Did the Cleveland Browns Make a Mistake by Passing on Wide Receivers in the 2014 NFL Draft?
The Cleveland Browns wide receiver situation might be one of the craziest in recent memory, as the team entered the offseason with a seemingly promising superstar in Josh Gordon, but no quarterback to throw to him. Once the draft arrived, the Browns got their quarterback in Jonny Manziel, but promptly lost Josh Gordon to a yet-to-be-specifically-defined suspension.
Curiously, Cleveland then went through the rest of the draft without addressing the wide receiver position, opting instead to bring in veterans Miles Austin and Earl Bennett to bolster the ranks, and letting go of the horrible Greg Little, who you can read more about here. They also added Nate Burleson, who's already injured, and 5'7'' Andrew Hawkins, who figures to operate out of the slot.
So with Burleson sidelined and Gordon in Roger Goodell's doghouse, Austin and Bennett emerge as the top two options for whoever starts at quarterback in Cleveland. What can Browns fans expect from their new offensive weapons?
Miles Austin was one of the most productive receivers in the NFL in 2009 and 2010, earning two Pro Bowl selections for a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. Since then, he's struggled to stay healthy, and has seen his production and efficiency drop. He's started only 33 of 48 games since the start of the 2011 season, and combined for 13 touchdowns and just under 1,800 yards in that time. A look at numberFire's advanced metrics reveals an underlying decline in efficiency to go along with the obvious health concerns.
Using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can learn more about here, we can determine just how much of an impact Austin has had on the Dallas offense over the past few years. In 2009 and 2010, Austin posted career bests in Reception NEP (the expected points earned for his team on passes he caught), but 2010 was not as efficient of a season for the Dallas receiver. He saw a drop in per target efficiency, highlighted by a more than 7% drop in catch rate, or amount of receptions compared against the number of targets.
This, however, was also the season Tony Romo sat out most of the year due to injury, and Austin rebounded with a more efficient 2011. His catch rate remained lower than it was during his breakout 2009 campaign, however, and his per target numbers were not on par with that incredible first Pro Bowl season. The 2012 season brought even lower numbers in terms of per target Reception NEP and catch rate, while 2013 saw Austin earn career lows in nearly every metric we have.
So with a healthy Tony Romo, Austin still saw the beginning of a decline that coincided with a rash of hamstring injuries that have forced him to sit out more than a dozen games over the past few seasons. Even if he's healthy enough to play, it's not clear if he'll ever return to the heights of his 2009 season ever again, and certainly doesn't seem likely to do so with a quarterback less efficient and capable than the underrated Romo.
Bennett has never been a leading star in his years in Chicago, seeing a career high 88 targets in 2009. Since then, his role has decreased, and his production has been mediocre at best. Bennett finished in the middle of the pack among receivers with 20 to 40 receptions in Reception NEP per target in 2013, and was third-from-last in Success Rate (which determines how often a player earns positive NEP for himself and his team).
So Bennett wasn't producing on a per target basis, and wasn't consistently helping his team move the chains on offense, despite posting decent numbers production-wise. These mediocre NEP numbers are consistent with career averages for Bennett, who has posted a per target Reception NEP between .60 and .75 every season for his entire career (for reference, at his best, Miles Austin posted per target numbers over .8, with a career high of 1.27).
Bennett is, then, thoroughly mediocre, no matter if he's seeing 70 or more targets, to only 43 as he did last year. His Success Rate did take a big drop in 2013, and figures to rebound in the future, but otherwise he is the definition of average, and even an inconsistent quarterback situation in Chicago with an injury-prone Jay Cutler in and out of the lineup didn't sway him from his average metrics.
Are the Browns Set Up for More Sadness?
If Cleveland's rationale for passing on receivers in the 2014 Draft was feeling confident in Burleson, Austin and Bennett to shoulder the offense from the receiver position, then they made a mistake. Austin is declining due to consistent injury issues, Bennett is consistently average, and Burleson is just as mediocre as Bennett, but with more injury concerns.
Gordon is the superstar on offense, and will assume the role of top gun at receiver as soon as he's reinstated to the NFL. But until then, it doesn't matter who lines up at quarterback, as the Browns don't have good targets at receiver to throw to. They upgraded from the awful Greg Little by adding Bennett and Austin, but they still don't have a reliable number one at the position with Gordon away.
All in all, this is a bad situation for the average Brian Hoyer or rookie Manziel to step into in 2014, as there's no weapons, no running game to speak of, and only a rising star at tight end in Jordan Cameron who figures to get most of the defense's attention. Passing on the opportunity to take promising rookies to rely on average veterans may be yet another reason why the Factory of Sadness continues to churn out disappointment for fans of the Browns.