As expected, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon's indefinite ban from football was upheld by the NFL on Wednesday, meaning that he'll be unable to play for Cleveland or any team until he successfully applies for reinstatement next year.
This suspension has been on the table since prior to the NFL draft. However, the Browns opted not to alter their draft plans and did not take a single receiver during the three-day event. Instead, a pair of free-agent veterans, Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins, as well as tight end Jordan Cameron will have to shoulder the load of the passing game.
None of these three will be able to completely make up for Gordon's absence. Indeed, few receivers in the NFL could. In 2013, Gordon led the league in receiving yards, with 1,646 on 87 catches, despite missing the first two games thanks to yet another suspension.
He also had nine touchdowns and averaged 18.9 yards per catch and was the first receiver in league history to have back-to-back 200-yard games. Also, this, from ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Last year, Browns QBs threw 9 TDs and 2 INTs when targeting Josh Gordon, and 17 TDs and 18 INTs when targeting all other players.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 27, 2014
However, that does not mean the trio won't be effective in the Browns' passing game or that the Browns cannot win games without Gordon. After all, the Browns won just four games last year despite Gordon's performance.
Austin immediately takes the mantle as the Browns' No. 1 receiver. In his seven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Austin caught 301 passes for 4,148 yards and 34 touchdowns. However, he only surpassed 1,000 receiving yards twice and has struggled through injuries, particularly a hamstring that affected his final three years with the Cowboys.
So far this summer, Austin has been healthy. And he has been turning heads in training camp. Head coach Mike Pettine said in July:
I think [Austin's] done a great job in this offseason with his health. While he had hamstring issues [in the past] and he's much more in tune with his body now... He's great with his hands and knows how to create separation. When you say crafty veteran, that's him. He knows all the tricks and he's still sneaky fast. He still covers a lot of ground fast.
However, Austin hasn't done much in the preseason. He's been targeted nine times, resulting in three receptions for 36 yards. Granted, he's played only 65 snaps through three games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but Austin's true potential in Cleveland's offense is still mostly an unknown.
What is known, however, is how Austin performed in Dallas. Looking back to his last productive season—2012, when he missed no games and had 66 receptions for 943 yards and six touchdowns—provides a clue as to the best-case scenario for him this year.
Based on Pro Football Focus' charting of Austin's targets and receptions that year, one thing is clear—he was used all over the field. However, the majority of both his targets and yards came over the middle of the field at a depth of zero to 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. There, he was targeted 49 times with 33 receptions totaling 489 yards—well over half of his production.
Austin's strength is yards after the catch, so it's encouraging that Pettine believes Austin still has considerable speed. The question is, however, whether Austin can stay healthy through a full 16-game season while having the workload of a No. 1 receiver. That speed is useless if it's on the bench or in the training room rehabilitating an injury.
That's why Austin will likely be the No. 1 receiver in name only. Cameron and Hawkins appear poised to be the real difference-makers in Cleveland's passing offense.
The third-year tight end has caught a total of 106 passes for 1,176 yards and eight touchdowns. He had a Pro Bowl 2013 season, with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven scores. However, his summer has been marred by a sprained AC joint in his shoulder, which he suffered during the team's early August scrimmage.
As such, he missed the first preseason game and has just two receptions on three targets totaling 18 yards. Still, Pettine is ready to lean heavily on Cameron this year and to be creative with how he uses him. In speaking to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this week, he said of Cameron:
When you have a tight end with that kind of skillset, you can split him out as the single wide receiver, and you can put him in an unconventional position to take advantage of it. It might not necessarily be a speed mismatch, but it could be a body type, jumping ability type mismatch. That's something that he brings to us and we'll look to take advantage of.
At 6'5" and 249 pounds, Cameron certainly can be a physical mismatch, as Pettine noted. And, like Austin, he has experience running routes and catching passes all over the field. In fact, Cameron could be a far more versatile weapon, if his receptions by direction from last season are any indication.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cameron was active in the middle of the field, catching 30 of 39 passes thrown his way in that part of the field at a depth of zero to nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage, for 209 yards.
However, he also was effective when split wide—on the left side of the field, Cameron caught 13 of 14 passes thrown to him at a depth of 10 to 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, netting him 205 yards. On the right, he caught seven of nine passes for 106 yards. He was also targeted deep more often last year than Austin in 2012, with 15 targets and six receptions on passes of 20 or more yards.
The only concern is the shoulder joint and how much it has healed and how much punishment it can realistically take this season. An injured shoulder will impact Cameron's ability to catch passes and fight for contested ones. If fully healthy, however, there's no reason to think that Cameron will not be the focus of the passing game.
