BEREA, Ohio -- How did the Cleveland Browns receiver position become so needy?
Several factors came into play, including bad luck and (depending on your point of view) either (A) bad planning or (B) some players not coming through.
The team now lines up with a rookie quarterback trying to establish himself by throwing to one experienced receiver, Jarvis Landry. It's quite a change from the original plans, which saw Landry as the No. 2 receiver opposite Josh Gordon amid a group that would allow rookie Antonio Callaway to develop and a former first-round pick (Corey Coleman) to finally reach his potential.
The group that will join Baker Mayfield on the field this Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers includes Landry, Callaway, Damion Ratley (a sixth-round pick who saw his first significant action in Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Chargers) and Breshad Perriman, just signed on Saturday.
The Browns do not have a receiver in the top 25 in receiving yards or the top 20 in average yards per catch. No receiver has more than one touchdown for the season. It led coach Hue Jackson to say Monday: "We'd like to have more."
How did this all happen? In increments:
Coleman turned into a bust. Coleman was the first first-round pick of the Sashi Brown era, the guy the team acquired when it traded down from the spot that could have been Carson Wentz. Coleman was oft-injured, struggled with precision on routes and had issues catching the ball. But first-round picks get a lot of leeway, so the Browns patiently waited for him. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley made Coleman the frequent object of his ire and attention in camp. Eventually, Coleman complained to Jackson about running second team; he was traded to the Buffalo Bills a few days later. He's now out of the NFL.
Gordon was traded. The Browns did everything over the years -- and this season -- to make it work with Gordon. Tantalized by his talent, they welcomed him back after he missed 10 games in 2017. They worked with him in the offseason. They stood by him when he left for most of training camp. They gushed when he returned, and they even protected him by not playing him in the final two games of preseason. But when Gordon showed up late for a walk-through the day before the second game of the season at the New Orleans Saints, the Browns had had enough -- especially because Gordon hurt his hamstring the night before doing a workout/photo shoot in the team's indoor facility. The Browns announced they would be releasing the guy who had been slated to start opposite Landry, then traded him to the New England Patriots.
Callaway has been inconsistent. The Browns got talent when they drafted Callaway in the fourth round, but they also got a guy who didn't play a down at Florida in 2017 for various disciplinary reasons. No matter, the Browns threw Callaway in the mix as Gordon's replacement. He played 81 percent of the snaps at New Orleans, 90 percent against the New York Jets and "only" 70 percent against the Oakland Raiders because he twisted his knee before overtime. The Browns determined they were asking too much of him, and they cut him back against the Baltimore Ravens. That seemed to work, but the guy who replaced him as the starter was injured, and Callaway was back to 97 percent of the snaps against the Chargers. The Browns know they're asking too much from a guy who isn't precise with his routes and who has had some big drops. But they don't know what better options they have.
Rashard Higgins got hurt. Higgins was one player who showed growth from the get-go. He had a strong camp and a strong preseason, and he was having a strong game against Baltimore in an increased role. But he sprained his MCL blocking for David Njoku and missed the last game. He will miss the next game, as well. The ripple effect of his injury was to return Callaway to the demanding spot he was in prior to Higgins being given a chance.
Derrick Willies got hurt. Willies stepped in for Higgins after his injury against Baltimore and played well. The Browns did not add anyone after Higgins' injury in part because they liked what Willies did. But in Friday's practice, Willies laid out for a ball, landed awkwardly and broke his collarbone.
Rod Streater got hurt. Streater was signed when Gordon was traded. Expectations were minimal, but he was getting more opportunity. Streater broke a bone in his neck covering a punt against the Chargers, and he is lost for the season. While expectations for Higgins, Willies and Streater were modest, losing all three in a few days was an unfortunate stretch.
Ratley was given a chance. The sixth-round pick had hardly played, but the Browns had no choice but to put him on the field after injuries to Streater and Willies. Ratley missed a first-half touchdown pass against the Chargers, but he played well after -- with six receptions for 82 yards. The situation meant he went from hardly playing to 65 snaps (88 percent) on offense to go with 13 on special teams.
Dez Bryant asked for too much money. The Browns brought Bryant in for a visit during training camp, but he didn't sign. Reports had him seeking $10 million for one season, which was too rich for the Browns. And maybe too rich for too many other teams; Bryant remains unsigned.
Perriman was signed. Perriman was the first draft pick in Ravens history released before his rookie contract expired. The Browns added him after Willies was injured. With Streater also out, Perriman is the fourth receiver on a team that uses four receivers a lot.
Landry became the only experienced player on the field. The Browns showed their belief in him when they gave him a $75.5 million contract before the season. Landry said Monday he's being double-covered on almost every key situation -- red zone, third downs. He has only caught 11 of the 29 passes Mayfield has thrown him in his three starts, and in total, has caught 51 percent of the passes thrown his way -- a career low.
Drops have plagued the entire group. According to ESPN Stats and Information data, Landry ranks tied for third in the league in dropped passes with five, a shock given the way he caught the ball in preseason. It's not just a Landry issue, though. The entire receiving group -- including backs -- caught less than half the passes thrown on Sunday (22-of-46). ESPN Stats and Information research indicates that four of the top 16 players in the league in drop percentage (drops per target) are Browns, and three of the top seven in terms of numbers of drops are Browns (Njoku with six, Landry with rive, Callaway with four). Callaway and Ratley both missed potential touchdown catches on Sunday.
Jarvis Landry and Joel Bitonio promise the loss to the Chargers was
Jarvis Landry and Joel Bitonio promise the loss to the Chargers was just a bad day, not an example of the team getting ahead of itself after getting to .500. "We don't want to lay another egg like that," Bitonio said. Video by Pat McManamon
Immediate solutions are not readily found. Duke Johnson Jr. is an option, but Johnson is at his best as a receiver out of the backfield, not as a receiver lined up outside. A trade is an option, but there are a few teams that need receivers, so a trade isn't a given. The free-agent option isn't appealing; Perriman lasted four days with the Washington Redskins after the Ravens released him, and he's now a Brown.
While answers aren't easy, the path to this point is clear.
Unmet hopes for Coleman and Gordon made the position thin. Injuries depleted the position further. Performance and production from those remaining have not met expectations.
The challenge for a young quarterback? Significant.