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Expect Year 2 Breakout From Donovan Peoples-Jones Who Is 'Lighting Up' Camp

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 6, 2021

BEREA, OH - JULY 29: Wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones #11 of the Cleveland Browns catches a pass during the second day of Cleveland Browns Training Camp on July 29, 2021 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Diamond Images/Getty Images

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is a star-in-the-making. He just needed a little more time than other recent draft picks to show what he's capable of after a disappointing collegiate career. His performance during training camp has been eye-opening for an already loaded roster that features Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. 

According to The Athletic's Zac Jackson, Peoples-Jones is "lighting up" training camp. 

Talent always makes itself known if it's properly nurtured. Cleveland took a chance on Peoples-Jones with the 187th overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft. In the deepest wide receiver class ever, 25 heard their names called before the Browns finally pulled the trigger.

Peoples-Jones was a 5-star flop at Michigan. He never managed more than 47 receptions or 612 yards during any of his collegiate campaigns. His ability was obvious, but Michigan struggled to utilize him properly. 

At the time, Peoples-Jones was a potential throwaway pick in a loaded wide receiver class. Cleveland's front office knew it invested in a lottery ticket, but his upside was well worth the risk. 

"He was an exceptionally athletic, very talented individual," Browns area scout Colton Chapple told reporters shortly after Peoples-Jones' selection.  "... This is a guy we really like in terms of his overall size, speed and athleticism to bring to our unit and contribute in whatever manner our coaches deem fit." 

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Chapple added: "What we saw on tape when he did have his opportunities, he made the most of them. He became a very dynamic player once the offense was able to get him the ball quickly."  

Fast forward six months. 

Beckham went down with a season-ending knee injury in a Week 7 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns and their division rival went back and forth during the second half before quarterback Baker Mayfield found Peoples-Jones on a back-shoulder throw for a game-winning 24-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left. At that moment, the Browns saw the potential of what their wide receiver corps could eventually become. 

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 25: Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones (11) catches what would be a game winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in the 4th quarter during the game against the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals on O
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Peoples-Jones finished tied for fifth on the team with 304 receiving yards. The sophomore receiver could easily emerge as the Browns' third option behind Landry and Beckham. The flashes were promising. Peoples-Jones finished fourth in the rookie class with an average of 1.83 yards per route run, per Pro Football Focus. At one point during the Browns' stretch run (Weeks 13-15), the first-year pass-catcher posted the second-most yardage on throws 20-plus yards downfield. 

"Most rookies, there is a learning curve," head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters. "[Jedrick Wills Jr.] obviously, was in there from play No. 1 and started the whole season, but I would say that is pretty rare across the league. Once you get out of that first-round top-15 guys, you typically have guys who you are working into the lineup and their roles grow throughout the season.

"I think Donovan is a great example of that. Again, a really smart player, a conscientious kid who we could put in there and trust him to do the job. He certainly earned our trust over the course of time."

The next step is earning the trust of his quarterback, and he's certainly seemed to do so during his second training camp. 

Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported that Peoples-Jones has slimmed down and spent all offseason working with Mayfield. As a result, his physical gifts are consistently translating to the field. 

Before understanding what the wide receiver brings to the table from an on-field perspective, his natural ability must be addressed. Peoples-Jones is a 6'2", 212-pound target with 33½" arms. His 44½" vertical is the second-best NFL combine effort since the league began revealing results in 2006. He finished first among his wide receiver classmates with an 11'7" broad jump, too. He ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash. Overall, the prospect posted a SPARQ (speed, power, athleticism, reaction and quickness) score in the 99th percentile of NFL wide receivers, per NBC Sports' Thor Nystrom

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Peoples-Jones is the caliber of athlete every team wants at wide receiver. Great athleticism doesn't always translate to the field, though. In his case, he's showed a level of consistency that can't be overlooked. 

"He has done an outstanding job of putting himself in position to have the opportunity to contribute here because of his work ethic," wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea said Wednesday. "I would say thus far in camp, like some other guys in the receiving group, he has made the most of his opportunities."

Peoples-Jones displayed the ability to stack cornerbacks and get vertical in limited opportunities last season, and he's looked even better during recent practices. His body control and concentration on passes have been exceptional. He's regularly made highlight-worthy receptions during training camp sessions. 

The Browns already have two star wide receivers and multiple tight ends they want to get on the field. But opportunities are sure to arise in multi-receiver sets. 

Besides, Beckham has missed at least four games in three of the last four seasons. Landry played through a hip issue in 2020 as well. Injuries happen. Depth is necessary. Peoples-Jones can play all three receiver spots and contribute on special teams. 

"Last year, I was so impressed with his ability to function mentally across a lot of different positions," O'Shea said. "Certainly, I think that adds value to a player when you can line up at different spots and be a multiple-role player, that is going to increase your opportunities."

Cleveland found some success late in the 2020 campaign by going five-wide, albeit with tight ends or even running backs flexed. Stefanski can continue to tweak his scheme and take advantage of the talent available to him.

The Browns' offensive play-caller knows what he has in OBJ and Landry. Rashard Higgins has developed a rapport with Mayfield that's only gotten stronger each season. General manager Andrew Berry drafted speedster Anthony Schwartz in this year's third round. Clearly, opportunities could be limited as Cleveland searches for the right balance to reach optimal efficiency. 

BEREA, OHIO - JULY 30: Wide receiver Jarvis Landry #80 and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. #13 of the Cleveland Browns watch from the sidelines during Cleveland Browns Training Camp on July 30, 2021 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

However, Peoples-Jones' continued excellence in practice will force Stefanski and Co. to implement packages where he's on the field with a chance to shine. 

A year from now, the Browns could move on from Beckham and Landry because of their combined $31.6 million salary-cap hit (but only $1.5 million guaranteed). Peoples-Jones should see incremental growth and usage over the new few months and into next season, when he could emerge as Cleveland's WR1. 

Not every incoming wide receiver can be like Beckham or the Minnesota Vikings' Justin Jefferson, who set a rookie receiving record last season. Peoples-Jones is only 22 years old after declaring early for the draft. He clearly needed time and the right situation to fulfill his immense potential. He still has a lot to prove, but he's coming on strong. 

Considering his performance throughout training camp, Peoples-Jones should kick open the door, receive more playing time this fall and give the Browns yet another exciting option for an already impressive offense.  

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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