The Browns were dealt a huge blow when arguably their best player in Josh Gordon was suspended for the entire 2014 season earlier this week. Gordon’s fate seemed inevitable but the prolonged wait before the ruling gave fantasy owners some hope that Gordon wouldn’t be gone for an entire year and could help fantasy teams eventually. The opposite happened, and it left the fantasy picture in Cleveland even cloudier.
Instead, fantasy owner’s will have to look at some of the other options in the Browns’ receiving core.
Gordon’s suspension really put a damper on an otherwise promising Cleveland team.
In 2013, it looked as if the Browns finally turned a corner. Tight end Jordan Cameron lived up to his sleeper hype and wideout Josh Gordon exploded to lead the league in receiving yards despite being suspended for the first two games of the season.
To compound the excitement, Cleveland added another exciting piece to their arsenal when they drafted the athletic Johnny Manziel out of Texas A&M in the first round of the 2014 draft.
But it already looks like the fantasy hype surrounding the Browns won’t be nearly what it was just a season ago.
What the Browns will miss with Gordon out
The most obvious thing Gordon brought was big-play ability. He developed into an All-Pro receiver last year and a lot of it had to do with his yards after the catch and Norv Turner’s vertical offense. Once Gordon caught the ball in space, his speed was enough to keep any defender from catching him. Just a few inches of leeway on a defender was all he needed, and he was gone. He also displayed a knack for catching the ball in traffic, a valuable trait for receivers.
Under Turner, the Browns passed the ball more than any other team last season, and Gordon was the primary benefactor. With 159 total targets, Gordon stuffed the stat sheet with an incredible 117.6 yards per game. He was also dynamite after the catch, with 637 of his 1,646 total receiving yards coming off his moves in the open field.
But the Browns wiped the slate clean from 2013. They have a new coach in Mike Pettine, a new offensive coordinator in Kyle Shanahan and two young, unproven quarterbacks in Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel vying for the starting spot. So this season is a whole different can of worms.
Who benefits most from Gordon’s suspension?
Tight end Jordan Cameron is the obvious choice here. The former basketball player drew 117 targets last season and set a Browns franchise record with 7 touchdowns in addition to 917 receiving yards. It’s likely Cameron gets an uptick in targets simply because of his talent alone. At 6’5, Cameron is a red zone dream and if Manziel ever ends up starting, could prove a reliable safety valve for the rookie. Cameron was already a TE1 going into this season. He’s now a TE1 with even bigger upside in 2014.
Is there a dark horse receiver who could surprise?
Currently, the Browns receivers are as follows. Former Cowboy Miles Austin will take over the Gordon’s spot as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Austin looked healthy in the preseason and is capable of putting up WR2 numbers at times, but his battles with chronic hamstring issues are well documented and he’s coming off an injury-plagued season in 2013. When it comes to pro sports and life in general, you need a certain amount of momentum to continue producing at a high level, and Austin hasn’t generated any since 2012.
Former Lion Nate Burleson, who is coming off an injury-plagued season of his own and is now 33 years old, will also be in the mix.
Andrew Hawkins, a former slot receiver with Cincinnati. Travis Benjamin, a young glorified return man who stands at an undersized 5’10, 175lbs and caught just five passes last year.
Then you have Charles Johnson, a second-year player who possesses good size at 6’2. Undrafted rookie Willie Snead reportedly made one of the biggest impressions of any receiver in camp and caught 3 passes for 75 yards to lead the Browns on Thursday.
Lastly, you have Taylor Gabriel, a rookie out of Abilene Christian who showed some impressive kick return ability in the preseason and could earn him a final roster spot.
Who has the best chance to benefit for fantasy purposes now?
As a slot receiver, Hawkins stands the best chance to emerge as a flex/WR4 option in fantasy due to Gordon’s absence right now. With the uncertainty of Austin and Burleson, Hawkins has the speed and (4.34) and the youth (28 years old) on his side. His best season came in 2012 with the Bengals, where he caught 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns. It’s worth noting that Hawkins played in just eight games with the Bengals in 2013, a team that passed the ball quite a bit under Jay Gruden. Hawkins saw only 18 targets that whole year, but caught 12 of them for 199 yards. So he’s unproven, but his talent and experience gives him the edge going into this season at least.
The quarterback picture
Brian Hoyer remains the starter for Week 1 until the Browns decide otherwise, but Manziel is starting to make his case. While he’s still learning the playbook, the rookie picked up steam in the last few preseason games. In Game 3, Manziel exemplified what made him so special coming out of the draft for the first time, as he rushed for a seven-yard score.
The play was set up beautifully, as the former Aggie stepped up into the pocket, tossed a quick ball fake to throw off the linebacker just long enough to create an opening before diving in for the score. It was the kind of play that made you want to see somebody like Manziel at the starting position just because of his athleticism.
To top it off, Manziel capped the preseason with his most impressive performance. In the Browns final game against the Chicago Bears on Thursday, Manziel flashed some more brilliant improvisation in the pocket and ended up going 6-for-17 with a touchdown and also ran for 55 yards.
Hoyer threw just one touchdown all preseason, which isn’t what you want to see out of your starter.
While preseason isn’t always the best indication, it’s safe to say Hoyer will have to play well above the level he’s playing at now if he expects to keep Manziel from taking over as the team’s starter at some point. If Manziel starts, expect the Browns receivers to remain inconsistent due to the inevitable growing pains that come with being a rookie.
As for the receivers, it’s likely Hawkins has the inside track to benefit the most. Keep an eye out for who Manziel and Hoyer tend to target the most though.