DraftBrowns.com Staff Writer: Justin Higdon
After an arrest for DWI in North Carolina, it is obvious that Josh Gordon is incapable of staying out of his own way. The NFL’s reigning leader in receiving yards was already facing a probable year-long ban for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, before Saturday’s news further frustrated his employers and fans. The Browns were hopeful that Gordon’s suspension might be reduced on appeal, but the 23-year old receiver’s most recent brush with the law is a laugh in the face of that hope, slamming the door on any chances of Gordon playing meaningful football this season, and maybe ever suiting up for Cleveland again. It’s an unfortunate story, written by one of the most (if not the most) naturally gifted athletes ever to suit up for the new Browns.
There is no question that the weekend DWI is extremely disappointing to the team’s coaching staff and front office, but the Browns have been preparing themselves for life without Gordon since about two weeks before news of a failed drug test first leaked on Day Two of the draft. There were no reactionary draft picks in rounds two through seven, but the organization did add veterans Earl Bennett (since released) and Miles Austin in an effort to bolster the receiving corps. There is no replacing Gordon, but there are ways to minimize the impact of his loss. In fact, the wheels have probably been in motion to reduce the importance of the number one receiver since the 2013 season ended. After all, despite Gordon’s gaudy statistics, The Browns finished their last campaign with 11 or more losses for the sixth year in a row. For all of the flash on paper, last year’s offensive formula under Rob Chudzinski and Norv Turner was a failure on the field, so Jimmy Haslam hired a new team of chemists for the lab this season. First-year Head Coach Mike Pettine has brought in former Texans and Redskins coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and together they are borrowing a blueprint that should transform the Cleveland offense into something vastly different in 2014.
Limiting Pass Attempts
Incredibly, the Browns led the NFL with an ungodly 681 pass attempts – six more than Denver attempted with Hall of Famer Peyton Manning at the helm. Norv Turner’s offense aired it out more times than Peyton Manning, and did so with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell taking the majority of the snaps. Playing from behind will tend to inflate pass attempt stats, and the Cleveland running backs were among the worst in the league, but neither of those facts excuse the way Turner forced the issue in the passing game last season. Pettine has openly praised the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, and admits that this is his model for the Browns. Considering his background as a defensive coach, and the recent success of those organizations, Pettine’s approach makes sense. Not coincidentally, the Niners and Seahawks had the fewest pass attempts in the NFL last season at 417 and 420 respectively, so Cleveland fans can expect an extreme drop off from Turner’s 2013 air show.
So who is pulling the trigger on these passes? Pettine seemingly would prefer to start the season with a veteran under center, and recently stated that Brian Hoyer is “securely ahead” of rookie party-boy Johnny Manziel. Many fans would like to see Hoyer start as well, whether due to his “hometown” ties, or the belief that Manziel requires seasoning before starting an NFL game. But despite Pettine’s current quarterback depth chart, the coach admits that Hoyer and Manziel will compete for the starting gig. Intentional or not, the situation looks a lot like the Matt Flynn/Russell Wilson competition in Seattle two summers ago.
And maybe this is a tell of sorts. The Seahawks and 49ers both employ mobile quarterbacks, as did Shanahan during his past two seasons in Washington. The threat helps to loosen things up for the running backs. A potent running attack controls the clock, and ultimately results in fewer passing attempts. If this is indeed the model, then starting Hoyer at quarterback is not ideal. While he has quick feet and functional mobility, he has amassed 36 rushing yards in 18 career games, and he will be less than a year removed from a torn ACL by the time the regular season starts. Meanwhile, Manziel is a dangerous open-field runner who gave college defenses fits with his escapability. The team is saying all of the right things about competition, but the rookie has the edge. He fits the model, the Browns spent a first round pick on him (and traded up to that pick), and he gives Shanahan the ability to use his entire playbook. Manziel will likely open the season as the starting quarterback, and provided he plays 16 games (always a big “if” in Cleveland) he should finish the year with about 420-450 pass attempts.
Finding the Targets
Without Gordon, the easy assumption is that the Browns will lean heavily on tight end Jordan Cameron. Relatively speaking, that may indeed become the reality, but his numbers are still likely to take a dip this season. Last year Cameron set career highs with 80 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. This came on 117 targets, which amounted to 17.2% of all of Cleveland’s passing targets. Cameron caught 68.4% of the passes intended for him in 2013. Prorating these percentages to an offense with 450 pass attempts gives a predicted output of 53 receptions on 77 targets. Based on 420 pass attempts the numbers drop to 49 catches on 72 looks. With Gordon out of the picture, it is reasonable to assess that Cameron may see his target percentage increase, but his percentage of catches per target last season was on the high end and is unlikely to improve much. With Washington in 2013, Shanahan targeted tight ends with 22.1% of passes, up from 16.1% the year before. With a talent like Cameron it seems logical that the percentage this season will come closer to the 2013 number. So if Cameron himself gets 20% of all targets in 2014 (This is a high number for a tight end. To put this in perspective, Jimmy Graham saw 22.1% of the Saints’ passes last year), and his catch rate remains static, he will end the season with somewhere between 55 and 65 catches. Provided he plays a full 16 games, of course. Higher volume will be reliant on 500 or more total pass attempts, and this doesn’t fit Pettine’s model.
