It’s no secret the Browns did not add a marquee free agent wide receiver in the off-season. In fact, they didn’t even add a mid-level free agent.
Nor did they use one of their top three picks to add a receiver. They did add wide receiver Travis Benjamin, a speeder out of Miami Fla. in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The question that begs to be asked is why would the Browns not show any sense of urgency in upgrading the receiving position?
It is becoming clear the Browns’ brain trust has enough confidence that Greg Little will become the team’s No. 1 receiver—at least for this season.
Only time will tell if he becomes the Browns long term top receiver.
Browns fans have clamored for additions and upgrades to the receiving corps since before the 2011 season and the only notable addition last season was Little, taken in the second round.
Little, who just turned 23 on May 30, officially became a starter after the first four games of his rookie season. He responded with 61 receptions for 709 yards and two touchdowns, including a season long 76-yard score against the Cardinals in December. Little was second in the AFC among rookies only to the Bengals’ A.J. Green, who had 65 receptions.
Overall, Little ranked 17th in the AFC in receptions. His 709 yards was the fourth highest in Browns history among rookies. His reception totals were second best only to Kevin Johnson’s 66 grabs in 1999. Little had six receptions in three games, with his high being 131 yards against the Cardinals.
Most Browns fans feel Little can be a fine NFL receiver, but not all outside the Browns’ front office consider him a sure-fire top tier receiver. However, Little has shed 11 pounds and the Browns are hoping one year of experience will help him to become one of the top receivers in the league.
For Little, 2011 was more about feeling comfortable as a receiver and re-learning the position.
“I’ve seen him look a lot quicker, a lot more sudden,” Browns’ Head Coach Pat Shurmur said during June’s minicamp. “To this point he’s caught the ball at a much more consistent rate. He just looks like a different guy to me—a guy who’s been through it once.”
Little (6-2, 219) didn’t play his final year at North Carolina because he accepted gifts from an agent. Because he wasn’t part of the football team, he spent all of his time in the weight room trying to get stronger.
“I was in the gym so much that I gained so much weight,” Little said. “Not from sitting around, but from always wanting to pump iron, not running around as much. Just gaining muscle weight. When I went into the combine I was so jacked. They were like, ‘You got to get out of the weight room.’ “
Little worked out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami, Fla. during the offseason and changed his diet. He dropped 11 pounds without losing strength. He played at 230 pounds in his rookie season and was at 219 during minicamp.
“That’s one of the things the guys got on me about,” Little said. “If you’re not as light as you need to be, you’re not going to be as swift on the field as you need to be. I feel just as strong and even faster and feel better on my feet, as well.”
Shurmur was asked why the Browns didn’t upgrade their receiving corps.
“I think we have some guys, number one that are good players and I think they’ve had a chance to play a year in the system and to improve their game,” Shurmur said. “We’ve added some young players who have a chance to develop into good players.”
Shurmur feels improved quarterback play – likely by Brandon Weeden and a running game led by Trent Richardson – will make a big difference for the receivers.
“When you have more efficient quarterback play and efficient running game, it all plays together,” Shurmur said. “For all of those reasons, I think they will be more productive as it fits together.”
Little said the receivers noticed that the front office has confidence in him and the rest of the current corps.
“It definitely sends a message that the guys we have as receivers are who they’re confident with going into any game situation,” Little said. “That message was understood in our room. We have to take and make them look like the good guys.”
Little dropped a team high 12 passes as a rookie and has spent the off-season working on his receiving skills and his running better routes.
“I just wasn’t focusing,” Little said about last year. “I was trying to do too much. Defenses are taught to swipe at it and get it out when they can. That’s why you practice—to be perfect in a game.”
Shurmur is confident all of the receivers—including Little—will be much more sure-handed this year.
“We try to avoid saying, when a ball is dropped, ‘Hey, catch the ball,” Shurmur said. “It’s about focusing on a small point. It’s about your eyes and your fingers and catching the tip and all of those things.”
“We have an increased number of drills that we do and I think you’ll find in coaching and teaching that you get what you emphasize and we’ve emphasized it a great deal,” Shurmur said. “(Little) embraced working at it and we’re hopeful it will show up that way once we start playing for real.”
Little was advertised as a receiver who could break tackles and make big plays on short passes, skills key to the West Coast offense. That’s exactly the type of receiver Little intends to become.
“I just want to be physical and run with some assertiveness and be strong with the ball in your hand,” Little said. “Any play maker in this league has to be good running after the catch, being able to break at least one tackle.”
If Little can continue his upward ascent, the Browns very well could have found the receiver they’ve been looking for now and for the future.