However, that poses a problem—opposing defenses will clearly know Cameron is one to watch out for. That's why a healthy Austin, with his dangerous yards-after-the-catch ability, will need to be on the field at the same time. This is also where Hawkins comes in.
Hawkins spent the last three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, catching a total of 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns. He was a marginal talent there simply because of the depth chart—ahead of him were A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, which didn't leave him much room to contribute more than as a bit player.
Like Austin, Hawkins has significant speed. However, Hawkins is younger and has more tread on his tires. He doesn't come to Cleveland with a clean injury history, though, having spent part of last year on the short-term injured reserve list after suffering a high ankle sprain last August. There's no reason to believe that this sprain has any lingering effects.
Hawkins has been the most productive of the Browns' starting receivers this preseason, with seven catches on 11 targets for 63 yards and a touchdown. He's not the biggest receiver, at just 5'7" and 180 pounds, but that size can work to his advantage. He can get low on defenders, his shiftiness can force missed tackles and his open-field speed is rivaled by few in the league.
Being a featured part of the Browns offense will allow Hawkins to maximize his potential in ways he couldn't in Cincinnati because of the formidable depth chart. Looking at Hawkins' 2012 season—again, because 2013 was limited with his ankle injury—he too was used all over the field.
Because of his size, it makes sense that the majority of his targets came from behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards beyond. However, he earned most of his yards that season on midfield passes of a depth of 10 to 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. There, he had just seven targets and five receptions, but earned 163 yards and two touchdowns on those passes, and had 95 yards after the catch.
Based on the makeup of this trio of targets and one thing starts to become clear—Cameron, Austin and Hawkins will likely be thrown short-to-intermediate passes and will be asked to use their legs and, in Cameron's case, physicality, to manufacture yards after the catch.
That fits right in with the type of quarterback Week 1 starter Brian Hoyer is. Hoyer has a career yards-per-attempt average of 6.41 yards. It was also a 6.41-yard average through his three games for the Browns last year and 6.23 yards in his two games with the Arizona Cardinals the year before.
All signs therefore point to the Browns installing a ball-control style of passing offense, one that conservatively moves the chains and relies more on the receivers to make the plays rather than the quarterback. Airing it out won't be the hallmark of Cleveland's passing game without Gordon.
There are other receivers who could play roles on the offense this year, including Charles Johnson, Nate Burleson and Taylor Gabriel. The latter is the Browns' leading preseason receiver thus far, with eight catches for 90 yards and impressive speed, as evidenced by his 68-yard kickoff return against the St. Louis Rams.
Burleson, however, is on the roster bubble. He hasn't yet appeared in a preseason game, owing to a nagging hamstring injury. He's expected to play in Thursday night's game against the Chicago Bears. His performance there will be his first, last and only chance to make a significant enough impression to stick on the roster.
In his favor is Gordon's suspension, of course, which has left the Browns thin at receiver. But, as Austin's medical history attests, hamstring injuries can linger, and Burleson being sidelined so long means there's not much for Pettine and the coaching staff to evaluate before Saturday's cut-down to 53 players.
Johnson is the most intriguing of the Browns' lesser receivers. So far this preseason, he's caught five of nine passes thrown to him for 46 yards. He came to the team last season poached off of the Green Bay Packers practice squad but was found to have been working with a torn ACL. He was shelved for 2013, but the Browns are hoping the 6'2", 215-pound receiver could have some of Gordon's traits hiding within.
Still, it appears Johnson is a work in progress. Pettine said in mid-August, "I think that Charles Johnson is starting to get a little more consistent. I think in the beginning, he was a little inconsistent. He's starting to show improvement."
Who do you think will be the Browns' leading receiver?
Because of his considerable upside, Johnson will likely stick on the 53-man roster this year, but he'll be eased into regular-season playing time. If his impact will be felt this year, it's not likely to happen until later in the season.
Ultimately, the Browns are not going to be as pass-happy a team as they were in 2013, when the Browns attempted a league-high average of 42.6 passes per game. That heavy reliance on the pass came about because of a woeful lack of a run game—the Browns ranked just 27th in rushing yards, 30th in rushing attempts and dead last in rushing touchdowns, with a mere four.
This year, the Browns have a better situation at running back, with Ben Tate the bell-cow and rookie Terrance West also having a prominent role in the run game. If Tate and West—and Dion Lewis and possible Isaiah Crowell—can successfully run the ball, the Browns would be more than happy for that to become their primary offensive identity.
The Browns are clearly thin on weaponry in the passing game, but if Hawkins, Cameron and Austin can stay healthy, there are ways to use them effectively. It won't make up for the lack of Gordon, but the goal is to win games, not just to have the league's leading receiver.