AFC North: Andrew Hawkins

CLEVELAND -- This offseason will be a serious test to Ray Farmer’s plans.

The Browns general manager is straight from the build-through-the-draft school because it works. Green Bay and New England are known to develop their own players while using free agency only as a supplement.

But the Browns’ wide receiver position raises enough questions to wonder if Farmer will leave his comfort zone and spend on at least one outside, stretch-the-field pass catcher when free agency ramps up in March. Yes, Seattle isn’t loaded at receiver and wins big. You can win without top-shelf outside guys. But the Browns don’t have Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, either.

There are several reasons the Browns must evaluate this position: Josh Gordon is likely done in Cleveland after his looming year-long suspension, the free agency wide receiver class is loaded, the Browns have nearly $50 million in cap space, and Farmer’s plan suggests he’ll use first-round picks on other positions, such as pass-rusher or nose tackle.

But with quarterback uncertainty, the Browns would be smart to give next year’s starter more reliable options. Andrew Hawkins is the only receiver on the Browns’ roster with more than 800 career receiving yards. He has 1,819 yards. Hawkins is a good player, validating the four-year, $13.6-million contract he signed last offseason. He’s also a natural slot receiver, as is ascending undrafted free agent Taylor Gabriel (36 catches, 621 yards).

Of course, Farmer can always point out the Browns were playing their best football, going 6-4, while Gordon was suspended last year -- essentially without a go-to option on the outside.

“I’m a believer that this whole notion that you’ve got to have this one guy that’s the silver bullet is a myth,” Farmer said after the season. “I think it’s like trying to catch werewolves and vampires. They just don’t exist. I’m a big believer in it’s a team sport, and when we combine the requisite skill sets necessary to let guys have success, we have that success. We saw that earlier this year that we were missing certain key components that people thought were high-value targets and assets for us, but we played team football. As a result of that, we were able to have success.”

The Browns don’t have to throw $40 million guaranteed at the position, but they must do something to address it, hopefully finding a No. 1 outside guy with length. Here are a few options on that front:

*Make a few phone calls on DeMaryius Thomas and Torrey Smith: The market includes Thomas, Smith, Dez Bryant, Randall Cobb, Michael Crabtree and more. Many of these players will stay where they are via the franchise tag or signing long-term deals (especially Bryant and Cobb). But if somehow the Broncos let Thomas walk, the Browns would be smart to feel this one out. He’s Josh Gordon without the headaches.

Smith is talented but doesn’t have the raw numbers (49 catches, 767 yards, 11 touchdowns) to warrant the same money as Thomas or Bryant. Make him a reasonable offer. Worst case, you make the rival Ravens pay more than they wanted to keep Smith.

Re-sign Miles Austin: Austin produced nearly 200 yards on third downs before being placed on Injured Reserve after Week 13. Austin is 30 years old, has a Pro Bowl pedigree and can’t command top dollar at this stage in his career. He seems like a logical option to bring back on a one- or two-year deal.

Draft a receiver in the late-first, early-second round: There are at least five good receivers in the draft but no guarantee that any of them will duplicate Odell Beckham Jr. or Mike Evans production. At least one of those five (Kevin White, Amari Cooper, DeVante Parker, Jaelen Strong, Sammie Coates) could fall to the second round. The speed-size combos of Coates or Strong would be great fits for what the Browns want to do. Other enticing options include Ohio State downfield threat Devin Smith or potential mid-round flier Dorial Green-Beckham, believed to have first-round talent but branded with the ‘character issues’ label.

