Josh Gordon Is Back: What Should We Expect From Cleveland's Stud Receiver?

Josh Gordon makes his return in Week 12, but should we expect to see 2013's version?

After weeks of waiting, fantasy football owners will finally see last year's most dominating receiver, Josh Gordon, play in a meaningful football game.

Get your popcorn ready.

As we enter what has been dubbed "Josh Gordon Week", numberFire contributor Graham Barfield and I decided to dig into what to expect from the Browns' wideout. Though both of us see Gordon as a solid fantasy football play from here on out, Graham looks at things with a more optimistic lens, while I, because I'm evidently a depressing fantasy analyst, take a look at reasons why Gordon may not be such an amazing asset. Or, at the very least, why we should be hesitant to automatically dub him a top-5 or -10 wideout.

Let's get at it.

The Optimistic View

By Graham Barfield

I’m not sure you need to be reminded, but Josh Gordon is really good at football. You know all about his 87-reception, 1,646-yard, 9-touchdown season in 14 games last year. I could go on about how Josh Gordon was second only to Calvin Johnson in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) in 2013, or how he finished fourth in Target NEP with an awful group of quarterbacks.

Alas, this is a new year.

By all accounts, Josh Gordon is probably one of the most transcending wide receiver talents in all of the NFL. We’ve heard that the Browns offense has changed, and read the quotes about how the Browns GM Ray Farmer wants Gordon to “fit in” the offense.

The funny thing is, we’re forgetting that the Browns have missed Jordan Cameron for a number of games this year due to injury, and have been forced to roll with Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin at wide receiver for the first two-thirds of the season.

What are the Browns going to do? No disrespect to Hawkins and Austin, but without a consistent receiving threat, the Browns are in need of a play-making wide receiver. They need Josh Gordon.

I know two Cleveland residents who will be welcoming Josh Gordon back with open arms: Brian Hoyer and the Browns offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan.

Historically speaking, Shanahan has fed his number-one wide receiver in his offenses. Take a look at how top wide receivers have produced in Kyle Shanahan’s system when he was the offensive coordinator of the Texans (2008-2009) and Redskins (2010-2013):

Andre Johnson (2008)1617110.6911515758
Andre Johnson (2009)1617110.6910115699
Santana Moss (2010)161459.069311156
Santana Moss (2011)12957.92465844
Pierre Garcon (2012)10686.80446334
Pierre Garcon (2013)1618111.3111313465

When given a legitimate wide receiver threat like Andre Johnson or Pierre Garcon, Kyle Shanahan has made them target monsters. There's no reason to believe Josh Gordon won't excel under the new Browns offensive coordinator.

Will Gordon come down from his 11.3 targets per game in 2013? Probably. But there's no reason he can’t be a dominant force in the Browns scheme once again.

Another good sign for Josh Gordon’s prospects upon his Week 12 arrival - Brian Hoyer is throwing it deep. Hoyer’s 8.1 adjusted yards gained per pass attempt (prior to the start of Week 11) is good enough for 9th in the NFL.

And here's what’s crazy: Entering Week 11, Brian Hoyer led the league with 13.7 yards per pass completion, and he was third in the NFL with 21 pass completions 20 or more yards down the field. That’s not a joke. If Hoyer keeps throwing downfield, that obviously bodes very well for Josh Gordon.

You don’t think the Browns miss Gordon? They're 6-4, competing in the AFC North, and have been starved of a number-one receiving option. The Browns will be welcoming Josh Gordon back in Week 12, and you will be thanking him for his fantasy points if you stashed him on your bench.

The Pessimistic View

By JJ Zachariason

First and foremost, as Graham mentioned above, I think it's important to note just how good Josh Gordon is. At the end of last year, I analyzed Gordon's first two seasons, concluding that, in a very similar situation, Gordon's freshman and sophomore years were better than Calvin Johnson's.

He's that good.

My pessimistic viewpoint on Gordon isn't that he'll be some fantasy football WR3 who barely warrants a flex play each week. Gordon will ball. Gordon will do things we only see elite talents do.

But if fantasy owners are expecting the 2013 version from a production - not efficiency - standpoint, I think those fantasy owners are going to be disappointed.

Last season, Cleveland ran 731 passing plays. That was the most in the NFL. Their first two games - contests without Gordon - were pretty pass-heavy, but when Gordon was in the lineup, Cleveland ran 630 passing plays. That's 45 per game. Gordon saw 159 targets during this time, or, on a little over 25% of Cleveland's drop backs (this includes sacks), Gordon was being targeted.

Under the team's new regime, Cleveland entered Week 11 with a pass-to-run ratio that ranked lowest in the NFL (0.98), down from the 2.11 ratio they saw in 2013, which ranked second in the league. As a result, Cleveland's dropping back to pass 32.3 times per contest, which is roughly 12 fewer instances than what we saw from them a season ago.

If Gordon continues to see a similar share of looks in the offense, then we're looking at a player who's going from 11.36 targets per game to 8.08. And if we assume similar efficiency - 1.97 PPR fantasy points per target - then we're bound to see a fairly significant drop off in fantasy points scored by the wideout this season.

Clearly I'm making a few assumptions that can change as he enters the team's lineup in Week 12. The Browns' quarterback play, for instance, is better than it was a season ago. That, hypothetically, could help Gordon's situation - fewer targets is fine as long as they're better targets.

But to that point, I think we're forgetting that, despite his quarterback play a season ago, Josh Gordon was still unbelievably efficient. I mentioned his fantasy points per target numbers, and they were better than every high-volume wide receiver outside of Demaryius Thomas last year. Thomas benefited from playing in arguably the best offense of all time with a quarterback who was historic, so his effectiveness hugely stems from that. Gordon's effectiveness came from the fact that he was just really good at catching footballs.

So while Brian Hoyer's an obvious upgrade over anything Gordon saw last year (well, outside from Brian Hoyer himself), we can't simply assume Gordon will be more efficient as a result - he was already just as efficient as the elite wide receivers in the game.

Could Cleveland become more pass-happy? Sure. And I think they will. But if they do become a more pass-friendly offense, we're still assuming that Gordon is going to see a hefty portion of the team's targets. And I'm not so sure he will - at least not to the level he did a season ago.

We seem to write off Cleveland's wide receivers as "bad". Yes, they're not very good, but they're substantially better than what they were a season ago. Do we remember who the team's second- and third-best wide receivers were last season? Let me help you out: Davone Bess and Greg Little. The former is now a free agent, while the latter has already been released by the Raiders and signed by the Bengals since the Browns got rid of him in May.

Neither wide receiver hit a Reception NEP total last year above 33.51. Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins hit this mark after Week 10, while Travis Benjamin's Reception NEP score was a nice 29.05 entering this week's game against Houston. All three players have bee far more effective than Bess and Little were on a per target basis, too.

Jordan Cameron's injury will force more looks Gordon's way, sure, but let's not understate the fact that Cleveland's wide receivers are much better in 2014 than they were in 2013.

All in all, I think Gordon's still going to produce, but I worry about having WR1 expectations for him in fantasy. In order for him to come close to keeping up his pace, he'll need to stay as efficient as he was last year (which is no guarantee considering he hasn't played football all year), the Browns will need to increase the number of passing plays they run, and he'll need to continue to see a good portion of his quarterback's targets. That can all certainly happen, but I have my doubts.