Cleveland Browns Free Agency: Deeper Dive into WR Brian Hartline

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Unlike most teams who are waiting for the NFL’s official free agency to begin on March 10th, the Cleveland Browns have been very active of late. Thanks to a number of “cap casualty” releases, general manager Ray Farmer and the Browns front office has started their offseason shopping early.

Over the weekend, the Browns inked quarterback Josh McCown to a three-year deal. Released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last month, McCown is expected to provide veteran leadership in the Browns QB room, while also challenging for the starting QB position.

While QB is obviously the most important position to address on the roster, wide receiver is an area of major concern with Josh Gordon being suspended for the 2015 season. Leaving just Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin with game experience under contract, the Browns would be wise to sign at least one or two free agents from this class to add depth, experience and playmaking ability.

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Of the players the Browns have been able to negotiate with prior to the beginning of free agency, one name has stuck out more than the others—former Ohio State Buckeye and Miami Dolphins WR, Brian Hartline. And it just so happens that Hartline was not only in town on Tuesday to meet with the organization, but it appears he stuck around to take in the Cavaliers basketball game on Tuesday night as well.

At 28-years old, Hartline’s release by the Dolphins wasn’t surprising given his $5.9 million base salary in 2015 and $6.1 million in both 2016 and 2017. Though many think he was cut for a lack of production, the base salary combined with Ryan Tannehill’s preference to target Mike Wallace (may not be back), Jarvis Landry and Charles Clay (transition tag) left Hartline as the odd man out of sorts in the receiving rotation.

A former fourth-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the 6’2” and 200-pound Hartline has proven to be an excellent possession receiver throughout his career. In his six seasons with the Dolphins, Hartline racked up 298 receptions for 4,243 yards and 12 touchdowns. Though he seemingly lacks a nose for the endzone (seven of those 12 touchdowns came in two seasons), his reliability should not go unnoticed—as well as his knack for the big-play, with a career reception average of 14.2 yards per catch.

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Prior to the 2014 season, Hartline was on a torrid receiving pace during 2012 and 2013. In those two seasons he was targeted 264 times, catching 150 passes for 2,099 yards and five touchdowns. His breakout 2012 season was one of the reasons why he received a five-year extension in March of 2013 for just under $31 million.

The addition of Hartline to the Browns receiving corps—if he is interested in returning to his home state—seems like an easy one to make. Hartline has proven to be effective in multiple roles on offense, not to mention he has been through the ringer when it comes to the quarterback position in Miami. But in order to get a proper assessment of Hartline, let’s took a deeper look at the numbers.

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For starters, the former Buckeye has played in all but four games during his NFL career (missed four games in 2010). He has also started 69 of the 92 games he has played in—starting all but two games over the course of the last three seasons. This is an important number to know for Browns fans because it seems every season the Browns are losing one or two players in their receiving corps for an extended period of time due to injury or suspension.

The second set of data points to focus on comes from our good friends at Pro Football Focus. Let’s skip his down year in 2014 and rewind to the last one in which he was targeted like a real No. 2 or No. 3 receiver. In 2013, Hartline had an 8.4 overall receiving rating—good for No. 21 in the NFL that season, ahead of players like Dez Bryant.

Another important statistic from that season was his run block rating of 3.0, good for No. 22 among all wide receivers. This shows he was an active and willing blocker, which are both very important for any addition this offseason thanks to the Browns run-heavy offensive system.

Though not considered an “explosive” receiver by many, Hartline finished No. 28 in the NFL in receiving yards after the catch with 309. He averaged an additional 4.1 yards per reception after the catch in 2013, which showed his ability to fight for extra yards and not just give up like a number of receivers who are labeled in the “possession” category.

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Wide Receiver Rating from Pro Football Focus.
Wide Receiver Rating from Pro Football Focus.

The final wide receiver statistic from Pro Football Focus that was pretty impressive is one they call “Wide Receiver Rating.” This rating shows the QB’s rating when a certain receiver is thrown at. For the 2013 season, Hartline provided his QB with an 82.7 rating when throwing at him—good for No. 24 in the league. This was better than receivers like: Torrey Smith, Michael Floyd, Steve Smith, Emmanuel Sanders, Greg Jennings, Andre Johnson, Pierre Garcon, A.J. Green and Vincent Jackson—just to name a few.

To quantify this rating even more, his 82.7 rating would have been higher than any receiver on the Browns roster last season. Hawkins registered the highest rating last season, posting an 82.3.

So what do all of these data points mean for the Browns and their fans?

Plain and simple, the Browns have the opportunity to get a high quality player who has proven to be among the Top 25 at his position when at the top of his game. After a down season in which his targets were nearly slashed in half and being cut, you better believe Hartline is going to be hungry to prove he is worth another big contract before he hits age 30 during the 2016 season.

Hartline is not a No. 1 receiver by any means, but he has the capability of being a solid No. 2 or No. 3 receiver on the Browns next season. Paired with the reliable Hawkins, the Browns would suddenly have two excellent pass catchers who can run polished routes on the field at any given time. This would allow the team to draft a rookie with the upside to be a true No. 1 receiver one day, but not place a heavy burden on him from day one. After failing with so many young players in the past, this is something that would be key for the Browns in developing talent moving forward.

Thought it may seem like another case of “Cleveland fans wanting former Buckeyes” this situation is different. Not only can Hartline still contribute at a high level, but he plays a position of extreme need for the Browns. This is the type of deal that makes too much sense not to happen, and hopefully it is one that happens quickly before some other team attempts to lure him out of town this week.

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Bob is the Founder, Site Director and Senior Writer of Cleveland Sports Zone. He has been writing about sports for over nine years thanks to his passion for Cleveland sports and a Journalism degree. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, ESPN, USA Today and other major sports networks.

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