In order to prescribe what the Cleveland Browns should do at receiver both this offseason, it’s important to evaluate the issues of the individual players.
The Cleveland Browns wide receiver group is an interesting discussion both because of how they were acquired as well as the mitigating circumstances that impacted this year, particularly at quarterback. The team drafted four wide receivers in the 2016 NFL Draft. On top of that, they also inherited Terrelle Pryor from the previous regime, who had transitioned from quarterback a year earlier, giving them five unproven receivers in all.
With their first pick and 15th overall, they took Corey Coleman from Baylor. In the fourth round, they took Ricardo Louis. Along with Pryor, they had three incredible athletes who did not have a clue how to play receiver.
Coleman only played on the left side of the field out wide and ran three routes at Baylor. He could get behind college defensive backs without even thinking about it. Louis looked like he just got off a bus and just started running Willie Mays Hayes style past guys down the field chasing after passes.
Pryor had one hamstring injury-laden training camp and preseason. He worked on his own and did improve enough to actually now look like a receiver, but he has areas where he has to improve still.
Compounding the issue for Coleman was a sports hernia surgery he had to have after he finished his season for Baylor. Instead of being able to start work on technical aspects of the receiver position, he had to focus entirely on getting healthy and then doing his best to prepare for athletic testing at his Pro Day.
So many other players knock out their athletic testing at the combine, then can focus on nothing but getting better at and ready for actually being a football player. Coleman, raw as he was already was, didn’t have that opportunity. He didn’t do any agility drills as he was not fully recovered in time, so getting healthy was his focus leading up to the draft.
The Browns get a hold of him and he’s tasked trying to learn the NFL, learn the playbook, how to be a player and all of the things that come with being a rookie. Certainly, he’s trying to get better at technique, but so much is being thrown at him, it’s not easy to soak up all of it at once.
Then Coleman suffered another setback breaking his hand. Obviously a broken bone is about as good of an injury as one can hope to have in terms of being able to recover fully. Unfortunately, he can’t do anything as a receiver in practice with a broken hand. For however many weeks, he couldn’t run or do anything but watch film and wait for the bone to heal. In all, he missed six games.
Coleman did occasionally show flashes of brilliance as a receiver as well as why he was rated so highly. And no, this isn’t just about making the occasional play. It was showing some genuine understanding of how to be a receiver It’s not clear how much was practice and how much was instinct but the results were promising. He also had his share of struggles, especially with route running and drops.
With all of that, Coleman played in 10 games, he caught 33 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns. That’s 3.3 catches and 41.3 yards per game, which is not bad, especially when considering the quarterback situation for the Browns. Obviously, there is substantial room for improvement.
Now, the Browns are in the offseason. Coming off of a 77 catch, 1,007 yard season, the expectation is the Browns will ultimately use the franchise tag on Pryor if necessary in order to keep him in Cleveland and negotiate a long term deal.
In the event that happens, the Browns have three incredibly raw receivers with an offseason to hopefully improve their craft. With no draft process to go through or injuries to recover from, no new playbook to learn, they can focus all of their energy on improving from a technical standpoint.
If Coleman and Louis take full advantage of this opportunity, they can take some important steps toward making a bigger impact this season. Pryor obviously is still trying to recover from hand surgery at this point, but once that’s done, he can get back to work, hopefully with a new contract.
Coleman has to learn how to use his immense physical talent to actually create separation. He can’t just run fast and end up wide open the way he did so often at Baylor. What made Coleman a special talent at Baylor was not just his speed but his strength and agility. He was electric with the ball in hands and at times he showed that in a Browns uniform.
He needs to learn how to use those components when it comes to running routes and setting up opponents to create separation. As a rookie, Coleman was playing the route rather than playing the defender with some great moments. The hope is that this year he won’t be thinking about what he needs to do in terms of assignment but thinking about how he’s going to beat the corner to do it.
The other thing that would help Coleman is how he uses his when he runs routes. Not only winning the fight with his hands against defensive backs off of the line of scrimmage, but knowing how to use his upper body to get skinny and wide as needed, then shield opponents from the football.
Dec 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Terrelle Pryor (11) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns won 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Pryor had a few issues. Most notably, he needs to use his strength in running routes. Particularly in running go routes, too often he let himself get muscled out of bounds. This is usually caused by two issues. Going to the sideline too early, thereby reducing the room to operate and then not using his strength to fight for real estate in that area of the field.
The difference between Pryor in the preseason where he was unstoppable on fades as opposed to later in the season when he became relatively ineffective in this response. Too often, he was being ushered out of bounds and not giving the quarterbacks, bad as they were, room to throw the ball.
