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Cleveland Browns' WR Competition to Be One of NFL's Most Intriguing Camp Battles

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistMay 11, 2016

Cleveland Browns' Corey Coleman holds up a jersey during a news conference at the NFL football team's training camp facility, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in Berea, Ohio. Coleman played wide receiver at Baylor. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Cleveland Browns are no stranger to the spotlight when it comes to negativity about their roster-building approaches. Drafting four receivers in the top five rounds of the 2016 NFL draft brought on questions and added scrutiny to the Browns' drafting process.

With the team's new analytical focus well-known throughout the NFL and in the media, Cleveland selecting four receivers may have been the most obvious indicator of how it’ll look to change perceptions of effective draft strategy. However, Cleveland's plan could also prove why analytical approaches may not always work in the draft process.

Right or wrong, bold or ahead of the curve, the Browns once again have been questioned for their draft moves. Training camp should begin to sort out which draft choices exceed their draft positions, which ones are disappointments despite promising expectations and just how many of these four receivers end up making the team and contributing in 2016.

And with five experienced veterans on the roster with something to say about the team’s receiver-heavy draft, the Browns should offer plenty of training camp battles to follow.

Where Veteran Receivers Stand

After offseason turnover saw Travis Benjamin (the team’s leading receiver) and Dwayne Bowe (the team’s highest-paid receiver) depart in free agency, the Browns are left with five barely capable veteran receivers.

Brian Hartline returns as the leading receiver after a 46-catch season. He will also be the team's highest-paid receiver, as he's set to make $3.75 million this year.

For a team looking for turnover at the position, he’s one of the most likely veterans who could see the chopping block after training camp and during the preseason. By releasing him, the Browns can save $3 million as well as open the door for one of their rookies to see more snaps.

Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins, two underappreciated slot receivers who flash quality interior quickness, are set to make $600,000 and $1 million, respectively, in the final years of their deals. Both appear likely to make the team thanks to their inexpensive deals, but neither is guaranteed a spot.

Marlon Moore, who had just seven catches a year ago, may have less luck, as he’s not tied to the current regime and fills a role that one of the rookies may be better served to handle.

The most intriguing “veteran” receiver who could be forgotten with the influx of rookie receivers is former quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

After receiving misguided fanfare from some who claimed he could end up as a starter for the team, Pryor was reduced to a reserve role and only had one catch during the 2015 season. He’s a project player who saw the regime that aimed to sculpt his athleticism be let go, potentially spelling the end of the Pryor experiment in Cleveland.

Cleveland would be unwise to disband its whole receiving corps after drafting nearly an entire unit, but this sudden influx certainly doesn’t speak highly of the new front office and coaching staff’s opinion on the current receivers long term.

While some may get the chance to impress on a largely untested receiving unit and under new head coach Hue Jackson, they’re all likely auditioning for their future teams, not for roles with Cleveland after the 2016 season.

Pros and Cons of Drafting Four Receivers

No team in the last 20 years has drafted four receivers in the top five rounds like the Browns did in the 2016 NFL draft. And whenever some draft strategy is new, it’s easy to either embrace its ambition or crush the method as a "misinformed" approach. However, while there are benefits to adding multiple receivers, the negatives and potential for wasted resources may be greater.

David Dermer/Associated Press

To start, the Browns now have four cracks at finding a feature weapon for Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler or whoever is the quarterback of the future. Receivers have been known to blossom into stars from any draft spot, and the Browns spent a first-rounder as well as many of their early Day 3 picks on the position.

Additionally, the Browns can truly make it an open camp battle, giving rookies the motivation to challenge for starting opportunities and giving Jackson and his coaching staff the best look at each receiver on the roster.

The receiver position is one that takes ample time to develop, as it’s quietly one of the most difficult positions to adjust from the college game to the NFL level. As Corey Coleman’s biggest scouting report is a testament toward, route running is a major adjustment for most college receivers. It’s something that takes a nuanced focus and patience with the coaching staff to refine.

Drafting multiple receivers gives the Browns coaches a chance to develop all of them together. By 2017, when the rebuilding effort should be more aggressive, hopefully most—if not all—are more equipped to be NFL-quality receivers.

However, that need for development may stunt the Browns' growth in other areas of the roster, particularly quarterback. Griffin should have every opportunity to thrive as the Browns' clear starter, and having Jackson tutor him could do wonders.

But as Browns quarterbacks learned a year ago, not having the receiver quality can inhibit any potential a quarterback has to thrive. And after letting Benjamin walk and likely moving on from Hartline, Cleveland will be throwing Griffin to the wolves of the AFC North with a handful of undersized slot receivers and a host of underdeveloped rookies.

Training Camp Predictions

After being so bold in drafting four receivers in the top five rounds, it’d prove to be a wasteful strategy should one of them not make the roster and be relegated to the Browns' or a different team’s practice squad.

While fifth-rounders are released all the time, Cleveland chose to ignore most other needs on its roster by focusing far too much on the receiver position. And with such a depleted roster, the Browns could have easily found a quality backup and maybe a player who could have contended for a starting spot elsewhere with an early Day 3 pick.

As stated earlier, I expect Hartline and Pryor will really have to impress to make the team due to their ties to the prior regime and their contracts. Jackson may be sympathetic to Pryor and give him another shot, but with four rookies on the roster, he likely can’t afford another project.

Coleman is destined for one starting receiver spot, and although his route-running development is ongoing, I’m confident Jackson will utilize concepts from the Baylor offense that both Coleman and Griffin should thrive under. Their eventual drafting of Coleman may have been part of the reason the Browns brought in Griffin earlier this offseason.

Assuming Gabriel and Hawkins are jostling for the slot position in 2016, I expect fifth-rounder Jordan Payton from UCLA to have a great opportunity to emerge as a starter in Cleveland.

His ability to get off press coverage and remain physical yet controlled as a receiver is a positive sign for Payton’s immediate starting potential despite somewhat limited upside. Rookie Scouting Portfolio’s Matt Waldman explained in his video breakdown just how physically impressive Payton is.

That leaves Auburn's Ricardo Louis and Colorado State's Rashard Higgins, fourth- and fifth-round picks, respectively, to jostle for snaps as the likely fourth receiver. Both play different styles, with Louis being a bigger-bodied outside receiver and “Hollywood” Higgins working better as a Tyler Lockett-style inside-out receiver.

Regardless of how it plays out, the Browns made a bold statement by investing so heavily in their receiver position. They also drafted a receiver-tight end hybrid in the fourth round in Princeton’s Seth DeValve, who, despite testing well in the post-combine circuit, is coming off a major injury and never showed great production as an Ivy League receiver.

The Browns clearly beat to their own drum during the 2016 NFL draft, and they’ve proved they're not afraid to buck draft trends and evaluations and take the player who fits their scheme and analytical focus. For an organization that is constantly under scrutiny after nearly two decades of frustrating drafting, the Browns are embracing their uniqueness more than ever.

After drafting four receivers in the top five rounds, the Browns will likely either look naive or a step ahead of the curve in the best way to build an offense. Right or wrong, it’ll be a fascinating camp battle to follow this offseason as the new Browns set out to right the ship once again.

Salary information courtesy of Spotrac.