If someone told you at the end of the 2013 season that the Cleveland Browns would be searching for a No. 1 wide receiver in the 2015 offseason, you probably would have told them they were crazy. However, that is exactly the place the Browns and general manager Ray Farmer are currently in thanks to yet another suspension—this time for the entire 2015 season—notch added to the belt of Josh Gordon.
A former Pro Bowler in 2013 and owner of one of the most dominant stretches of receiving yards in NFL history (24 catches for 498 yards and three touchdowns in two games), Gordon’s 14-game season of 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in his sophomore year set the city of Cleveland on fire. Fans were finally able to pound their chest, thinking “we gambled and won.”
Unfortunately, that soon was not the case—as Gordon was suspended once again to begin the 2014 season. After serving his 10-game suspension, the former second-round pick in the Supplemental Draft would return to the organization, looking like a shell of himself in five games—as he racked up 24 receptions (47 targets), 303 yards and zero touchdowns before being suspended by the team for the final game of the season.
Before fans and media members alike could think of ways Gordon could potentially get back to 2013 form in the offseason, the Browns organization received a gut-punch like no other. The news came from the NFL like a hurricane, Gordon was to be suspended for the entire 2015 season thanks to another failed substance test. Though it was not for marijuana, it did not matter—the use of alcohol was banned during the 2014 season for him as part of his agreement to return from suspension early after 10 games.
Though it was said to be an “oversight” in the language of when the season was actually over for Gordon (said by Gordon himself), the end result was still the same—the Browns lost their No. 1 playmaker for the 2015 season, and possibly even longer than that.
Removing Gordon from the equation should give the Browns the nudge they finally need to invest in a true No. 1 wide receiver. Farmer and company simply cannot go into the 2015 season with Andrew Hawkins as their No. 1 guy, which isn’t a knock on Hawkins at all. He was highly productive (63 receptions, 824 yards and two touchdowns) in his first season. But Hawkins isn’t a No. 1 receiver. He doesn’t command a safety over the top to help the corner, and that is something the Browns offense needs desperately.
With this is mind, the Browns head into the beginning of free agency next week with the ability to make a splash at the receiver position—if they so choose. Locked and loaded with over $50 million (before signing Josh McCown), the team can fire big money at a potential No. 1 guy, or they can invest in depth and go find a No. 1 receiver prospect in the draft.
What Farmer will do is beyond me, though. So for this reason, here are the five receivers I would go after if I was building the Browns roster up.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
A former first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the 6’0” and 200-pound product of Missouri is hitting the market after his best season as a pro. After missing the entire 2013 season due to injury, Maclin broke out for 85 receptions, 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense. In his career, Maclin has caught 343 passes for 4,771 yards and 36 touchdowns.
One of the top two available wide receivers in this class, Maclin will likely command top dollar in the open market. He has caught 50-plus passes every season in his career, with his lowest receiving total of 773 yards coming as a rookie in 2009. Between his reliability and game-breaking ability, paying a 26-year old like Maclin top dollar to be your No. 1 receiver would be a solid investment for the Browns this offseason.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
The opportunity does not come around too often where an organization can strengthen their team, while at the same time hurting a divisional opponent. Yet, that is exactly what the Browns can do this offseason by pursuing Torrey Smith of the Baltimore Ravens.
Drafted in the second-round of the 2011 NFL Draft out of Maryland, the 6’1” speedster has taken his sweet time developing into a player capable of being a No. 1 receiver at the NFL level. Yet that is exactly what he has become, racking up 213 catches, 3,591 yards and 30 touchdowns in his first four seasons in the league—including a breakout 1,128 yards on 65 catches in 2013.
With Smith testing the open market, the Browns can do what they did a couple of years ago with Paul Kruger if they want to poach him from their divisional foe. Farmer’s creative contract offering skills have already proven to tie up rivals (see the Hawkins deal last offseason), and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Browns could offer the 26-year old a creative deal that other teams could not come close to.
Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville Jaguars
While the first two receivers on this list (Maclin and Smith) fit the No. 1 receiver mold, Cecil Shorts is the type who would fit more as a No. 2 receiver. Drafted out of Mount Union in the fourth-round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cleveland native took a little time to really catch on with the Jaguars.
Getting next to zero playing time in his rookie season, Shorts’ arrival came during his best season as a pro in 2012. He caught 55 passes for 979 yards and seven touchdowns. Over the span of four seasons, Shorts has caught 176 passes for 2,343 yards and 12 touchdowns with an array of not-so great quarterback talent for the first three seasons.
Heading into free agency, Shorts hasn’t made it a secret he would consider playing for his hometown team. At 6’0” and 200 pounds, Shorts would be a nice fit at the No. 2 receiver thanks to his already proven abilities. However, he most certainly would not be a No. 1 receiver—meaning the Browns would have to use an early-round pick to find one.
Brian Hartline, Miami Dolphins
If you want to read an in-depth analysis on why Hartline would be a good fit here, you can check out the article I wrote earlier in the week. But like Shorts, Hartline doesn’t solve the need for a No. 1 receiver, he adds depth at the Nos. 2 and 3 spots with Hawkins—providing whoever is at quarterback a reliable, sharp route-running option to line up all over the field.
Mike Williams, Buffalo Bills
In what would be a pure wild card signing with zero expectations, Williams would be someone intriguing to take a look at as a cheap option with major upside. A former fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams looked like he was going to be a very good NFL receiver early in his career.
Out of Syracuse, Williams ripped off 65 receptions for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010. He followed that up with 65 receptions for 771 yards and three touchdowns in 2011, with another 63 receptions for 996 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012. His first three seasons inspired confidence and a high ceiling of expectation heading into the 2013 season, as he played and started all but one game in three years.
But in the 2013 season the wheels came off, as Williams played in just six games—catching 22 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns. After inking a massive six-year contract worth $40 million dollars, Williams would go down with a hamstring injury that he had been battling all season long.
Before having an opportunity to prove he could bounce back, Williams was shipped to the Buffalo Bills in a trade in April of 2014 for a sixth-round pick. Yes you read that correctly, a sixth-round pick for a player who opened his career with three seasons of 60-plus receptions, over 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Williams’ time in Buffalo never really got started, as his role was non-existent in the offense (eight catches, 142 yards and one touchdown in nine games). After reports came out that he requested a trade in October, Williams would eventually be put on the waived/injured list in December—eventually being released by the Bills.
In a somewhat epic fall from grace, Williams is unemployed and looking for an organization to take a chance on him for a revitalization attempt. With a lack of receivers with his size and big-play ability, the Browns should bring him in for a look on an extremely incentive-laden, one-year contract offer with very little guaranteed. If he does not stand out in camp like in Buffalo, the team can part ways with little investment. But if he finds his skillset from his first three seasons, the Browns could strike gold this offseason.