Pryor just needs to be more physical. It would make him more difficult to cover, but he can add an element to his game in the form of intimidation. If he can learn to block and decide to own that part of his game, he just can beat up corners on running plays and then dominate them in the passing game.
The other area that dogged Pryor all season was awareness. The best example of this was on drag routes, which were and should continue to be a staple for Pryor given his size and speed. Once the ball is snapped, he’s running horizontally almost immediately trying to outrun or lose his defender in traffic working his way across the field. And if defenders on the other side of the field are in man coverage especially, they are not there to see him and there’s potentially a ton of open field there.
Pryor’s mindset is always to work back to the football. Normally, this is exactly right but when doing this on a drag or short cross, he’s catching the ball either at the line of scrimmage or occasionally even behind it and trying to make up ground he lost.
The quarterback needs to deliver the ball to the right spot, but Pryor also needs to let the ball come to him so he can hopefully turn the corner up the field and gain substantial yardage. This is the most obvious example of seeing Pryor’s growing pains as he learns just how to play receiver and this will be corrected with reps.
Oct 23, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Ricardo Louis (80) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 31-17. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Louis had such a limited understanding of the receiver position from his time at Auburn and it’s not his fault. That is what Auburn does. They keep it extremely basic, winning with formations, alignment and speed to create advantages.
Most everything did for the Browns was brand new, similar to the learning experience for offensive tackle Shon Coleman, also out of Auburn. Louis overperformed relative to expectations because he did so little in college, but was a tremendous athletic talent, comparing favorably to Dez Bryant.
The other problem that followed Louis from college is drops. He dropped a ton of passes at Auburn and he dropped passes in his rookie season. How much of this is due to a concentration issue as opposed to struggling just to find and see the ball is something the Browns need to diagnose and address.
Louis has so much to learn and hopefully is just a sponge for what receivers coach Al Saunders is teaching. If he does that and is willing to put in the work, he can eventually be a big time player for the Browns.
The one thing the Browns have is size. Pryor is 6-4, 223 pounds while Bryant is 6-2, 215 pounds. With their space tight ends like Gary Barnidge and Seth DeValve, the Browns can outsize opponents at will. Coleman, Andrew Hawkins and Rashard Higgins can go smaller and quicker as needed.
Speaking of Higgins, it was a little bit of a surprise he didn’t play more during the regular season. He was consistently effective in the preseason and when he had opportunities, he made plays in the regular season along with DeValve, the rookie fourth round tight end.
What hurts Higgins is the fact he’s not terribly athletic, especially compared to the rest of the group. He thrives in just knowing how to get open. Higgins is incredibly slippery running routes and after the catch. The issue for Higgins, as he well knows, is he has to be near perfect with his technique in addition to being creative.
Oct 30, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Rashard Higgins (81) warms up before a game against the New York Jets at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
Jordan Payton, when he was drafted, seemed like someone who had a chance to contribute early because he was ahead of the game in terms of development and grooming. He, like Higgins, was far more polished a prospect coming out of UCLA in addition to being a good athlete. UCLA runs a pro style offense, he had excellent coaching from their receivers coach Eric Yarber and he looked good at the Senior Bowl as a result.
Not only did he not really find his way on the field, but he was suspended for the final four games of the season for PEDs. One could argue that it might have been worth it if losing those four games makes him a better receiver in 2017, but losing those practice seemingly puts him further behind the rest of the group. It is likely that Payton is will be fighting for his roster spot in the upcoming training camp.
That leaves Andrew Hawkins, the sole veteran of the receiver room. Hawkins had a better season than some would give him credit, catching 33 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns. What makes that interesting is that Hawkins was the focus of a lot of criticism because of Taylor Gabriel’s performance for the Atlanta Falcons.
Gabriel, who deserves all of the credit for his great season, caught 35 passes from Matt Ryan. The difference is because of various factors, including having a better quarterback and having the proven talent around him creating opportunities along with his own play, had 579 yards and six touchdowns including eight explosive plays compared to five for Hawkins.
Had Hawkins been on the Falcons with Gabriel remaining on the Browns as critics have argued, Hawkins likely has a good year and Gabriel is toiling away in obscurity again with questions about his NFL viability. Hawkins is never going to be a star but he play a specific role and the team likes the example he sets in terms of work ethic.
In Pryor, Coleman and Louis, the Cleveland Browns have three receivers with substantial potential. But of all six receivers discussed, Pryor is the most proven. As good as he is, there’s so much more room for him to grow as a player. So with that in mind, the question is what, if anything the Browns should do in terms of adding to this position for the 2017 season. For that, look for a companion piece discussing the possibilities there.