Good matchup free-agency options: Cecil Shorts, Denarius Moore, Kevin Ogletree, Kenny Britt.
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers:
  • Dansby
    Taking lumps: Karlos Dansby was asked after the game if the change in quarterbacks to Johnny Manziel had any kind of negative effect on the team. His response: "It’s what the coach decided to do, the organization decided to do. Once they made that move, we have to ride with it. Got to take our lumps in the process."
  • Speechless: Five weeks into a serious rut for the offense, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins still can’t quite figure out what’s changed with the offense (11.7 points per game during this four-game losing streak). The quarterback switch isn’t an excuse, Hawkins said, because the offense has to produce regardless. “Honestly, I can’t [explain it],” Hawkins said. “It’s a combination of things.”
  • Still optimism: Brian Hoyer points out the Browns still have a chance to finish 8-8. The franchise hasn't avoided a sub-.500 season since 2007. “The guys in that locker room, we’ve worked so hard and have to go out and finish this strong," Hoyer said.
  • Youth emerging: How about a shout-out for rookie Pierre Desir, who two weeks ago hadn’t logged one defensive snap. Against Carolina, because of injuries in the Browns' backfield, he played the entire game and acquitted himself well against Kelvin Benjamin, who finished with five catches for 47 yards. “It was a good matchup and I had fun out there,” Desir said.
  • Quote of note: “I’m laying on the ground just wondering if he’s gonna make it in.” –Hoyer, who got knocked to the ground on his 81-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jordan Cameron.
  • Handoff that didn’t count: Defensive tackle Billy Winn said he protected the ball, rolled over and was “looking for a guy to give [the ball] to” on his interception that safety Jordan Poyer scooped up and ran back. A touchdown was overturned because Winn was declared down. “Obviously I’m not going to get up and run it in, so I was looking for a fast guy to give it to,” Winn said.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Maybe Ray Farmer was onto something.

Some scoffed at the notion from the Cleveland Browns' general manager that Josh Gordon, fresh off a 1,400-plus-yard season, would need to fit into the team's concepts upon return from his 10-game suspension. Force-feeding Gordon the ball, while possibly disrupting the team's rhythm, might not be wise. “I think that teams win, talent doesn’t,” Farmer stated matter-of-factly at his midseason news conference.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
AP Photo/Tony DejakJosh Gordon is still seeking his first touchdown since rejoining the Browns on Nov. 23.
Six weeks later and neither side is winning when it comes to Gordon, who simply isn’t making the impact expected of a top-shelf receiver.

Someone has misfired this receiving weapon. The Browns threw Gordon the ball 17 times in his first game back. Two games later, he was off the field for several key third downs, a virtual ghost in the red zone. No balance there, either because Gordon isn’t providing it or the Browns can’t find it.

If Gordon didn't get himself ready, didn't absorb the playbook updates made during the season, that's on him.

If the Browns didn’t take all the necessary steps to try to maximize Gordon’s potential at a crucial point in the season, that's on them.

Whatever the reason, there’s no sensible way Gordon should be scoreless through four games, with an average of 46 yards in his past three games. I get that Gordon was behind because he missed three months of reps. One area the Browns (7-7) could use Gordon more is with a few deep tries or corner end zone plays from the red zone. Give him an easy jump ball. Takes the thinking out of it.

When I saw Brian Hoyer back in November working overtime to temper Gordon expectations in interviews from the locker room, you could just tell that this might be a struggle for everyone involved.

For the first 10 weeks, the Browns’ offense was Cleveland’s favorite overachievers. Hoyer and a receiving crew that lacked star power weren’t setting NFL records but they made it work. Andrew Hawkins was outperforming his contract. Miles Austin was reliable on third down (boy, his absence has been costly). Gary Barnidge and Jim Dray held down the tight end spot while Jordan Cameron was out.

Gordon’s late-season arrival should have bolstered the Browns' offense, not complicate it. The 26-24 win over the Falcons on Nov. 23 was the only time in the past five games the offense had life, and Hoyer still threw three interceptions in that one.

The final two games are huge for the Browns’ desire to establish a new culture. That’s a tough sell if they lose six of their last seven. Get to at least 8-8 and the momentum shifts their way.

But no Browns player save Johnny Manziel could use a bigger late-December push than Gordon, who still has time to reclaim his place in the receiver hierarchy.

If the struggles continue, blame will belong somewhere.

Can’t blame the playbook.
CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals will be without five starters Thursday night, while the Cleveland Browns will miss two of their best offensive weapons.

Headlining the lists of inactives for the Bengals, as expected, was running back Giovani Bernard. He was officially ruled out by coach Marvin Lewis earlier in the morning after having originally been declared doubtful on Wednesday's injury report. Offensive tackle Andre Smith, cornerback Leon Hall, and linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are also out of tonight's game.

