little busy trying to shake the multiple defenders draped all over him.
That leaves Hawkins.
Even once Gordon returns (hey, I'm a Browns fan, too. We can hope), Hawkins could still play a key role in the Cleveland passing attack.
It's been years since the Browns had one reliable receiver. The idea of two (or even three) has to be enough to give offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan the vapors.
Assuming that at some point Manziel takes over at quarterback, giving the youngster three viable options downfield as he's trying to make something happen certainly isn't going to hurt his chances of succeeding at the NFL level.
It's what the Browns had in mind for Hawkins when they signed him in the first place.
Of course, for now that plan is going to have to wait, and all Hawkins has to do is hold the Cleveland passing attack together for quarterback Brian Hoyer until Gordon gets back.
Luckily for the Browns and head coach Mike Pettine, it looks like Hawkins is up to the task, and that in this instance big things really do come in small packages.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.
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