Losing a pass catcher who led the league in receiving yards during his second season is crushing. That feeling of hopelessness gets worse when the total yards for said receiver finished at 1,646, an average of 117.6 per game. And worse still when this now barred individual became the first receiver in league history to record back-to-back games with over 200 yards.
No, Josh Gordon can’t be replaced. That’s not something the Cleveland Browns can dare to dream about right now, because no roster can duplicate that production. The pain grows further with the quarterback depth chart showing a journeyman with four career starts, and a raw, untamed rookie behind him.
But let’s stop right there. The brave sports souls of Cleveland have been through enough sorrow. Sure, it’s swell that LeBron James is back now and Kevin Love joined him. But a city that hasn’t celebrated a championship in any sport since 1964 needs more hope than that after Gordon’s year-long suspension was upheld yesterday following an appeal.
At minimum, they need to believe a franchise that has finished a season over .500 only once since returning to the league can remain competitive this year, even without Gordon. Remember these reasons for faith, Dawg Pound, and hold them tight.
The Browns can keep games close, and control the air
Shift the focus to the other side of the ball. The Browns added Karlos Dansby and his effectiveness against the pass (19 passes defensed last year and four interceptions) to a pass defense that was already ranked third last year with only 6.2 yards allowed per attempt.
Donte Whitner’s hard-hitting presence is also aboard. He excelled in pass coverage too during his final season in San Francisco, allowing an opposing passer rating of only 66.8 on throws targeting him, according to Pro Football Focus.
They join a unit anchored by Joe Haden, who shuts down half the field. Despite being asked to soldier through a coverage gauntlet last year that included keeping up with Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green (twice), Torrey Smith (twice), Mike Wallace, and Antonio Brown, Haden still didn’t give up a 100-yard game, limiting the receiver opposite him to less than 50 yards 11 times.
In a passing league where offenses set up long passes with short passes and then pass some more, the Browns can control the air, especially with Buster Skrine healthy and first-round pick Justin Gilbert added.
And if you’re consistently doing that, Sunday afternoons when the scoreboard is out of reach will be limited.
There’s power in the backfield, and along the offensive line
Powered by Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, the Browns have one of the league’s best offensive lines. That strength has grown now with second-round pick Joel Bitonio inserted.
Combined the five large houses up front are the ideal fit for Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme that demands mobility from those attempting to open up long stretches of green grass. Once that’s done, a tandem of human hammers takes over.
Ben Tate is familiar with Shanahan’s system from their time together in Houston, and can grind away with his surprising, slashing outside speed for a 220 pounder. Over a three-year career he’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Not breaking has been a problem for Tate, repeatedly battling hamstring and ankle problems. That concern has been addressed, because behind him is the also hulking Terrance West (225 pounds).
Offensively the focus will shift to the ground without Gordon, where a collection of large bodies can bring the hurt and move the ball through brute force.
Jordan Cameron will be fed footballs
When passing happens (or has to happen), the lack of a downfield option will be glaring. Miles Austin may actually have something left if his hamstrings don’t combust, and Andrew Hawkins is a vastly underrated slot man in space. But they can’t match Gordon’s deep burning. No one can.
Instead, the passing focus can move to intermediate routes, and to winning up the middle. It can shift to Jordan Cameron, the latest tight end who isn’t a tight end at all, and is instead a pass catcher (just check his Twitter bio).
Cameron can high point the ball with ease, and win contested catches. That’s how he finished with 917 receiving yards last year, second most among tight ends in only his third season, and his first as a featured piece of the offense. It was a season when he led his position peers in routes run with 622, while being targeted 118 times.
Expect both of those numbers to rise, with Shanahan’s run-heavy, slogging offense opening space for Cameron up the middle.