Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

The Third-Year Wide Receiver

There’s a growing statistical trend in the NFL that wide receivers have their breakout season in Year 3 because that is when they adjust to the speed of the game and fully understand how to read defenses and run routes.

In recent years, Greg Jennings (2008), Braylon Edwards (2007) and Roddy White (2007) all had statistical leaps in their third season. Carolina’s Steve Smith (2003), Chad Ochocinco (2003) and Terrell Owens (1998) are also solid examples.

“You’re buckling down and learning the playbook and just learning how to play the wide receiver position,” White said in an interview at CBS Sports.com. “When you first get in the league you just use your athletic ability, but everybody is athletic. Once you start studying and use your technique and things like that, then the game becomes a whole lot easier and slows down. That’s when you start making plays.”

If that trend holds true this season, it could be very good news for the Cleveland Browns because Josh Cribbs is entering what we can call his third season as a wide receiver.

Cribbs was involved on the fringes of the Browns offense his first few years, so for this argument we’re going to count 2005-08 as his “first” year. During that time he totaled 16 catches; last year he topped that four-year total by pulling in 20 passes as he continued his maturation as a receiver.

Compare those numbers to the Saints’ Robert Meachem, who in his first two years totaled 12 catches for 289 yards. Last year he pulled in 45 passes for 722 yards and nine touchdowns.

It’s not reasonable to expect Cribbs to put up those kind of numbers, especially since the Browns don’t have a high-powered offense like the Saints. But if Cribbs’ understanding of the position catches up with his physical skills, is it that hard to see him pulling in 30-40 receptions this year? Especially with the improvement at the quarterback position?

The coaching staff has noticed, with head coach Eric Mangini saying in published reports that “the thing about Josh that we can’t look past is any time he gets the ball, regardless of what distance he gets it at, he is a vertical threat because it’s Josh with the ball in his hands in space. It just goes from a catch to a kick return.”

Mangini also credited Cribbs with improving his blocking and route running, which supports the trend of third-year receivers having a breakout season.

Cribbs has eight receptions in the past two preseason games, including a major-league catch along the sideline against Detroit. If he can become a reliable option as the team’s No. 3 receiver, that’s just another viable piece of the puzzle for an improving offense.

Opposing teams already have to fear Cribbs in the return game. Just think what it will mean for the offense if they have to start worrying about him in the passing game as well.

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