For the Browns, receiver Andrew Hawkins joined tight end Jordan Cameron among the list of inactives, meaning Cleveland's offense will be at a serious deficit. Already without its top pass-catcher, Josh Gordon, because of an offseason suspension, the Browns' passing hopes now fall onto Miles Austin's shoulders. He'll be called upon to take over as the top receiving target with Hawkins out due to thigh and knee injuries.

Hawkins had tested his legs out several hours before the game, and appeared to be moving well. Hawkins, who played for the Bengals from 2011-13 and was returning to Paul Brown Stadium for the first time, will be replaced by Taylor Gabriel.

Bernard will be replaced by rookie Jeremy Hill, who rushed for a career-high 154 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns in last week's 33-23 win over the Jaguars. Veteran backup Marshall Newhouse will replace Smith, while Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard could combine to replace Hall. Burfict had arthroscopic knee surgery last week, and Maualuga may be one week away from returning from a serious hamstring injury.

Here is the full list of inactives for both teams:

Bengals inactives

WR Dane Sanzenbacher
RB Giovani Bernard
WR Leon Hall
LB Vontaze Burfict
LB Rey Maualuga
OL Andre Smith
DE Will Clarke

Browns inactives

WR Andrew Hawkins
DB Johnson Bademosi
DB Pierre Desir
RB Glenn Winston
DB Robert Nelson
OL Vinston Painter
TE Jordan Cameron

Browns vs. Bengals preview

November, 6, 2014
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This rivalry is starting to get more significant.

Credit both the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals for better talent evaluation practices in recent seasons that are beginning to turn their organizations into real power players in the NFL.

The Bengals are the furthest along that path, having made three straight playoff appearances and winning division titles in two of the past five seasons. Last year, the Browns showed flashes of success before a team-wide reorganization this offseason put them in what appears to be a much better position for tangling with the best of the AFC North. At 5-3, the Browns are one win from their highest win total in seven seasons. The Lake Erie tide has begun to turn.

Here to break down the matchup is ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey:

McManamon: Coley, Cincinnati seems to just keep on keeping on. Two new coordinators, and the team is winning. How have Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther helped or changed anything?

Harvey: It is amazing to think the Bengals are 5-2-1 when you put it that way, Pat. But in all honestly, many Bengals fans aren't sure either coordinator has done much to help his side of the ball. There is greater optimism for what Jackson is building on offense, though, considering how well the unit has operated without the services of A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard. Mohamed Sanu filled in wonderfully for Green in the parts of four games the Pro Bowler missed, and rookie Jeremy Hill went off last week in place of Bernard, who is expected to be out again Thursday. Cincinnati's offense has laid one egg -- a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis -- but has otherwise featured creative looks and a renewed interest in running the ball. Guenther's defense hasn't been as good primarily because Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the leader of the unit, has finished only two games this year because of head, neck and knee issues. He's out Thursday after getting a knee scoped last week. Injuries have made it too soon to say how much Guenther's addition has helped the defense. But the potential is there.

Pat, I know you've been asking the Brian Hoyer doubters to take a seat all season. What has been the one thing you can point to about his play that has made him get the team to 5-3?

McManamon: Hoyer doubters should take a seat, Coley. There are still good seats available for them. As to his play, on the stat sheet, I'd point to the interceptions. Hoyer has thrown four all season, and his interception percentage of 1.6 percent ranks sixth in the league. He has been avoiding crucial mistakes and taking care of the ball. Off the stat sheet, I'd have to credit his preparation. Hoyer studies like he is taking his third bar exam. He pores over details, prepares for situations and plays and tries making sure he understands what he's seeing and what will work. Combine that with his steadiness and it's not hard to see why he's won three games with fourth-quarter comebacks. Hoyer's poise, steadiness and care with the ball have been huge for the Browns.

From afar, it seems that one guy who has really stepped up this season has been Sanu. The Browns have had trouble with big receivers this season. What has he done that has made him so effective?

