In summer of 2012, a buzz began to surround the NFL Supplemental Draft. Following the previous year, when fomer #1 recruit in the nation Terrelle Pryor had been selected by the Oakland Raiders, another player with enticing physical gifts and a chequered past was demanding the attention of NFL front offices. Standing at 6’ 4” and 220 lbs, Josh Gordon looked like a hand crafted NFL wide receiver. And he could run too. The issues came with his route to the NFL. Like many Supplemental Draft participants, it was not smooth. Trouble began with a failed drug test early in his sophomore year and, after starring in Baylor’s downfield offense, he failed another and was suspended indefinitely. A transfer to Utah followed, where he sat out the year and then attempted a transfer to Houston, then the Supplemental Draft. A peripatetic route punctuated by mistakes.
It was clear that whoever drafted him would need to make sure they knew what they were getting. The Browns attended his workout at the Houston Texans facility prior to the Supplemental Draft, and followed it up by being the only team to bring Gordon in for a visit. There had been some murmurs that he could be selected highly, but there was still widespread surprise when the Browns spent a second round pick on acquiring him. The move was met with criticism, and the Browns were accused of being “desperate” and that the pick was a “waste”. The front office was seen to be banking their future on a kid who had played one real year of college football and had severe disciplinary questions. Even Gordon was surprised by the selection.
There were those who believed in Gordon though. His former coach at Baylor, Art Briles, called the selection “a bargain” and his former quarterback, Robert Griffin III, reportedly pushed hard for the Redskins to draft him. Respected analyst Matt Waldman was one of Gordon’s most vociferous early proponents, describing him as “a raw Terrell Owens and Demaryius Thomas” and that “his potential could be as limitless as Calvin Johnson”. Thus there was a divide between those intoxicated by Gordon’s physical prowess and those who had read of his prowess of intoxication.
Gordon was not expected to be a big contributor his rookie year. With the Supplemental Draft in July, he joined well into the offseason, two months behind the other 2012 rookies. Although he practiced at Utah, he had not played competitive football since the 2010 college season. Fellow wide receiver Greg Little had similarly sat out his last year in college and showed potential as a rookie, but was inconsistent as he adjusted back to full-time football and averaged only 40 yards per game. It became clear though that Gordon was a different level of prospect. He impressed in training camp, displaying his size, speed and hands.
Gordon finished his rookie year the Browns’ leader in receiving yards and TDs, whilst barely scratching his potential. As the third-youngest player in the NFL, he managed to physically dominate against NFL defenses. His speed and fluidity have blessed him with a natural ability to create separation and he showed that ability consistently as a rookie. He started the year relatively quietly as he worked his way into the rotation. As the year progressed he showed his immediate value as a deep threat as he used his speed and size to get on top of defenses. He showed this against the Giants in Week 5 when he had a 62 yard TD and followed it up against the Bengals in Week 6 with a 71 yard TD grab.
Gordon’s speed is deceptive. His long stride can make it appear effortless, and like he is moving slower than he is. Waldman compared his stride to that of Michael Johnson, the Olympic champion sprinter. Johnson was obsessed with technique as a sprinter, intent on having no wasted movement. Gordon’s similarly smooth style of running led to all 5 of his TDs in his rookie year being from at least 20 yards out. Like Johnson it often seems like Gordon is running at a different speed from his competitors. At top speed it’s doubtful he can be caught, but there is more to playing wide receiver in the NFL than pure speed.
Like most rookie WRs, Gordon took time to transition to the NFL. Young wide receivers often struggle facing higher quality players, more physical DBs and more complex defenses. In addition, they are often asked to do more. Few, if any, wide receivers enter the NFL able to run a complete route tree. Brian Billick has called it one of the toughest positions to transition to in the NFL. They can no longer rely purely on their physical gifts to perform. Gordon had his own early struggles with press coverage. Against the Eagles in his NFL debut he repeatedly allowed Nnamdi Asomugha to get his hands on him and jam him at the line of scrimmage, disrupting his routes. By his breakout game in Week 5, he had begun to get the hang of press coverage.
