BEREA, Ohio -- Someone is going to play quarterback for the Cleveland Browns this year. It will probably be Brian Hoyer, at least early in the season. It might still be Johnny Manziel. Whoever it is, he will need some receivers to throw to.
That could be a problem. Josh Gordon faces a possible year-long suspension, his appeal hinging on the vagaries of decimal points, sample cups, and the precise language of the NFL substance-abuse policy. With Gordon very likely to be out of the equation, either Browns quarterback will start the season at a disadvantage.
The Browns are thin at wide receiver. But they are not completely helpless. "We expect them all to step up," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said on Thursday. "It's receivers by committee."
That committee is led by tight end Jordan Cameron and comprised largely of veteran cast-offs from other organizations: Miles Austin from the Cowboys, Nate Burleson from the Lions, Andrew Hawkins from the Bengals. Also in a very crowded mix: return man Travis Benjamin, Shanahan-era Redskins role player Anthony Armstrong, undrafted rookies Taylor Gabriel and Jonathan Krause, and other men of mystery.
The newcomers were acquired to fill the roles vacated by Greg Little, a former top prospect with hands like broken promises, and Davone Bess, whose career has been derailed by personal problems. They may now be asked to replace Gordon as well, in Shanahan's all-new offense, with an inexperienced quarterback (even Hoyer has just four career starts) and a Manziel-curious and Browns-skeptical nation watching.
When asked about the state of the receiver depth chart, head coach Mike Pettine said it was "not very settled. We'll roll those guys through." Early drills provide few clues of who ranks where among receivers, with one exception: Miles Austin has clearly separated himself from the pack.
Austin has been working against Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and consistently winning one-on-one matchups. He made a tough catch on a back-shoulder Hoyer throw against Haden on Thursday. Austin's experience is evident on short routes: Subtle moves at the top of his stem allow him to beat Haden and other defenders on shorter routes.
"He's great with his hands," Pettine said of Austin. "He creates separation. When you say 'crafty veteran,' that's him: he knows all the tricks. And he's still sneaky fast."
Shanahan remembers Austin from his days facing the Cowboys as a Redskins assistant. "Miles has been going against the NFC East for the last four years. When he's healthy, he's been a good receiver, and he has his juice back."
Health has been Austin's issue for three years. Nagging hamstring injuries plagued him since his back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 2009 and 2010. Once considered a rising star, the 30-year-old became an overpriced disappointment for the Cowboys.
Pettine believes a change of approach in the offseason has helped Austin. "It was just a situation of looking at why he was having hamstring issues. I think he's much more in tune with his body now." The Browns kept Austin out of OTAs for precautionary reasons, but Austin spent time with Hoyer before the start of training camp. "We got on the same page a little bit," Hoyer said of the sessions.
At 6-foot-3, Austin could regain his form as a possession receiver, but he will never be a burner. That makes him a poor fit as a replacement for Gordon, who provides not only highlight-reel touchdowns but single coverage opportunities for players like Cameron. "I think he's the best receiver in the NFL," Cameron said of Gordon, who traveled to NFL headquarters on Thursday to discuss his potential suspension. "So defenses definitely pay attention to him, and that creates more openings."
Defenses pay attention to Cameron as well. An unknown commodity outside of Cleveland this time last year, Cameron exploded for 80 catches, 917 yards, seven touchdowns and a Pro Bowl berth last season. When the Browns drafted Manziel in May, the Gordon-Cameron combination appeared to be the ideal safety net for a strong-armed rookie: A speedster for big plays and an all-purpose vacuum cleaner over the middle of the field. When Gordon's potential absence became known and the Browns chose not to draft a replacement, it seemed that the burden of the Browns' passing game fell onto Cameron's shoulders.
Shanahan does not see it that way. "I rarely go into games planning to force the ball to a certain player," he said. "When you have a guy out there like Josh, you are going to move him around and try to get him the ball. But you hope a guy takes coverage away and you go to where the matchups are."
Cameron saw some teams scheming to stop him as his profile rose last season: "I saw a lot of pressing at the line of scrimmage, a lot of linebacker underneath, safety over-the-top," he said. But that is different from "lifting the lid" by forcing safeties to play miles off the ball and backpedal at the snap, the way Gordon did. The early indication is that Cameron will be more of a frequently-used safety valve than a Jimmy Graham-type of centerpiece.
"He's so important," Hoyer said of Cameron. "When I see a guy like that, I know he is going to be reliable … I don't have to necessarily zero in on him. I can go through my progression and know he's going to do the right thing."
The other Browns receivers have not separated themselves early in camp. Burleson did not take many starter's reps on Thursday, though it is clear that the Browns are tinkering with various receiver combinations. Benjamin has been fielding all of the practice kickoffs and punts and may have to focus on those roles as the season approaches. Andrew Hawkins' quickness always stands out -- "he's a tough guy to cover," Shanahan noted -- but at 5-foot-7, he's a situational weapon.
Cameron thinks that the committee approach to replacing Gordon (if Gordon needs replacing) just might work, considering the experience the Browns corps. "Miles and Nate are proven guys. They are both great receivers, great leaders in the locker room. Hawkins is awesome: he's so fast. We've got guys who can fill that void."
But savvy route-running and a dangerous tight end can only take a passing game so far. It is going to take some scheming to get this bunch of has-beens and hangers-on open. "Kyle will help with that," Cameron said of his new coordinator. "He's a guru."
A great deal is being made of the Browns quarterback controversy, of course. It's a quarterback controversy like any other, only with more Instagram. There's a square-jawed journeyman veteran and an undisciplined rookie. The veteran looks like a journeyman and the rookie looks particularly undisciplined so far. Hoyer can deliver strikes to Cameron and Austin but sometimes sails passes far out of bounds. Manziel still looks like he is taking a pop trigonometry quiz after the snap, waiting and worrying his throws. Pettine and Shanahan are in no hurry to make decisions, nor should they be. The Browns start the season against the Steelers (in Pittsburgh), Saints, and Ravens, then get a bye. Stretches like that are what square-jawed journeymen are for.
So somebody will start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. He may be pretty good. But he will only be as good as his targets. Cameron will be an asset. A healthy Austin can make a difference.
As for the rest of the committee? Someone may still step up, but both Hoyer and Manziel will look a whole lot better if they get the chance this year to throw to Josh Gordon.