Harvey: Simply put, he's played. Last year, Sanu turned into the No. 3 receiving option behind a healthy Green and surprising newcomer Marvin Jones. When preseason injuries sidelined Jones and eventually landed him on injured reserve and toe problems caused Green to miss three weeks, Sanu had no choice but to be the next man up. It all goes back to the offseason. Hoyer's study habits are a lot like Sanu's workout habits. He's always had great hands, but he focused this preseason on making difficult catches in practice look easy. Several rookies I've talked to mentioned how awestruck they were when they first saw Sanu pull in a jaw-dropping one-handed catch or have an over-the-shoulder grab that would make Willie Mays envious. That play has translated into games. Now that Green is back, the Browns and other defenses have two big targets -- former Brown Greg Little makes three -- to defend.

People in Cincinnati are still curious about Andrew Hawkins. Had he been able to re-sign here, he likely would be the No. 3 receiver right now. How important has Hawkins been to Cleveland's offense both on the field and in the locker room?

McManamon: Hawkins has been vital -- to the point I named him the team's midseason MVP this week. I wouldn't go as far as to say he's a leader because there are several veterans on the offense who lead, such as Hoyer and Joe Thomas. But Hawkins has been a find, and he's been key to the 5-3 start. He was signed to do what the Bengals planned to do with him: be the third wideout. But Josh Gordon's suspension put Hawkins in the starting lineup. Despite the fact he's never started before this season, he has responded by playing every game and leading the receivers in snaps while leading the Browns in receptions and receiving yards. He's also shown a toughness and a work ethic to admire. Without Hawkins, the Browns would not be 5-3.

A year ago, Coley, the Browns talked big about a meaningful game in Cincinnati then were embarrassed as the Bengals scored 31 points in a quarter. Do the Bengals take this one seriously, or do they figure eventually the same old Browns will appear?

Harvey: The Bengals believe the Browns are legitimate. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals' version of Thomas, said it best earlier this week when he compared the AFC North to the SEC. "We've seen every year even the worst team in the division and the best have a tough time beating each other no matter what their records are," the former LSU Tiger said. Trust me, the Bengals are taking this game seriously. Little, as you well know, definitely is. The former Brown who was signed by Cincinnati last month said "somebody has to pay" for him being cut by the Browns in May -- even after it became apparent Gordon would be facing a multigame suspension. Combine all of that with the appearance of Leah Still, the 4-year-old cancer-fighting daughter of defensive tackle Devon Still, and you will have an emotional night at Paul Brown Stadium. For the Browns, this could be one of the more hostile "Battle of Ohio" crowds in Cincinnati in recent years.

Since 2011, this rivalry has hinged, in part, on one key matchup: Green vs. Joe Haden. Green will play Thursday despite a toe injury. Hobbled or not, what has it meant to Haden to consistently lock down a receiver the likes of Green?

McManamon: A tremendous amount, though I would say Green has won his fair share of this competition. Haden likes Green, and more important, he respects him. He continually talks about what a good guy Green is and how well he plays. There is tremendous respect between the two, and given that they both are among the best at their positions, it's one of the most interesting and entertaining rivalries in the sport. Haden values every opportunity he has to play Green, which means he greatly values being able to limit the damage Green can do.

Bengals offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the Cincinnati Bengals' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Darqueze Dennard adds much-needed youth to the Bengals' secondary.
Best move: You will notice a theme in this wrap-up: The Bengals didn't make very many "great" moves. In fact, arguably their best offseason move had nothing to do with the roster. From a player standpoint, the best addition was selecting the best player available with their first-round draft pick. The Bengals would have been foolish to pick any player other than Darqueze Dennard at No. 24. Dennard's addition addressed a key need, and he could be a good replacement for an aging cornerback like Terence Newman.

Riskiest move: Sticking with the draft, the riskiest move came in Round 2 when they selected running back Jeremy Hill, a big, physical back with some off-field baggage. In July 2013, Hill pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge after he admitted to punching a man in the head outside a bar the previous April. That happened while he was already on probation following his January 2012 guilty plea to a misdemeanor stemming from his sexual relationship with a then-14-year-old girl at his high school. The Bengals, who seemed content with their loaded backfield before the draft, weren't deterred by Hill's past. Their research into him has them convinced he has matured.

