How Would a Josh Gordon Suspension Affect the Browns?

Josh Gordon is facing a possible year-long suspension which could derail the Browns season.

This roller coaster ride could be built only in Cleveland.

Initially sitting in the fourth spot of this year's draft, the Browns had the freedom to move in almost any direction so long as they could find a trade partner or a player worthy of the fourth overall selection. Ultimately, Cleveland swapped this pick to the Bills, who drafted Sammy Watkins, for the ninth overall selection. The swap garnered a first- and fourth-round pick next year for the Browns.

The Browns used the ninth overall selection to move up one more spot in order to ensure they got their man: Justin Gilbert, a cornerback from Oklahoma State. But that wasn't how the first round of the draft will be remembered in Cleveland.

Last year's trade of the extraordinarily underwhelming Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts hauled in the 26th overall selection from Indianapolis. With two potential candidates for drafting a quarterback, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, sitting at 23rd and 24th, respectively, the Browns again vaulted up in the draft to take the player they wanted. This time it was more polarizing.

The Browns were able to swap Richardson for the pick that eventually helped them obtain Johnny Manziel, the celebrity sensation who also played quarterback at Texas A&M. Based on our READ algorithm, Manziel could range anywhere from Donovan McNabb to Tarvaris Jackson. (Nik Bønaddio explains this much better than I can, so be sure to check out his article.)

Whether Manziel ends up like McNabb or not, his impact has already been positive for the Browns. The selection earned the Browns 2,300 season tickets within 36 hours and the support of Cleveland's hero and villain LeBron James.

At the end of the first round, the Browns were sitting pretty, and it almost seemed as though the fortune of the city was finally going to turn in its favor.

And then, the news emerged that wide receiver Josh Gordon is facing a season-long suspension for a failed drug test, jeopardizing the season before it even begins.

Gordon by the Numbers

How good is Josh Gordon? Good. Extremely good. Even better than Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson when you compare the wide receivers' first two seasons.

If you need any more proof, Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,646 in just 14 games, missing the first two contests of the season because of, you guessed it, a suspension. Gordon finished second in the league in yards per reception with 18.9 per catch, trailing only Kenny Stills, who recorded only 32 receptions compared to Gordon's 87.

Gordon's Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) was second-best in the league, too. His 138.52 Reception NEP trailed only Megatron's 143.56. Gordon also became the first player in NFL history to post back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. He did so with two-and-a-half quarters of Jason Campbell throwing him the football, and five-and-a-half with Brandon Weeden.

The potential Manziel-Gordon connection has been, unfortunately, squandered most likely for 2014, and the player who could have helped Manziel live up to the hype may be sitting on the sideline all season.

The Other Cleveland Pass-Catchers

The best receiver for the Browns not named Gordon is tight end Jordan Cameron. Cameron emerged early last season as an elite tight end before his production dropped significantly. He scored five touchdowns in his first four games, including a three-touchdown affair in Week 3 against the porous Minnesota Vikings defense. He caught only two more touchdowns in his remaining 11 games.

Likewise, his receptions and yardage didn't compare to his impressive start.

Games 1-4303607.5090.005
Games 5-15505574.5550.642

In an even smaller subset (which is never preferable to a larger one but can still be insightful), Cameron's most productive games came in Weeks 3 and 4, while Cleveland's quarterback was Brian Hoyer. Cameron caught 15 passes from Hoyer, resulting in three touchdowns and 146 yards. When Hoyer exited the team's Week 5 tilt against the Bills, Cameron's decline in production began.

As it stands, Hoyer is still considered Cleveland's starting quarterback, which is good news for Cameron given their success together over the short stretch. If Manziel wins the job, though, Cameron could still experience similar success.

Manziel's college career was helped greatly by the presence of Mike Evans, who should make in impact for the Buccaneers this season. Evans is considered one of the most gifted receivers in this draft class, but his combine stats are quite comparable to Cameron's from 2011.

