Under head coach Kevin Stefanski, the 2020 Cleveland Browns opened the season with KhaDarel Hodge as the team’s primary third receiver, which had everything to do with his skill set as opposed to talent, so while 2021 may be different in terms of who plays that position, that thought process could still endure.
Despite being the most efficient receiver on the team as well as simply the best of 2021, Rashard Higgins did not become a regular contributor in the Browns offense until Odell Beckham tore his ACL week seven.
Previously, the Browns primary three receivers were Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and KhaDarel Hodge, even if Hodge was rarely targeted. His size, strength and speed were favored because the Browns offense desperately needed more players that could push vertically to create more space for the rest of the offense. He was also an excellent blocker.
Higgins more than proved himself and short of an injury situation will be the heavy favorite to get the majority of snaps in that third receiver slot. According to Higgins in Jarvis Landry’s Just Juice, “I’m not goin just like, zoom, past a [guy]. That’s never been me.”
And with Landry particularly last year along with an offense that features tight ends, that was a little problematic at least schematically. Ultimately, Higgins was able to find success along with Landry in the lineup out of necessity due to injuries not just limited to Beckham.
The fact Landry plans to play leaner this year should help.
There’s an almost inexplicable chemistry between Baker Mayfield and Higgins that dates back to Mayfield’s rookie year. Part of it is the fact that Higgins is such an effective route runner and understands how to create separation despite any elite physical traits, something he’s been able to do dating back his days at Colorado State.
Not only does he get open, he was the most reliable target on the team last year. He caught everything including a couple truly spectacular catches. It stands to reason the team simply isn’t going to doubt it, based on what Higgins was able to do. The fact he’s able to attack the intermediate levels of the field effectively, which does not worsen the Browns spacing problems on offense is also in his favor.
Clearly, Stefanski wants more speed in the lineup. It was a priority in the offseason, adding Anthony Schwartz to the wide receiver room with a third round pick, a player who might have been able to go to the Olympics as a sprinter if that was his primary focus.
Schwartz is a rookie and will be utilized even if it’s only occasionally to try to stretch the field, but Hodge can contribute in that role and the Browns are likely going to feature Donovan Peoples-Jones entering his second season in that third receiver slot.
This isn’t to suggest that Peoples-Jones should be given the job. The Browns love his potential, his work ethic and he’s doing everything to put himself in the best position to contribute and grow with this team and in this offense. He just has to get there.
The Browns are not likely to get ahead of themselves with Peoples-Jones. They have proven guys ahead of him still, so they don’t need to rush him. As with his rookie season, the Browns allowed all of their rookies other than Jedrick Wills to develop at their own pace, putting them in positions to succeed and grow.
As pleasant a surprise was he was, Peoples-Jones was targeted just 23 times in 14 games as a rookie. He caught 16 of them for an incredible 335 yards.
Hodge was only targeted 17 times in 11 games, but he caught 11 of those for 180 yards and every one of them went for a first down.
Their impact out weighted their actual production, because they were able to make key plays that helped the Browns win games.
It’s important to remember that that if the Browns do run three receivers and some combination of a tight end and running back, particularly when it’s Kareem Hunt will likely be a more featured receiver than they would be.
On one hand, that means they may not see the ball all that much. On the other, if teams are trying to cover Beckham, Landry, Hooper or Njoku and then Hunt, the defense may give up plays simply because the defense is occupied with trying to stop everyone else.
Should a player like Peoples-Jones prove he’s ready to take on more of a role in the offense, the coaching staff isn’t going to hold him back. Both Hodge and Peoples-Jones offer size, strength and speed. They may not be burners like Schwartz and Beckham, but they might as well be compared to Landry and Higgins as well as the tight ends.
The more skill sets and body types the Browns have at their disposal (and they have a ton), the more matchup problems they can cause for the opponent.
Getting back to Hunt, don’t be surprised if he’s the third receiver at times. With more time to prepare the offense, some glimpses of Hunt being used in space to great effect in games such as against the Baltimore Ravens last year, the more they should use him as a receiver.
Whether it’s in conjunction with Nick Chubb as the lone back in the backfield or simply motioning him out like previous coaching staffs did seasons with former Browns back Duke Johnson, they can put stress on defenses while identifying the coverage and making life easier for Mayfield.
It’s one of the major benefits to running a two tight end based offense. The third receiver can be more of a weapon as opposed to someone that needs to be able to function in a specific task, potentially in the slot or moving the chains. The Browns can be flexible with that position, thinking of terms of attacking the defense as opposed to needs they must fill.
As a result, don’t expect a firm depth chart outside Beckham and Landry at the top for the rest of the receivers unless injuries occur. Higgins will likely get the lion’s share of the snaps, because he’s more than proven himself, but players like Donovan Peoples-Jones, KhaDarel Hodge, Anthony Schwartz and Kareem Hunt could all operate in that role depending on the situation the Browns find themselves this season.
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