By Tony Grossi
The Morning Kickoff …
The light at the end of the tunnel: You can point to the defensive line and to the offensive line and even to the quarterback. But to me, the greatest sign that the Browns are turning the corner as a team lies at one position.
Yes, one of the franchise’s most troublesome positions since its rebirth – certainly the one blind spot in the eyes of General Manager Tom Heckert – is on the rise.
Josh Gordon, the youngest player on the roster at age 21, has developed in only 12 NFL games as the team’s No. 1 playmaker on offense. Think about that for a moment. When you consider where Gordon came from – two years away from football after marijuana-related suspensions at Baylor and Utah -- that in itself is an incredible development.
General manager-wannabe Mike Lombardi lambasted Heckert in July for “wasting” next year’s second-round draft pick on Gordon in the summer supplemental draft. Actually, Lombardi could not find a scouting report on Gordon to commit to his encyclopedic memory; thus, his uninformed opinion on Gordon.
Other experts opined that Heckert “panicked,” that he could have snared Gordon with a third-round bid in the blind auction draft. The criticism Heckert received on this matter was unreasonable at the time and now looks downright ignorant. Gordon just might be better than any receiver available in the first round of the 2013 draft – and the Browns have had a year to develop him.
Heckert did more homework on Gordon than any GM in the NFL. At one point, Heckert thought he might steal Gordon in the fourth round. But as word spread in the days leading to the supplemental draft about this smooth, fast, long receiver with the softest hands, Heckert decided he was not going to be outbid for Gordon.
It just may have been the smartest pick Heckert has made in three years as Browns GM. It may be his last, given CEO Joe Banner’s determination to usurp control of football operations.
The residual effect: These are the reasons I believe Gordon is the Browns’ most valuable rookie, which is saying a lot on this rookie-laden team:
1. His elite physical skills are unique on the team.
There is no other player at any position group with comparative elite physical skills. Gordon is 6-3 and 225 pounds and is the fastest player on the team from 40 to 60 yards.
2. His ability to stretch the field has given Brandon Weeden a worthy target to air out his big arm.
Coordinator Brad Childress said on Thursday that he has yet to see Weeden overthrow Gordon at practice. Childress also verified that Gordon had to reach back for the ball on the 44-yard TD play in Oakland. That was no knock on Weeden, who made a good throw, but rather a testament to Gordon’s long-striding, deceptive speed. He nearly outran Weeden’s rocket arm.
3. His emergence has had an inarguable positive effect on Greg Little.
You can buy into the Alonzo Mourning bye week “intervention” if you like. For my money, the biggest reason for Little’s 180-degree turnaround in the past six weeks has been Gordon’s emergence as the No. 1 receiver. Unburdened of the pressure of having to make the biggest plays among the receivers, Little has evolved as a dependable No. 2. He is catching everything thrown to him and is also using his 6-2, 220-pound body to make crushing blocks.
What does it all mean?: Little said to me, “Any great offense has two dominant receivers. You look at (Atlanta’s) Julio Jones and Roddy White, (the Giants’) Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. We’re just trying to put together our tandem right now.”
Sure, it’s a work in progress. Through 12 games, Little has 35 catches for 408 yards and two TDs; Gordon has 34 catches for 646 yards and five TDs. They rank merely 46th and 48th, respectively, in the AFC in total catches; neither cracks the top 70 overall in the NFL in that category.
So I’m not ready to order busts in Canton for either one. But what I am ready to say is the Browns’ receiver position is finally on the right track.
Gordon and Little are certainly young enough, have been productive enough and are, importantly, durable enough to serve as the foundation of the position for years to come.
Heckert has exhibited great patience – some might say stubbornness – in not attacking this historically weak position in free agency. It might be that the wisdom of Heckert’s patience will be appreciated most just as he is being shown the door by Banner.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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