40-yd DashBench PressVertical3-Cone Drill20-yd Shuttle60-yd Shuttle
Jordan Cameron4.59 sec23 reps37.5”6.82 sec4.03 sec11.56 sec
Mike Evans4.53 sec12 reps37.0”7.08 sec4.26 sec11.58 sec

During his combine days, Cameron was listed at 6' 5", 254 pounds; Evans was listed as 6' 5", 231 pounds. Cameron had and still has the edge in bulk, but the two players possess many similar results (with an edge to Cameron in all but the 40-yard dash).

It'll be interesting to see whether the Browns choose Hoyer or Manziel to start, but Cameron should be primed for his role in the offense with Gordon's suspension.

Aside from Gordon, the receiving corps looks bleak. Davone Bess, who is no longer with the Browns, caught 41 passes last season on 86 targets, resulting in a Target NEP of -4.44 and a Reception NEP per Target of 0.39. Teammate Greg Little was worse. Little accounted for 41 receptions on 99 targets, a catch rate of just 41.41%. Little's Target NEP was a dreadful -37.70 for the season, and his Reception NEP per target was 0.31, worse than Bess'.

Of the 72 receivers who caught at least 39 passes last season, Little ranked 70th in Reception NEP (30.49), while Bess ranked 66th (33.51). While both ranked near the bottom, each barely eked past the 39-reception threshold. However, the target stats are even worse. Bess's Target NEP - which measures the number of points added by a player on all targets - ranked 68th in the bunch. Little ranked dead last. By how much? Well, Stevie Johnson ranked 71st. His Target NEP was -13.22, more than 25 points better than Little.

Cleveland's addition of Nate Burleson is another reason I chose to examine the receivers with at least 39 catches. Burleson caught 39 of them in his nine games with the Lions last season, and his Target NEP of 12.36 ranked 54th out of 72, while his Reception NEP of 31.66 ranked 68th.

Reception NEPRankTarget NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank
Davone Bess33.5166th-4.4468th0.3969th
Greg Little30.4970th-37.7072nd0.3172nd
Nate Burleson31.6668th12.3654th0.5857th

All rankings among 72 receivers with at least 39 catches last year.

Even with the departure of Bess, the Browns decided not to draft a wide receiver but instead bolstered the rest of the team. Burleson has already fractured his left arm in minicamp, but this time it wasn't while saving his pizza. If his left arm continues to be fragile, then the Browns will be without their best hope of a number one wide receiver.

Aside from Burleson and Little, the Browns have a slew of inexperienced receivers, tight ends, and running backs. And that's what they're currently working with as they inch closer to the start of the 2014 season.

What Can We Expect?

Unfortunately, things don't look as promising for the Browns as they did after the first round of the draft. If Gordon does miss the entire season (or even a significant portion), then the Browns take a mighty hit. Even with Gordon and Cameron, Cleveland finished just 22nd in Adjusted Passing NEP per play (-0.04) and 25th in Adjusted NEP per play (-0.03) a season ago.

The arrival of Ben Tate might open up space if he can establish himself on the ground, but don't expect him to be effective catching the ball, as Tate ranked last in both Target NEP (-12.28) and Reception NEP (0.27) among the 47 backs with at least 20 receptions last season. Terrance West, a big back from Towson drafted in the third round this year, has shown good hands during his college career and could be relied upon, but he won't be able to make up for Gordon.

Cleveland has to make a move either by trade or free agency to help whichever young quarterback is declared the starter heading into the season because Cameron is the only above average pass-catcher on the roster aside from Gordon.

The Browns have improved their roster overall through the draft, selecting two cornerbacks (Gilbert and Pierre Desir), Manziel, an offensive tackle (Joel Bitonio), an outside linebacker (Christian Kirksey), and a running back (West). And as a result, Cleveland's future will likely be contingent on this draft class - Manziel, Gilbert, and Bitonio could become franchise players along with Gordon, Cameron, Joe Haden, and Joe Thomas. But in the short-term, taking Bitonio over wide receivers Marqise Lee and Jordan Matthews might result in another disappointing ride for the Browns in 2014.