Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/2/12
Since the newest version of the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL for the 1999 season the franchise has made just one trip to the playoffs.

While there has been plenty of blame to go around…six different head coaches in 13 seasons, a slew of high draft pick busts, playing in the most consistently tough division in the NFL, etc. … the dismal performance of the Browns’ wide receiver corps has to be at or near the top of the list when looking at why the franchise seems to be perpetually stuck in neutral.

The raw numbers are ugly. Since the Browns’ return in 1999 the team has boasted just three seasons with a wide receiver breaking the 1,000-yard plateau; Kevin Johnson with 1,097 yards in 2001, Antonio Bryant with 1,009 yards in 2005 and Braylon Edwards with 1,289 yards in 2007. In these 13 seasons the average leading Browns wide receiver caught 60 passes for 824 yards (13.7 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.

In 2000 Cleveland wideouts caught just three touchdown passes combined. In 2008 that number was just five and two seasons ago, in 2010, they combined for just six touchdown receptions.

The franchise has fallen short when it comes to evaluating wide receiver talent at the collegiate level. Some of the biggest busts since the 1999 season have been receivers, including Quincy Morgan (second round, 33rd overall out of Kansas State in 2001), Andre’ Davis (second round, 47th overall out of Virginia Tech in 2002), Travis Wilson (third round, 78th overall out of Oklahoma in 2006) and Brian Robiskie (second round, 36th overall in 2009).

Braylon Edwards, who the Browns selected third overall out of Michigan in the 2005 Draft, could also be listed among the busts. He had some nice years with Cleveland, but a third overall pick had better be an impact player. Other than in 2007 when he caught 16 touchdown passes, Edwards’ tenure in Cleveland will be remembered for numerous drops and personality problems on and off the field.

Simply put, the Browns have had nothing of significance out wide on offense since coming back to the NFL. But that might all be changing.

There is a new era of optimism in Berea, Ohio where the Browns hold their training camp at the team’s practice facility. A new breed of receivers is geared to put the demons to rest. They are not household names or highly-touted phenoms … they are a group that has shown a patient confidence and cool professionalism as the team prepares for the 2012 season.

Greg Little’s path to the NFL hasn’t been smooth. He was ruled ineligible for his senior season at North Carolina after it was decided he had lied to NCAA investigators about off-the-books travel accommodations and jewelry he was reportedly provided by a booster. He sat out the 2010 NCAA season, but the Browns thought enough of his potential to draft him in the second round (59th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Little rewarded the Browns by leading the team in receptions last season with 61 for 709 yards. He was second among all NFL rookie receivers in receptions, behind Cincinnati Bengals’ receiver A.J. Green with 65, and fourth in receiving yardage behind Green (1,057), Baltimore Ravens’  receiver Torrey Smith (841) and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons (959).

Mohamed Massaquoi, a second round pick (50th overall) out of Georgia in the 2009 Draft, has struggled since landing in Cleveland. In three seasons he has played in 45 games, catching 101 passes for 1,491 yards and just seven touchdowns. He also has developed a reputation for dropping passes.

With Josh Cribbs, the Browns’ special teams demon out of Kent State, being phased out of the offense the team is turning to a pair of rookies to step in and make an impact. And, early in camp, they have done just that.

Travis Benjamin was selected by the Browns in the fourth round of the 2012 Draft, the 100th overall selection. After a stellar season at Miami (Fla.), where he caught 131 passes for 2,146 yards and 13 touchdowns in four seasons, many draft gurus felt Benjamin, at just 5-foot-10, didn’t have the size to be an impact receiver in the NFL.

The Browns looked at Benjamin’s 4.3 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and were intrigued. When he was available in the fourth round they were happy to claim him. He has turned heads in camp thus far.

“I think he has really established himself,” Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said of Benjamin’s work in camp. “When you look at him you say, ‘Well okay, how is he going to be in traffic?” but he’s distinguished himself these last couple days catching the ball in traffic. There were a couple of pivots, in routes, where he’s working back to the ball where the corner was hanging on his back and he reached out in a physical way and caught the football with his hands. Some things that you need to see so I hope his development continues.”

The Browns took a chance in the 2012 NFL Supplemental Draft, choosing to surrender their second round pick in the 2013 Draft to grab Josh Gordon out of Baylor. At 6-4, 220, Gordon has all the physical tools to be a dominant receiver … but he comes with baggage.

In October of 2010 the police in Waco, Texas found Gordon and Bears teammate Willie Jefferson asleep in Jefferson’s car in a Taco Bell parking lot. Marijuana was found in the car. Jefferson was kicked off the team while Gordon was not suspended. Then, in July 2011, Gordon tested positive for marijuana. Baylor head coach Art Driles suspended him indefinitely and, for all intents and purposes, his Baylor career was over.

Gordon transferred to Utah but never played a down for the Utes. He declared for the 2012 Supplemental Draft instead. During his collegiate career Gordon caught 42 passes for 714 yards and seven touchdowns in just one full season. This did not prevent the Browns from drafting Gordon and giving him a four-year, $5.3 million deal on July 16.

Gordon has garnered a lot of attention, and has made a lot of plays, during camp.

“I don’t know if it’s conscious or subconscious, but when you’re a really big guy that can really catch it, things tend to find you,” Shurmur said. “I think he’s got a long way to go in terms of learning it and playing receiver at this level. He’s made great progress to this point, but he’s got a long way to go, but he’s eager and he’s smart. He’s really football smart and I think that shows.”

With rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden expected to unseat Colt McCoy at the helm of the Browns’ offense, and with Alabama standout Trent Richardson pegged to start as the feature back in the Cleveland offense, there remain plenty of questions surrounding the Cleveland offense this season. Veteran tight end Ben Watson, who was in New England during the Patriots’ resurgence that has made New England a perennial Super Bowl contender, likes what he has seen from Cleveland’s young offensive players.

“I think the great thing about this year is the fact that we had an offseason. These guys had a chance to come learn the playbook a little bit, (and) they had a chance to get acclimated,” Watson said. “Now it’s about competing, that’s what training camp is about. We’re only a week in. You can’t make too many conclusions yet, but it’s exciting everybody is on the same page and everybody working towards a common goal. It’s exciting to be out here.”

Even ESPN’s NFL guru John Clayton, who visited Cleveland’s camp this week, thinks things are headed in the right direction on the south shores of Lake Erie. Said Clayton in his Camp Report:

“The young Browns offense looks potentially explosive and exciting, even though it may take a year or two to become efficient. The most encouraging sign is how second-year coach Pat Shurmur is setting up the passing offense. As offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in 2010, Shurmur had to set up mostly a three-step drop offense for then-rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. At that time, the Rams were going through receivers like a stadium goes through hot dogs. Even though the Browns' receiving corps is young, Shurmur is working in more five-step drops for Weeden, a sign of confidence in the blocking and the talent at wide receiver.

Supplemental draft choice Gordon is raw, but he has the look of a future No. 1 receiver. Little, a second-round pick last year, is a good target, although he's trying to adjust to some work out of the slot. Benjamin is fast. It's a promising group.”

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