One of the enduring images of the Browns' expansion era is a shot of a fan entering Cleveland Browns Stadium wearing an altered Tim Couch jersey. Couch's nameplate is scratched off and replaced with the infamous litany of quarterbacks who have followed the former first overall draft pick. Four expended Sharpies later, a similar list can be comprised of the Browns' scattered assortment of wide receiving talent during this same period.
A dozen wide receivers have been drafted by the Browns since the team's return in 1999, with two more coming in the form of North Carolina's Greg Little and USC's Jordan Cameron this past April. The results have been less than spectacular. Thousand-yard receiving seasons by Kevin Johnson, Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards have been the highlights of the expansion era – a time framed within a league-wide passing renaissance. In terms of actual receptions, only Johnson, Edwards and Dennis Northcutt hold top twenty spots among the team's list of all-time pass receivers.
Heading into 2011, the Browns wide receiving corps feature 2009 draft picks Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie, along with Cribbs and 2010 rookie Carlton Mitchell. Although new Browns' coach Pat Shurmur has publicly declared that Little could become the team's top receiver, any real progression in the team's wideout production has to be grounded in reality. Considering the immense challenges that rookie receivers face entering the league, improvement will likely have to be marked by either Massaquoi or Robiskie experiencing the sometimes mythical third-year wide receiver leap.
Recent history has suggested that because of the complexity of NFL offenses, wide receivers need two years of development before reaching their full potential. In most cases, NFL wideouts need this time to redefine their mechanical route-running and grasp the concepts involved in playing multiple spots on the field. Or, in the Browns' particular case, third-year wide receivers also traditionally have to adjust to constant coaching and scheme changes.
During the Browns' expansion era, two of the top receiving performances came during 2001 and 2007. Johnson's third season produced totals of 84 catches for 1097 yards, while Edwards contributed 80 catches, 1289 yards and 16 touchdowns. In a hopeful parallel to the Browns' coming shift to a West Coast offense, both Johnson and Edwards' best production came in their third seasons, each of which was played in a new offensive scheme.
Both Massaquoi and Robiskie will adjust to Shurmur's new offense, which is a bit of a departure from former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Daboll's offense during the past two seasons was predicated on receivers running more vertical routes and trying to gain separation from defenders. The idea was to create mismatches along the seams of the field. Shurmur's offense during his time as St. Louis' offensive coordinator was based on more quick, horizontal routes designed to take advantage of spacing across the field.
On paper, both Massaquoi and Robiskie should benefit from this scheme change, particularly since neither receiver is adept at playing the physical style demanded by Daboll. Collectively, the Browns' offense under Daboll suffered from occasional breakdowns in pass protection, which also affected the prospects of both wideouts having the time to get open. Combine these factors with the constant shuffling of quarterbacks over the past two seasons and both Massaquoi and Robiskie's stalled development is easily explained.
Outside of Cleveland, several receivers have experienced the sudden progression of a third-year leap. A short list of top-tier NFL receivers who flourished in their third seasons includes Santana Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith, Lee Evans, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Sidney Rice and Mario Manningham.
However, it's significant to note that all of the above receivers could be deemed as more game-changing, or at least field-stretching types of talents. In the specific cases of Massaquoi and Robiskie, their games are not defined by either blazing speed or the ability to make physical plays downfield. In this sense, the shift to Shurmur's offense couldn't have come at a better time for both third-year players.
But then again, perhaps the entire idea of a third-year leap is a bit of a stretch as it relates to the 2011 Browns. Based on the numbers generated by receivers over the past two years in St. Louis, it is evident that a Shurmur offense is predicated on spreading the ball around. Last year's Ram passing offense – sparked by the arrival of Sam Bradford – generated 3500 yards, but only two receivers, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, contributed more than 600 yards.
In 2011, the Browns' offense could resemble last season's Ram attack in terms of sheer volume. Without the prototypical "number one" wideout currently on the roster, both Massaquoi and Robiskie should share opportunities with the ultra-reliable Ben Watson and an emerging pass catcher in Peyton Hillis. In four and five-wide sets, the likes of Evan Moore, Josh Cribbs and potentially Mitchell, Little and Cameron will also get an opportunity to contribute.
In an offense that will ultimately generate more efficient passes than big plays, any sort of "leap" could be measured in more modest terms. For Massaquoi, he is trying to improve on two-year totals of 34 and 36 receptions, while Robiskie is progressing from totals of 7 to 29 catches. Again, to cite Shurmur's 2010 offense, Bradford attempted 590 passes while playing for a more conservative head coach. Shurmur, who will be running the entire show in Cleveland in addition to calling the offensive plays, could extend these numbers even further.