Most surprising move: In early March, the Bengals offered their three restricted free agents -- receiver Andrew Hawkins, linebacker Vincent Rey and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher -- low-round tenders. Hawkins, a speedy playmaker the Bengals liked and had plans for next season, should have been given a tender one tier higher. It would have been easier to keep him from potential suitors had a second-round tender been offered. Yes, he would have earned more under that tender, but only about $700,000 more. Instead, because of the Bengals' low offer, the Browns pounced and made Hawkins an offer too lucrative for Cincinnati to match.

Can't forget Hue: If we include coaches' transactions as part of this offseason wrap-up, then the Bengals' promotion of Hue Jackson from running backs coach to offensive coordinator deserves to be recognized as Cincinnati's best offseason move. We wrote about it this week. The major part of Cincinnati's game that was lacking last season was its rushing offense. Jackson's new offense should make the running game come alive and relieve some of the pressure quarterback Andy Dalton has endured his first three seasons.
Ray Farmer does not rest.

The week after the draft, the Cleveland Browns' general manager signed Joe Haden to a contract extension and added two receivers.

As the world of folks who must keep track of the Browns turns, the team has almost completely remade its corps of receivers.

Bennett
Austin
Josh Gordon is facing a season-long suspension after another failed drug test, this time for marijuana. Let's assume that he is suspended, which is not a big leap -- especially after the news that Miles Austin agreed to terms and Earl Bennett signed. The talent of any one player does not approach Gordon's, but the Browns have more than they had at 3 p.m. Thursday. The fact that the Browns added two guys who have been on the market for months probably says all that needs to be said about Gordon's season -- and that is, he won't be with the team.

Austin immediately becomes a starter. Opposite him would be either Nate Burleson (if healthy) or Bennett, a productive slot guy who was stuck behind Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in Chicago.

Andrew Hawkins would be the third receiver, with either Burleson or Bennett seeing time as the fourth.

Bennett's situation is dicey. Most view him as a No. 3, though perhaps he's one of the guys Farmer had in mind when he said sometimes players just need a chance.

If -- and it's a gigantic and unlikely if -- Gordon can somehow reduce or avoid the suspension, the receiving corps might have more than something.

The problem is this: The hardest thing to do in the NFL is to bring a completely new group of receivers in with a new quarterback and expect it all to jell immediately.

The timing required is too precise, and understanding each other is too important to expect immediate results. Add in the fact that everyone involved is learning a new offense, and the challenge increases.

That reality should not, though, temper the reality that Farmer knew he had a need, and he tried to address it as best he could. He advised fans to be patient, and acted. And there's still time for him to address the position again.

Without Gordon, the Browns lose their best player and their big-play threat. They become a team dependent on defense and a physical running game.

But at least now the team has veteran receivers. Whether they can contribute remains to be seen.

At this point, this something is better than nothing.
The first day of the Cleveland Browns draft ended amid jubilation and celebration.

It turned depressing and mysterious before the first player had even been taken on Day 2.

When word broke via ESPN’s Outside the Lines that Josh Gordon was facing a one-year suspension for failing another drug test, the effect was deflating.

Later in the night, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen broke the news that Nate Burleson had a fractured arm and would miss the offseason but would be back for training camp.

If Gordon does miss a year and assuming Burleson returns, the Browns right now have Burleson, Greg Little and Andrew Hawkins as their prime receivers.

General Manager Ray Farmer said he was not concerned about the team’s depth at receiver, though.

“We play games in September,” Farmer said. ”Right now there’s still plenty of opportunities for us to acquire players and to make things happen.”

There’s only one draft, though, and the team’s decision in hindsight to trade down for cornerback Justin Gilbert and not take Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans looms larger if Gordon is suspended. Gordon is the team’s star and playmaker, and the receiving corps would have to depend on guys doing things they haven’t done in the past to succeed.

The Browns didn’t want to comment on Gordon’s situation, and in fairness the league handles the drug-testing program and teams are not supposed to comment on the details.

“Whenever we do have clarity we will express our sentiments then,” Farmer said.

He also did not get into whether he knew about Gordon’s situation but said he drafts based on the team’s draft board and not on need or a player’s health situation.

“We organize the players, we rank them, we stack them and we stick to it,” Farmer said. “We believe that you do the work for a reason. You take the best players available. You establish your team by going through that process in making sure you draft the best guys in how you had them ordered in who are the best players in college football.”

