As we gear up for another NFL season, the Cleveland Browns are left with more questions than answers at the wide receiver position. Prior to the 2014 NFL draft, the Browns had knowledge of troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon’s failed drug test that might result in him being suspended for the entire 2014 season.
Shockingly, they opted to pass on the superstar wide receiver out of Clemson, Sammy Watkins and traded down with the Buffalo Bills and ultimately landed Justin Gilbert with the No.8 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Pettine’s preference is to have bookend cornerbacks with great size and athleticism, but that has never been a prerequisite for consistently winning football games. Conversely, being able to move the chains and score points certainly is. Passing on Watkins was not wise for a myriad of reasons, and I will be sure to illustrate them as we go along.
Browns’ 2013 Defense
While the Cleveland Browns had their deficiencies on defense last year, it must be noted there is a symbiotic relationship between the offense and the defense, which is time of possession.
The Browns’ offense was unable to sustain drives, as they were rated just 27th in time of possession. By week six of the 2013 season, the Browns played 100 more snaps on defense compared to the No.1 defense at the time, which was the Houston Texans.
Though the Browns’ defense was dead last in the NFL in stopping opposing offenses from converting third downs, one must stop to think, how is this possible with such a talented defensive front? Well the answer is easy.
The Browns’ failure to consistently sustain drives on offense gave their defense less time to recognize tendencies of the opposing offense and make adjustments. Moreover, the NFL is a pressure league, and when defensive linemen rush up field after so many times in one game without getting a break, their energy is depleted, particularly late in games.
The Browns’ defensive collapses didn’t come during the early portions of football games, it came late in games after they were left out on the field as a result of the offenses’ inability to sustain drives. Thus, I submit to you, the Browns’ defense was good enough to win games had the offense been able to sustain drives and score points.
Browns’ 2013 Offense
Not to be outdone, the Browns’ offense had a dismal year as well. As the season went on, they proved to be terribly inefficient on the offensive side of the football and not all of the their issues on offense could be attributed to quarterback play.
The wide receivers (sans Josh Gordon) had tremendous difficulty consistently getting separation. The Browns’ wide receiver corps ranked third in the NFL in dropped passes with 39. Only the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots had more.
The Browns also posted an anemic 19.2 points per game, which is good for 27th in the league. Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron carried the Browns’ offense, but it clearly wasn’t enough to consistently move the chains.
Outside of Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, it was painfully obvious that Cleveland’s offense needed to be completely revamped. Thankfully there was no need to worry, the 2014 NFL draft was on the horizon.
2014 NFL Draft
The Browns finished the 2013 season just 4-12 and earned the No.4 pick in the 2014 NFL draft as a result. The Browns also picked up an additional first-round pick at No. 26 via the Colts after the Trent Richardson trade.
With a bevy of talented underclassmen at the skill positions declaring themselves eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, the Browns were viewed as a lock to nab one of them, namely Sammy Watkins.
The cascading effects on the Browns’ defense, stemming from their inability to score points and sustain drives on offense was palpable. Clearly they were going to take the most explosive offensive player in the draft, right?
The number one pick came and went as the Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney. The Rams took Greg Robinson with the No.2 pick overall and the Jaguars surprised many by taking quarterback Blake Bortles with the No.3 pick in the draft.
Once the Jaguars made their pick, then came the moment of truth for the Cleveland Browns’ faithful. Would the Browns select Sammy Watkins and make the pick that would change the fortunes of their franchise? Would they select the most explosive/versatile player they’ve had on offense since they chose Eric Metcalf in the 1989 draft? Or would they once again stare greatness in the face and opt for mediocrity?
The Browns would soon answer my question when they accepted a trade with the Buffalo Bills. The Browns sent the No. 4 pick to the Bills in exchange for the No. 9 pick in the 2014 draft, as well as the Bills’ first-round and fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft. The Browns moved up from No.9 to No.8 to take the consensus top cornerback in the draft; Justin Gilbert. They also moved up from No.26 to No.22 to select former Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel.
