Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is finally on the verge of making his NFL return. There are still some obstacles in front of him—like an offseason quad injury and a looming four-game suspension—but Gordon has been reinstated by the NFL and should soon see the field for the first time in more than a year.
According to a statement released by the NFL, Gordon is being reinstated on a conditional basis. He will be suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season, but he will be allowed to participate in training camp and the preseason and can be involved in non-practice activities during his suspension. If all goes well, Gordon will be playing in Week 5 against the New England Patriots.
Obviously, this is a wonderful development for the Browns and for potential fantasy owners. Gordon led the NFL with an impressive 1,646 receiving yards in 2013. He accomplished the feat while only appearing in 14 games that season. Gordon has the potential to be a true difference-maker, and he'll have a chance to re-establish himself as on of the league's top offensive weapons this year.
However, those expecting Gordon to immediately leap back into the ranks of the elite should stake a step back first and re-evaluate their expectations. Though he is on the edge of completing his journey back into the NFL, Gordon still faces a long path back to being a top-tier NFL receiver.
We're going to examine the various reasons why.
A Year Off
Gordon has been away from the playing field for more than a year. He has also been away from the Cleveland franchise during that time. Even if Gordon has been working out on his own—and his well-publicized relationship with Johnny Manziel makes one question how much actual work Gordon's been doing—he hasn't been in a game or practicing in a team environment for a long, long time.
There is a massive difference between being in good physical shape and being in true game shape. There's a strong chance that spending a year away from the playing field has prevented Gordon from staying in peak physical form.
Just consider the fact that Gordon spent the first 10 games of 2014 on suspension and away from the team. When he finally returned, he was expected to provide a possible playoff boost for the then-6-4 Browns, but Gordon returned as a shadow of his 2013 incarnation.
In five games in 2014, Gordon produced just 24 receptions and 303 yards with no touchdowns. His yards-per-reception average plummeted from 18.9 in 2013 to 12.6 in 2014. The former Baylor standout was rated 14th overall among all wide receivers by Pro Football Focus in 2013. He was rated 49th overall in 2014.
Gordon took a major step backward after his 10-game suspension. He probably hasn't improved, and might even have taken another step back during his latest yearlong ban.
The Browns probably haven't been counting on Gordon's return over the past year. Even now that he's been reinstated, Cleveland can't possibly assume he'll immediately be a top-tier receiver.
Fantasy owners, though, might easily assume that Gordon is fantasy gold.
The problem with this assumption is the idea that Gordon will hold the same No. 1 receiver role that he held prior to his ban. Cleveland drafted Baylor product Corey Coleman in the first round of this year's draft in order to fill that top-receiver role.
Coleman is far from a sure thing, but he possesses the potential to be a top target in Cleveland.
"A talented player with the ball in his hands, Coleman forced 13 missed tackles on 74 receptions in 2015, and was the nation’s leader in yards per route run prior to Baylor’s top two quarterbacks going down with injuries," Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus wrote before the draft.
Gordon's last suspension left Cleveland looking for a new No. 1 receiver. As of now, that job goes to Coleman. Gordon has to work his way back into the fold before he can again be a star.
There's also the simple fact that Gordon will be suspended for the first four games this season. This probably affects Gordon's value to fantasy owners more than it impacts his value to the Browns. Anything Gordon is able to add after his 2016 suspension ends is a bonus for Cleveland. It might all fall short of what fantasy enthusiasts are expecting.
Fantasy owners will also have to deal with the fact that Gordon will produce a big, fat nothing for the first month of the season.
The Quad Injury
The NFL has reinstated Gordon, and he has been allowed to return to the Browns. Unfortunately, the receiver's return hasn't been a flawless process.
As we mentioned before, there's this whole quadriceps injury to deal with.
According to Pat McManamon of ESPN.com, a quadriceps issue was discovered when Gordon reported to Browns camp on Tuesday.
The injury means that Gordon will likely miss the first few weeks of training camp, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. If Gordon does indeed miss a large portion of camp, he will also probably miss a large percentage of the preseason.
This is an issue because Gordon hasn't been on a playing field for over a year and because he can't be back on one until Week 5. The more time Gordon misses this offseason, the more difficult it will be for him to return to stardom in the NFL.
The Browns should be ecstatic to have Gordon back on the roster. Even if he undergoes a gradual return to NFL life, Gordon provides the franchise with a premier talent and a potential offensive building block.
For fantasy owners, though, Gordon's value depends much on the man Cleveland places under center. This, perhaps, is the biggest reason why fantasy folks should be wary of Gordon in 2016.
There is no such thing as a solidified quarterback in Cleveland. The team is gambling on either a resurgent Robert Griffin III or journeyman gunslinger Josh McCown to emerge this year. Either way, Gordon could suffer.
Yes, Gordon overcame punchline quarterbacks like Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell back in 2013 and emerged as a star. However, as we've mentioned already, Gordon's standout campaign took place nearly three years ago. Having a quality quarterback would benefit Gordon greatly, and there's nothing close to guaranteed saying he will have that in Cleveland.
Gordon might well again become a star, but we'd feel a lot better about his prospects if a signal-caller like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers had his playing future in their throwing hands.
There's simply no telling how quickly, or how far, Gordon can emerge during his return. His quarterback has a lot to do with the story, but Gordon has to pen his own 2016 season.
Replicating his 2013 season would be unrealistic, but finishing this season should be a wonderful goal for Gordon and for anyone following his resurgent career.