The Browns went through the second day drafting an offensive lineman, a linebacker and a running back, but no receivers. Farmer said that was because of the way the team rated its players.

“We stuck with our board,” Farmer said. “As we looked at that board when it was our turn to select, we took the name that was the best name for us at that time.”

Thus, the Browns passed on Watkins and Evans because they liked Gilbert better. They passed on receivers on the second day because they liked offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, linebacker Christian Kirksey and running back Terrance West better.

The decision may come back to haunt them. In a sense it’s classic hindsight to look back -- except that Farmer and owner Jimmy Haslam knew of Gordon’s situation before the draft started, according to Mortensen and ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio.

Farmer simply believes he can still address the situation.

“Whether it’s trades, drafting someone the [third] day, players that get cut or we acquire somebody from the street,” Farmer said “there’s always opportunities to acquire players.”

There aren’t a lot of Josh Gordons, and if the Browns lose their top playmaker they may be left trying to win games with potentially a rookie quarterback, and a receiving group without its star.

That could leave the team relying on defense and the run game to win.

It can work, but without Gordon, well, the highs from Manziel sure seemed to dissipate in a hurry.
The Cleveland Browns' offense got better again on Tuesday.

Hawkins
When the Cincinnati Bengals declined to match the offer sheet the Browns gave him, receiver Andrew Hawkins became a Brown. In four days, the team added Hawkins and a starting running back in Ben Tate.

Hawkins steps into the slot/third-receiver role that Davone Bess made such a mess of a year ago. Hawkins is younger, faster and better after the catch than Bess. He’s a playmaker, and an offense can never have enough playmakers.

The Browns so far in free agency have added Donte Whitner, Karlos Dansby and Isaiah Trufant on defense, and Tate and now Hawkins on offense.

The offensive guys are more significant, because the Browns pretty much had Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron and nothing else in 2013. Now they have a legitimate back to run the ball and a third-down receiver to catch the ball. Both have to stay healthy, but so do Gordon and Cameron.

On paper, the Browns are a better team than a week ago.

And that’s a good start to an offseason.

Free-agency review: Bengals

March, 18, 2014
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Most significant signing: To this point, Cincinnati's most significant free-agent signing has been a re-signing. By inking restricted free-agent linebacker Vincent Rey to a two-year deal, the Bengals maintained their depth at outside linebacker and kept a vital special-teams piece. The Bengals aren't known to make major free-agency splashes with players from the outside, so it was even more significant that they retained a well-regarded player who not only provides depth but also can start regularly.

Collins
Johnson
Most significant loss: Anthony Collins' decision to sign with Tampa Bay wasn't a big surprise, but it was the biggest loss the Bengals have had so far this free-agency period. Defensive end Michael Johnson's departure was long expected because of the higher price tag he was likely to command. The team still felt it had a chance late with Collins, even an outside chance. The cuts of linebacker James Harrison and center Kyle Cook were big moves, too, but ones the Bengals should more easily move on from.

Biggest surprise: Cincinnati's biggest free-agency surprise actually came two weeks ago, when the Bengals extended low-round tenders to restricted free agents Andrew Hawkins, Dane Sanzenbacher and Rey. The decision to give a low-round tender to Hawkins was perhaps the most curious decision, as it gave the rest of the league free reign to bid as high as they wanted on the player who was the Bengals' third-leading receiver in 2012 (an injury limited him to just half the season in 2013). Cleveland jumped at the chance to give Hawkins an offer that is expected to go unmatched. Since he was an undrafted player, the Bengals won't receive any draft-pick compensation from Cleveland if they fail to match its offer. Lesson learned: The Bengals should have given Hawkins a second-round tender in order to keep him from being poached so easily.

What's next? Although the Bengals lost a couple of big pieces in Johnson and Collins -- not to mention their starting center and "Sam" linebacker -- they will return in the fall with a roster that has very few glaring holes. The good news is that their biggest contributors are already in place, and other backups, like recently re-signed guard/center Mike Pollak, could end up taking over starting jobs. Still, expect the Bengals to keep trying to build their defensive-line and offensive-line depth via free agency and the draft. Linebackers also could be draft targets, as could any number of defensive backs.
CINCINNATI -- In need of as much help at linebacker as they can get, the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday announced they re-signed fourth-year linebacker Vincent Rey. He becomes the third Bengals free agent that has re-signed, according to the team.

