Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon had a breakout season in 2013, establishing himself as one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Browns and Gordon, the 2013 NFL receiving yards leader reportedly failed his second drug test in early May, which could potentially result in a yearlong suspension. While Gordon was critical to the Browns’ offensive success in 2013, losing him for the entire 2014 season would not completely deflate the Browns chances of qualifying for the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2002.
When the Browns selected Gordon in the 2011 Supplemental Draft, there was little doubt that he was capable of becoming an elite receiving threat. However, his recreational drug use had always been a cause for concern, as it plagued him through his college career at Baylor University. Now that the Browns’ greatest fear when drafting Gordon will likely be realized in the form of a yearlong suspension, the team will be forced to move forward without him.
The Browns 4-12 win-loss record in 2013 does not do justice to the amount of talent inhabiting their roster. Regardless of whether it is Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel under center, the offensive line will have no problem protecting him. Left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack are both top-three players at their respective positions. The offensive line will also welcome rookie Joel Bitonio, who is both extremely versatile and capable improving the offensive line immediately.
During free agency, the Browns signed former Houston Texans running back Ben Tate to be their starting running back, replacing an old and unproductive Willis McGahee. While Tate spent most of his Texans days in the shadow of Pro-Bowl running back Arian Foster, he was highly productive when given the opportunity. Tate will be joined by talented rookie running back Terrance West in an astronomically improved Browns backfield.
While losing Gordon would open a major hole at wide receiver, the offseason acquisitions of Miles Austin, Nate Burleson and Andrew Hawkins should help shrink this hole. Austin and Burleson have proven to be productive NFL receivers throughout their careers and Hawkins has the skill set to become a dangerous slot-receiver.
Gordon was not the only offensive player to breakout in a big way in 2013. Tight end Jordan Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in his third NFL season. At 25 years old, entering the prime of his career, there is certainly reason to believe that Cameron can further improve on an already solid 2013 season.
The Browns defense ranked ninth in the NFL in 2013 and is a safe bet to repeat this success in 2014. During the offseason, the Browns hired defensive guru Mike Pettine as their new head coach. Pettine was a contributor to the 2009 No. 1 ranked New York Jets defense as well as the defensive coordinator of a Buffalo Bills defense that was ranked 10th in the NFL last season. With a host of defensive weapons at his disposal, Pettine should have no problem creating another elite defense in Cleveland.
Included on this defense are veteran linebackers Paul Kruger and Karlos Dansby, shutdown cornerback Joe Haden and hard-hitting safety Donte Whitner. The Browns defense also consists of multiple young, high-ceiling players. Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert should prove to be an excellent complement to Haden in the Browns’ secondary while 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo showed flashes of elite pass-rushing ability during his rookie season. These skilled players in combination with the genius of Pettine should result in another top-tier Browns defense.
All of the pieces are in place for the Browns to be a playoff contender in 2014. If Hoyer or Manziel can provide solid to above-average quarterback play without turning the ball over, there is no reason this team cannot contend for an AFC North division title.
While losing Gordon for the season would be a devastating blow to the Browns offense, this team has enough talent on the offensive side of the football to minimize the negative effects of losing their top-receiving threat. More importantly, the Browns will be a defensive-minded football team in 2014. Pettine is far more interested in keeping opposing teams off the scoreboard than putting a bunch of points on the scoreboard.