Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Browns might have issues at wide receiver. What once was touted as “possibly the best group of wide receivers in the league” is now being held together by free agent hitchhiker Rod Streater and undrafted rookie free agent Derrick Willies, both of whom I would be unable to pick out of a lineup room, even if you had them sing “I Want It That Way” ala Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The attrition at the position is something many teams have to deal with, but it feels as though Cleveland’s luck hasn’t completely turned for the good.
Gone is mercurial Josh Gordon, traded to New England along with a conditional seventh-round draft pick for a fifth-round pick, after only appearing in one game, catching one pass. His inability to remain on the field, whether it be his own incidences that caused the issue or injuries suffered during possibly unsanctioned photoshoots, the cat-like quickness of Gordon saw him run out of his nine lives and was shipped away to catch passes from the GOAT.1
Week to week with an MCL injury, Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins is doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Viewed by many as a disappointment before this season, Higgins has shown a connection with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield since the latter has taken over as the starter, acting as the deep threat to Jarvis Landry’s possession receiver. Higgins has seen his yardage production improve each week along with his yard-per-target percentage, showing Mayfield’s trust in the receiver. Losing him will be a blow to the Browns budding offense.
Much can be said about Antonio Callaway’s breakaway ability, as he can get open with some of the best cornerbacks in the league draped over him at the snap. When it comes to catching said thrown ball, however, that’s another issue altogether. Billed as a first-round pick if it weren’t for off-the-field issues, Callaway’s play on the season is the epitome of what it’s been like to be a Browns fan over the last few years: the talent is there, but the drops overshadow it all and hope is nearly lost. A 44.8% catch rate on the season is hindering a player who might be battling teammates Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward for Pepsi Rookie of the Week awards if he could just catch the damn ball.
One constant remains, however, and that’s exactly why he was acquired. Jarvis Landry has been a steady and open target for quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Mayfield over the entirety of the season. Team leader in receptions, total yardage,2 and yardage-per-game, Landry has been everything general Manager John Dorsey imagined he would be when he traded a fourth-round pick for the then-Miami Dolphins wideout. Alas, even he has a catch rate of just over 50%, an almost 20 percent drop from last year’s numbers.
Of those that remain, Streater and Willies and rookie Damion Ratley, who has been inactive almost all year, Willies shows the most promise. Three receptions on five targets for 61 yards is an impressive debut, and when you consider Streater only has negative rushing yards on his resume this season, it could definitely be worse. With Higgins out for possibly the next two weeks, per Mary Kay Cabot, Willies seem to be the one they trust the most.3
So what happens next? What can help this grouping climb back into being respectable? Working the JUGGS machine seems to be a definite need, but more practice with Mayfield seems to be the best bet. The increase in RPMs from Taylor to Mayfield was obvious and was talked about as an issue with drops in the matchup against the New York Jets, but with increased reps in practice and game time, these receivers should be getting more acquainted with the Mayfield fastball.
Also don’t be surprised if we see more of running back Duke Johnson in the passing game. With Higgins injury, it would only make sense to increase the attempts to Johnson, who only has one game with double-digit targets.4 You may remember a few weeks ago when I was bemoaning the production of my favorite Brown, but now it’s becoming imperative to get him out of the doghouse and into the fight. Though I expect him to only get reps as a special teams player, the signing of running back Dontrell Hilliard allows for four running backs to be on the roster. Let Duke loose in space and good things will happen. It’s not like you’ve gotten better production elsewhere.