For a fleeting moment last April, there was a possibility that the Browns could have landed either A.J. Green or Julio Jones. As such, the OBR.com and various other Browns outlets spent an inordinate time researching both players and wide receivers in general – only to watch Tom Heckert execute a blockbuster trade with the Falcons and then pick Phil Taylor.
After another season of dismal pass production in Cleveland, the Browns are yet again near the top of the draft and poised to add to what could be the team's weakest position. Or, this could again mean that reviewing the draft's top wide receiver prospects is another exercise in futility. But at the least, the following research can be salvaged.
"The 40 first-round picks since 2001 have combined to play 199 seasons in the NFL. Only 41 of those 199 seasons (20.6 percent) saw the receiver eclipse 1,000 receiving yards. Only 17 of the 40 receivers have registered a 1,000-yard season and just nine have done it more than once."
Not exactly calming words considering how limited the Browns are at wide receiver. However, the truth is that for every A.J. Green, there is a Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn Jr., Darrius Heyward Bey or Michael Crabtree lurking. Perhaps there is no other position in the NFL other than quarterback that is a riskier first round bet than wide receiver.
But then again, A.J. Green is already close to an elite talent.
Yet, Justin Blackmon is no A.J. Green.
He's also not Dez Bryant – which is another lazy comparison being thrown around by interested draft parties. In fact, most of the projected first round wide receiver talent has been subjected to similar labels. Based on his size and speed, Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill is the new Demaryius Thomas, Kendall Wright is simply a product of Robert Griffin III's Heisman heroics and Michael Floyd is a composite of every diva wideout who has paraded through the NFL.
Of course, it's never that simple.
Despite the previous disclaimer, Blackmon is still a talented player. Blackmon's strength is just that – he is a physical wide receiver who uses leverage to make plays. Because he can create space from smaller defenders, Blackmon was able to make big downfield plays. The concern in the NFL though will be whether Blackmon's strength advantage will be negated. The disparity between NFL cornerbacks and those of the Big 12 is severe.
Still, Blackmon could become a presence in the NFL – perhaps in a mold similar to Anquan Boldin. In potentially joining the Browns, Blackmon and 2011 rookie Greg Little would form a physically imposing duo. However, the question now becomes is Blackmon worth the fourth overall pick in what will be a monumental draft for the Browns?
Like Blackmon, Floyd is a physical wide receiver and could excel in a more traditional West Coast offense. Floyd, who is bigger than Blackmon, played every receiver spot at Notre Dame and exhibited similar abilities to break away from defenders. However, like Blackmon, Floyd doesn't have top end NFL speed and has relied more on his strength to make plays.
Again, Floyd's NFL prospects are hard to define since strength defines his game. In some respects, Floyd could turn into a newer version of Seattle's Mike Williams – becoming a pseudo tight end/wide receiver hybrid. Throw in a sordid injury and off-field history and Floyd could be either a dynamic talent or a major bust.
In an odd parallel, Hill can thank Dick LeBeau for his soaring draft stock. Because of the Steelers' zero cover blunder that allowed DeMaryius Thomas to become a star in January, many draft analysts have assigned a similar fate to Hill. Based on his similar size, strength and familiarity in Georgia Tech's triple option offense – along with an excellent Scouting Combine workout – Hill should be a first round selection.
However, Hill is an incredibly raw prospect known more for his blocking than receiving skills. At Georgia Tech, Hill basically ran elementary downfield and crossing routes, which will make for a difficult professional transition. In Cleveland, Hill could be even more lost considering the complexity of the West Coast offense.
Here's another reality of the NFL draft process. After posting what was considered a disappointing 4.6 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, Baylor's Wright contended that "all he worked on…was my 40 starts." A month later, Wright's time improved to 4.4, which can only mean that once again he is considered "fast" in the eyes of draft analysts.
It's a shame that a player like Wright has had to focus solely on his track skills, yet the reality and perceptions of the draft demand such devotion. Anyway, Wright is a very talented player – in addition to being one of the draft's fastest ones. Wright has decent hands, runs solid routes and is aggressive. However, Wright's size could prevent him from becoming a true number one wideout. Instead, Wright could become another in a growing line of speedy slot receivers that includes Victor Cruz and Wes Welker.
Of course history could repeat itself in a few weeks. Another Heckert trade could be in the offering which would drop the Browns out of the draft's top five. In such a scenario, the Browns could wait until the second round to find a wide receiver – similar to what happened in 2011. While this prospect is not as exciting, it's worth noting that both Little and Baltimore's Torrey Smith were solid second round picks last April.
Of the players who could fall into the second round, Sanu could be considered a steal. While not as physical as the first day talent, Sanu is a smooth runner and receiver who has experience in Rutgers' pro style offense. Another victim of a poor Scouting Combine performance, Sanu is an interesting option for the Browns at the top of the second round.
Other poor Combine performances by LSU's Randle and South Carolina's Jeffery could also benefit the Browns in the second round. Both have impressive size and have been tested by players in the cornerback-rich SEC. Randle in particular could be helpful for the Browns in shorter spaces and in the red zone. Of the two, Randle is more consistent than Jeffery, who combines dramatic catches with drops. Wisconsin's Toon is comparable in terms of size and strength, but has also suffered from dropped passes.
What used to be a throwaway position has now become a vital part of successful NFL offenses. No longer relegated to simple check downs, slot receivers have morphed into downfield threats for several NFL teams. In Cleveland, such a notion is theoretical, as the Browns' offense simply needs players who can hold onto the ball. Adding speed and playmaking ability to the equation is a bonus. All four of the above players have nice quickness and would be an upgrade over the Browns' 2011 receivers.
Or in Pat Shurmur's nascent offense, they would simply become check down options.
Last year, many draft analysts think the Browns drafted the fastest player in the draft in cornerback Buster Skrine. Perhaps this year, another diminutive small school talent could be added in Hilton. Hilton ran a reported 4.3 at his Pro Day workout and proved to be a productive college talent. Anyone who has watched the Browns over the past decade knows that adding speed is a long overdue priority.