Many fans and members of the media came away with the impression that the Browns did a great thing and got tremendous value by passing up Watkins, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.
2015 NFL Draft
Even with the departure of Jairus Byrd and the injury to Kiko Alonso, the Bills roster is still rather talented and is fully capable of an 8-8 or 9-7 type of season. Remember, this is the same Bills team that swept the Miami Dolphins and hung tough with the Patriots twice.
It would behoove Browns’ fans to understand that the Bills’ 2015 first-round pick they’ve acquired might be closer to pick No. 20 as opposed to it being a top-five selection. The Bills are not nearly as bad as their 2013 record suggests and it is certainly possible that they finish top two in the AFC East, considering the addition of Sammy Watkins.
Furthermore, combing through potential draft eligible prospects in the 2015 NFL draft, there isn’t a single wide receiver that possesses Watkins’ combination of size, versatility and athleticism. Watkins makes an offense multiple with his ability to play each wide receiver position on the field.
Watkins is a moveable chess piece that enables an offense to essentially change personnel without substitution. There haven’t been many wide receivers in NFL draft history that can line up as a No.1 wide receiver, but make contributions as a running back as well. The Gif below is an example of Watkins’ scoring from the running back position.
Now tell me, where do the Browns find Sammy Watkins in 2015? The answer to that question is…. they won’t.
Stefon Diggs, Amari Cooper, Deontay Greenberry, Sammy Coates and troubled star Dorial Green-Beckham are all very talented players in their own right, but none have proven to be as versatile as Watkins. Only Diggs (if fully recovered from his broken leg) possesses Watkins acceleration to top speed from a static start. Again Watkins isn’t a player that can be found in every draft.
With that said, the 2015 NFL draft is comprised of at least three draft eligible cornerbacks as talented as Justin Gilbert:
Ultimately the Browns should have come away with both Sammy Watkins and Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL draft. Instead they took Justin Gilbert who is a very good player, but is not as talented as Watkins and will not have a direct impact on their new quarterback’s (Johnny Manziel) success. I realize that future draft picks are good, but at some point, the Browns’ organization needs to stand pat and take the best player available, as quality is always better than quantity.
The Seahawk Model
Many Browns’ apologists justify the Justin Gilbert selection by saying, “Gilbert fits what head coach Mike Pettine wants to do with the defense.” Browns’ fans and the national media have also suggested that the Browns intend to follow the Seahawks’ model for building a team, but that does not appear to be accurate. The biggest investment the Seahawks have ever made in the draft at the cornerback position since Pete Carroll has been at the helm, was utilizing a fourth-round pick in 2010 to select Walter Thurmond.
Over the years, the Seahawks have proven that they place tremendous value on quick twitch linebackers that can cover, flow sideline-to-sideline, bend the edge and get pressure on the quarterback. They also have an affinity for rangy safeties that can erase mistakes made by their cornerbacks.
Contrary to popular belief, the Seahawks have great appreciation for players that can make their offense multiple. There is no greater proof of this than when they traded their No.1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft to the Vikings in exchange for Percy Harvin, a player that compares favorably to, you guessed it…. Sammy Watkins!
J-e-t-s Jets, Jets, Jets
The team it appears the Browns are attempting to emulate on defense is the Jets’ defenses that Mike Pettine coached from 2009-2012. The Jets possessed two physical corners in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie who regularly made life difficult on opposing wide receivers. They both excelled in press-man coverage which allowed the safeties and linebackers to attack downhill. Only on occasion did the Jets’ linebackers have to cover curl/flat, as their primary job function was to get after the quarterback.
While all of those benefits to having bookend cornerbacks were great when Cromartie eventually joined the Jets in 2010, they already had the No.1 defense in the NFL prior to his arrival in 2009.