Without Gordon, the Browns will hope that Miles Austin can assume the role of “number one” receiver, but the 30-year old former Cowboy has been limited for years by hamstring injuries. If he is unable to make it through camp intact, it is conceivable that he may not even make the team. Once again, Pettine and Shanahan will almost certainly research the Seahawks’ handbook, and turn to the page on “how to cope without a true number one receiver.” The defending champs overcame injuries to Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice (their leading receiver from 2012) with a primary trio of Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Jermaine Kearse. The three receivers remained healthy all season and saw 209 (50%) of the teams’ total targets. The problem for Cleveland will be finding three wide receivers who can stay healthy. If the Browns have a definitive “top three” (and at this point they do not), it would appear to be Austin, Andrew Hawkins, and Nate Burleson. Each player has had injury issues, and Austin and Burleson are one year stopgaps at best. If they all play 16 games it will be a minor miracle. In reality, the Browns will be playing mix and match looking for a reliable combo.
Hawkins has the most staying power of any receiver on the roster. The fourth-year pro is only 28 years old, and signed as a restricted free agent to a four-year contract with $4 million in guaranteed money. The Browns did not have to surrender a draft pick to sign Hawkins, but they did work to craft a contract that the Cincinnati Bengals were unwilling to match. At just 5’7” tall and 180 pounds he is not going to step into Gordon’s shoes as the top dog receiver, but the plan will be for Hawkins to see a significant number of targets in the passing game. In the Seahawks offense, their secondary receiver saw about 17% of the targets over the two seasons since Wilson took over as the starting quarterback. In 2012, when the Washington Redskins under Shanahan operated a similar offense, their second leading receiver Josh Morgan also saw about 17% of the team’s 442 pass attempts. It is a fairly small sample size, but given Cleveland’s personnel it seems logical that Hawkins will enjoy a similar number of looks this upcoming season.
In terms of size and athletic testing, Hawkins compares well to Baldwin, the Seahawks second-leading receiver from a year ago, when he caught 50 of the 73 passes thrown his way. Baldwin spent about 68% of his time lined up in the slot – where Hawkins is expected to see the majority of his snaps – but also proved successful when give the opportunity to go deep. With Cincinnati, Hawkins spent over 85% of his time in the slot, but the Browns would be wise to see if they can lower that number a bit, get him outside, and take advantage of his speed on deep sideline routes. The Bengals rarely used Hawkins down the field, but he has caught five of six catchable deep balls (according to profootballfocus.com) over the course of his NFL career.
Hawkins is best known for his short-area quickness and ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Browns fans will recall the time he torched the Cleveland defense with a dazzling, 50-yard catch and run touchdown in a Week Two loss to the Bengals during the 2012 season. This skill set makes Hawkins valuable on wide receiver screens, another play the Seahawks used with success during their Super Bowl run. Notably, Tate caught 15 such passes for 166 yards, as Seattle looked to utilize his run after the catch ability. Tate led the league by forcing 21 missed tackles last season, and the Browns would love to see Hawkins produces similar results. Without a true go-to guy, and with the likelihood of injuries, Hawkins has the potential to steal a few extra touches, provided he can stay on the field.
Run, Run, Run
As noted earlier, the Browns passed so often last year in part because the coaching staff did not feel like they were able to run the ball. They force-fed Willis McGahee 138 carries and were rewarded with a 2.7 yard average. Three of the team’s four longest runs from scrimmage came from receivers Travis Benjamin and Gordon, and safety Josh Aubrey. Cleveland running backs rushed for 1006 yards on 302 carries (3.3 yards per attempt) and scored four touchdowns, and all of those statistics read better than they actually looked on tape. But if the Browns are going to decrease their passing attempts by over 200, it will be critical that they run the ball frequently, and with a much higher degree of success. Last season the Bills, whose defense was coached by Pettine, ran a league-high 546 times; and while Buffalo failed to make the postseason, 10 of the 12 playoff teams fell in behind them in the top 15 for rushing attempts. This includes the models, Seattle and San Francisco, who ranked second and third respectively. Five teams ran the ball 500 or more times in 2013, and for the Browns to meet Pettine’s vision of building the best team while minimizing the importance of the quarterback, this seems like an appropriate goal.
