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In Cleveland, hope dies last

Archive for the category “wide receivers”

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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Can We Get Reception Here?

As the Browns reach the end of the first week of training camp, one of the biggest questions facing the team is the state of the passing game, both at quarterback and, even more importantly, at wide receiver.

Some are calling the Browns receivers the worst in the league. It’s hard to tell, though, just how good the receivers are, or can be, because they were paired last year with Derek Anderson (a big-armed QB who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, according to ESPN) and Brady Quinn (he of the tentative pocket presence and unwillingness to stretch the field, according to ESPN).

And therein lies the rub: were the receivers bad last year because the quarterbacks were horrid, or did the QBs suffer because Mohamed Massaquoi (34 catches), Brian Robiskie (seven catches) and company are just not that good?

We may not find out this season, either, which could prove problematic. If new quarterback Jake Delhomme struggles the way he did at the end of his tenure in Carolina, most fans will say that he’s washed up. But he may only be as good as the people he has to work with and what if what he has to work with is a group of No. 4 wide receivers?

Go back to Derek Anderson for a minute. When he had his big year in 2007, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius were his primary targets. Those guys were able to grab all those passes that were over their heads, three yards behind them or at their feet, making Anderson look good.

The next year, Jurevicius was out with an injury, Edwards forgot how to catch the ball and Winslow was hurt and only played 10 games. Anderson – and Browns fans – suffered because of it.

I was listening to Sirius NFL’s Tim Ryan and Pat Kirwan when they were at Browns camp on Thursday. Kirwan was talking about how none of the Browns receivers had the extra gear needed to get separation on a defensive back and give the quarterback an opportunity to drop the ball in.

That’s going to be a problem this year, even with the Browns hopefully committing to the run. You have to expect that defenses will be stacking the box to stop the Browns running game, and if they don’t have to worry about anyone stretching the field, things could get dicey.

It’s not all bad though, as Kirwan had some positive things to say about the Browns in his NFL.com column, writing that:

“Delhomme, a free-agent acquisition from Carolina, believes return specialist Josh Cribbs has the ability to be a “Steve Smith-type receiver” and was quick to point out the strong hands Cribbs has to snatch the ball. Cribbs is so explosive after the catch, and he will get a lot more balls thrown his way than last year when he had just 20 receptions.”

“Delhomme said he really likes Brian Robiskie, and could see the second-year wideout having a big season. He also is intrigued by a hybrid player, Evan Moore, who is listed as a tight end but is more of a big wide receiver in the mold of Joe Jurevicius.”

“Credit goes to (Mike) Holmgren, who watched the Browns finish with a flurry of four straight victories, a stretch that convinced Holmgren that (Eric) Mangini had not lost the team and kept the players motivated in an otherwise forgetful season. Benefits of Holmgren’s first big decision is evident around training camp; the construction of a winning attitude, for one, can be seen within the franchise, from the coaches down to the players and all of the support staff.”

“The Browns have put second-round pick T.J. Ward right into the starting lineup. He showed in Thursday’s team scrimmage that he likes getting up in the box and being aggressive against the run. (Scott) Fujita said Ward is special.”

Clearly, while the situation isn’t ideal, things could be worse and there is reason for hope. We’ll find out more a week from today when the Browns open the exhibition season against Green Bay.

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Sure he is.

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A great read on what NFL training camps are really like.

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