The Jets’ 2009 defense further substantiates my claim that acquiring bookend cornerbacks are not prerequisites for winning football games. No head coach is any more aware of this than the new head football coach of the Cleveland Browns, Mike Pettine.
Josh Gordon’s Recent Troubles
Browns’ fans rejoiced at their perceived “major coup” from the Buffalo Bills, acquiring their first and fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. The front office was also celebrated in the media for their maneuverability in the later stages in round one, which netted them Johnny Manziel.
Unfortunately the fans and the media alike would soon learn what the Browns’ front office says they knew all along; that Josh Gordon was facing a year-long suspension after failing his second drug test. The Browns stayed true to their draft board and did not select a wide receiver in the draft, which was likely for the best.
Selecting a wide receiver after passing on the best one in the draft would’ve been somewhat patronizing.
Following the draft, Gordon would find himself in more trouble. Already facing a year-long suspension, Gordon was ticketed for speeding over Memorial Day weekend. He was allegedly driving 74 miles per hour in a 60-mph zone. Officers became increasingly suspicious when they detected the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle. After searching Gordon’s car, the police subsequently cited a passenger for marijuana possession.
But wait, there’s more! July 7, 2014 , Gordon was pulled over in Raleigh, North Carolina at approximately 3 a.m. for driving 50 miles per hour in a 35-mph zone. His blood-alcohol level was .09, which is .01 over the legal limit.
The star wide receiver was arrested and charged with driving while impaired. After being taken to Wake County Detention Center, Gordon was released after Haydn Patrick “Fats” Thomas posted a $500 bond. Thomas is a convicted felon who pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges in November of 2013.
Not only does Gordon seem to have difficulty keeping his vices in check, he also seems to struggle with assessing the character of the company he keeps and governing himself accordingly.
The Cupboard is Empty
The Browns have acquired some new talent at the wide receiver position pre and post draft. However, they have yet to make a move that suggests that the 2014 wide receiver corps is any better than the wide receivers the Browns had in 2013. The Browns have brought in Nate Burleson, Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin.
They also signed Earl Bennett but released him June 17, following OTAs. Between the three newly acquired wide receivers, they accounted for just 75 receptions, 904 yards and one touchdown in 2013. I’d be remiss not to mention that the same three wide receivers missed a total of 20 games last season.
With that said, the fact that there are so many games missed between the three of them speaks to an even larger issue; durability. If the Browns are depending upon Burleson, Hawkins and Austin to be major contributors to their offense for a 16 game season, I’d say their ideology on offense is severely flawed.
I understand that Shanahan’s system is run-heavy, but at some point the Browns are going to have to air it out. If receivers such as Charles Johnson and Travis Benjamin (both returning from ACL injuries) don’t continue to improve, one would have to surmise that the below video might encapsulate Johnny Manziel’s 2014 season, should he be afforded the opportunity to play.
Maybe I’m slightly exaggerating here, but you get my point.
To those who might read this and dismiss me as a “Justin Gilbert hater”, please note that I’ve always stood in awe of his abilities. Due to his size, elite athleticism and ball skills, I routinely rated Gilbert higher than many NFL draft publications prior to the 2013 college football season.
The Browns desperately needed a talented receiver to grow with their newly acquired franchise quarterback Johnny Manziel and still do. Unfortunately it’s becoming painfully obvious, the Gilbert pick was certainly not the right call at this juncture. Yes Browns’ fans, this statement holds true even when factoring in the future picks from the Buffalo Bills.
The Browns would later choose another cornerback in Pierre Desir in the 2014 NFL draft.
I’ve said this on multiple occasions and I’ll say it again; if Desir was the only cornerback the Browns selected, I would’ve been perfectly fine with that decision, as he has all the ability necessary to become a starter in the NFL.
Gilbert may turn out to be a very good player in the NFL, but I’d be highly surprised if passing on Sammy Watkins doesn’t continue to haunt the Browns’ incumbent regime.
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