When Pettine hired Shanahan, he committed to the employment of the zone blocking scheme. The Shanahan family has championed the technique for two decades, and the Seahawks rode it to a Super Bowl win. Zone blocking requires athletic linemen who move well laterally and who know each others’ tendencies. The Browns believe that left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack can perform well in any scheme, and second round pick Joel Bitonio is being counted on to win the left guard job. On the right side, tackle Mitchell Schwartz has reportedly taken well to the new scheme, and second-year guard Garrett Gilkey has experience with zone blocking from his college days. Schwartz and Gilkey will see competition from John Greco and former Seahawk Paul McQuistian (and maybe a surprise candidate like Chris Faulk) in what promises to be a set of hotly contested training camp battles.
After downplaying the position in recent years, the Browns will need a fullback for their new running attack, and the most intriguing candidate for the job is MarQueis Gray. A quarterback in college at Minnesota, Gray moved to tight end in training camp with the Niners last summer, and was among the last players cut prior to the regular season. The Browns signed him, and used him sparingly at tight end, fullback and out of the Wildcat. This year, Gray has been seeing first-team reps at fullback, and Pettine reportedly views him in a role similar to Charles Clay of the Dolphins. But Shanahan has rarely relied on his fullbacks for offensive production, so for Gray to be successful he will need to learn and execute his blocking assignments. Interestingly enough, Gray’s transition from college QB to lead blocker is similar to the one made by former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, who started his NFL career as a running back before eventually moving to fullback. In 2011, Robinson represented the NFC at fullback in the Pro Bowl, as a member of…the Seattle Seahawks.
Behind all of the zone blocking, the Browns will need running backs who can read the blocks, make a decisive cut, and go. They started by signing free agent Ben Tate from the Texans, and then traded back into the latter stages of Day Two of the draft to select record-setting Towson running back Terrance West. After the draft ended, the team signed rookie free agent Isaiah Crowell, a player with Day Two talent (rated 45th overall here) who fell out of the draft due to off-the-field issues. Tate considers himself the favorite for the starting job, but he has battled injuries throughout his career. He broke his ankle prior to his rookie season and missed the entire year. He came back healthy in 2011 and piled up 942 yards, including 115 in a win over the Browns. In 2012 Tate was back to struggling with injuries, this time to his hamstring and foot. And in 2013, he fought his way through cracked ribs before ending the season on injured reserve. Tate is a talented athlete who fits well into the offensive system, but the odds are stacked against his making it through an entire season unscathed. Tate’s laundry list of ailments kept him from realizing his full earnings potential in free agency this past spring, and led the Browns to guarantee only the first year of his two-year deal.
With Tate, missing time is almost a foregone conclusion, which is why many analysts believe that West will emerge as the team’s leader in rushing attempts this season. In 16 college games last year he ran the ball 413 times, including four games with 30 or more carries. Cleveland will not likely lean on any of its backs that heavily, but West is seemingly more equipped for a heavy workload than Tate.
In an artful moment of coach speak, Pettine recently managed to assert that the Browns will use a committee approach to the running back position while also stating that “You’d like to have a guy that can carry most of the load…” The implication here is that two backs are likely to see carries, but it won’t be a 50/50 split. With the Redskins the past two seasons, Shanahan gave Alfred Morris the bulk of the running back carries while his number two backs saw spot duty. In both 2012 and 2013, quarterback Robert Griffin III finished second on the team in rushing attempts. Likewise in Seattle, where Wilson finished a distant second in carries to Marshawn Lynch each of the past two seasons. It is conceivable that Manziel could do the same this year in Cleveland, but it won’t be by design. Regardless of minimizing the importance of the position, Shanahan has seen first hand how a serious injury to his mobile quarterback can snowball. He and Pettine would no doubt like to avoid seeing history repeating itself. If everyone has learned from the mistakes of the past, Tate will finish second on the Browns in rushing attempts, while the coaches pick their spots with Manziel. In a roughly 500 carry breakdown, about 250 for the number one back, 120-150 for the backup, and 60-70 for Manziel is a logical distribution that would allow for the top runner to remain fresh while slightly reducing attempts for the quarterback. This leaves 30-70 carries for Crowell, Baker, or maybe even Dion Lewis, with the outcome probably skewing toward the lower end.
The Browns have borrowed before. They’ve hired coaches from the Bill Belichick tree. They’ve brought in Mike Holmgren in an attempt to recreate the magic he once found in Green Bay. And last year they borrowed from about five different places. While he is sure to bring his own flavor on defense, Pettine is proving to be a borrower too, from his adaptation of Rex Ryan’s “play like a Jet” motto, to his apparent mimicry of the Super Bowl champions’ offense. Cleveland fans have seen the Browns botch the recipe for success before, but Pettine has seen this model work recently, and seems prepared to follow it to a “T”. As close to a “T” as possible, anyway.