Against the Giants he started to display proper technique for beating press, delivering a jab across the body of the DB and not opening his body up to them. It was still relatively inconsistent at that point, but by Week 13 it was natural to Gordon. He put up season highs in receptions and yards, posting 6 receptions for 116 yards and 1 TD. The ability to beat press coverage coupled with his speed resulted in many big gains over the year. He posted 9 games with a reception of 20+ yards, including 8 in a row, and 3 receptions of over 40 yards. By the end of the season he had used little more than his speed and physical ability to take the top off of opposing defenses and give the Browns the deep threat they had lacked for several seasons.
Unfortunately before the start of his sophomore NFL season, the other element to Gordon showed its head. He was suspended for 2 games for violating the NFL’s Substance Abuse rules, leaving the Browns short their burgeoning #1 WR and Gordon one strike away from a season ban. This led to several swirling rumours as to the new Browns front office’s commitment to the young wide receiver. Trade rumours surrounded Gordon for weeks, and he addressed them better than anyone could have hoped, dominating the competition and growing as a player.
In his first game back he posted career numbers against the Minnesota Vikings, going off for 10/146/1. The most important development he showed against the Vikings was the ability to make catches in traffic with DBs draped over him. He also showed surprising elusiveness for a receiver of his size, taking one screen 30 yards and an end around 22 yards, displaying very good YAC ability for a receiver of his size. As the season has progressed, he has taken on the weight of being Cleveland’s #1 receiving option and has continued to develop as a player. It seems in the last few weeks that Gordon is beginning to learn the nuances of the position and rely less on pure physical skills.
One of Gordon’s main issues early in the year was based on contesting deep passes against DBs and working back to the football. This led to effort questions regarding Gordon, and was most prominent against the Packers in Week 7. With the Browns down 11 in the 4th quarter, Brandon Weeden heaved up a pass to Gordon on 4th down. Gordon failed to work back to the ball and highpoint it and Davon House broke up the pass, ending a key drive for the Browns. However in Week 13 against the Jaguars the light came on. On the first offensive play of the game for the Browns, Brandon Weeden hurled the ball deep under pressure to Gordon down the sideline. Gordon worked back under the DB, highpointed the ball and secured it for a 42-yard completion.
Another new aspect to Gordon’s game has been his use as a redzone target. The flipside to the stat that all of his touchdowns in his rookie year came from 20+ yards was that it showed his lack of impact as a redzone receiver. During his rookie year he only caught two passes from inside the opposition’s 20 yard line. Through 10 games he has 4 this year and added a touchdown from the goalline against the Steelers in Week 12. He got on top of Ike Taylor and beat him to the back pylon to catch the fade from Brandon Weeden. To be considered one of the best, this is an area Gordon will have to continue to develop if he wants to compete with Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.
Gordon is still far from the finished product and there are still areas that need work in his game. He can still improve his route running and tighten up his breaks. He is still learning the route tree coming from a system in Baylor where most of the routes he ran were screens or fade routes. Matt Bowen noted that he did his damage against the Jaguars running the dig and the fade, and he only really runs slants, crosses and comebacks outside of those. He also still has a few effort questions to answer. He has played exceptionally hard in the last few weeks in challenging circumstances, but he has been being fed the ball in these games. In his worst game this season against the Packers, in which he had only 2 receptions for 21 yards, it seemed like he became frustrated with tight coverage and lack of touches and did not seem to give full effort. He has to prove he can play consistently hard when the game is away from him.
Josh Gordon has begun to show he can be a star in the NFL and he is only just starting to learn the nuances of the position. Larry Fitzgerald once said that he was content being good, until Kurt Warner taught him to want to be the greatest. It seems Gordon faces a similar decision; his is a rare case of truly being as good as he wants to be.
Quick Fifth Down: Jacksonville Jaguars @ Cleveland Browns
1. Joe Haden giving up a big TD peeking in the backfield again
2. Giving up 32 points to Chad Henne and the Jaguars O
3. Lack of defensive pressure
4. Alex Mack snapping the ball over Weeden’s head for a safety
5. Allowing the Jaguars to march down the field for the winning TD
1. Willis McGahee averaging over 4 ypc on 14 carries and a TD
2. Josh Gordon destroying secondaries and records
3. Jordan Poyer showing some game returning punts
4. Joe Haden picking off another pass
5. Entertaining offensive football