Rey

Along with two other restricted free agents, Rey earned a low-round tender from the Bengals last week. That meant he was slotted to make $1.4 million in 2013 unless he signed an offer sheet of greater value from another team. If the other team made an offer, the Bengals would have five days after receiving the offer to match it. None of that appears to have happened with Rey.

He reportedly agreed to a two-year deal.

Rey has been with the Bengals since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2010. The Duke product spent his first three seasons primarily playing special teams, but saw his overall role increase dramatically last season as he started on defense, too.

When starting "Mike" linebacker Rey Maualuga went down with a knee injury in the middle of last season, Rey replaced him, starting in three contests. Even when Maualuga returned, he shared more time at linebacker with him than he had at points before the injury.

Rey's 47 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions in 2013 were career highs. Three of those sacks and one of the interceptions came in the Week 10 overtime loss at Baltimore. He's the only player in franchise history to have that many sacks and an interception in a single game.

In addition to stepping up defensively, he also continued contributing on special teams, playing a key role on the various kick and punt coverage and return teams.

"Vinny is a tough guy and a pleasure to coach, and it's great to have him back in the fold," coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release. "He really helped us in winning the division title last year."

Rey joins receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate and offensive guard/center Mike Pollak in re-signing with the Bengals this offseason. Defensive back Taylor Mays also has reportedly signed, but the Bengals have not yet announced that news. Mays was reported to have signed Wednesday.

The news of Rey's re-signing also comes hours after the team announced that defensive end Dontay Moch, a 2011 third-round Bengals draft pick, was coming back to Cincinnati. After playing four games last season for the Cardinals, Moch cleared waivers late Friday afternoon.

Cincinnati's other two restricted free agents, receivers Andrew Hawkins and Dane Sanzenbacher, also were extended low-round tenders last week, but neither has signed elsewhere or with the Bengals yet. Hawkins has signed an offer sheet with the Cleveland Browns, but Cincinnati has until Tuesday to match it. The Bengals still have not made a decision about what they will do, although ESPN.com has reported that they likely won't match the four-year, $13.6 million offer.
The Cleveland Browns are getting a little more serious about free agency. Really serious.

The team confirmed several reports Thursday night that running back Ben Tate was in town to visit with the team and would be in the team’s facility on Friday. Tate wants to be a feature back; the Browns lack one. Tate has been considered one of the best fits on the market for the Browns; he averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his career.

Tate is a big back with ability and for a couple years he and Arian Foster formed one of the best tandems in the league in Houston. But Foster was the No. 1 guy, and Tate wants to be.

The Browns can give him that opportunity, but of course any contract signing comes down to money.

As highly regarded as Tate is, ESPN’s Bill Polian gave him a C grade on his free-agent tracking chart, same as he gave Peyton Hillis.

Polian calls Tate a “confrontational runner” with a physical style that can lead to injury. He has never played a full, 16-game season, missing time to ankle, hamstring, foot and rib injuries.

“He is a little bit of a teaser because you are always looking for him to have a breakout year but he never quite lives up to his potential,” Polian opined.

Earlier in the day the Browns signed tight end Jim Dray, whose reputation is as a blocking tight end. He showed pass-catching ability, but Dray played last season in Arizona, where coach Bruce Arians makes no secret he wants his tight ends to be blockers first.

That could mesh well with Jordan Cameron, who is more of a receiver first -- though Cameron did work on and improve his blocking as last season progressed.

The Browns also signed Cincinnati receiver Andrew Hawkins to an offer sheet, and the Bengals are not expected to match.

If all goes well, the Browns could conceivably add a starting linebacker and safety, a backup cornerback, a backup tight end, a slot receiver with speed and a starting running back in the first week of free agency.

And the draft planning has barely begun.
CINCINNATI -- Perception and reality aren't always the same.

I used the line above in this story from earlier this week. I had outlined what the Cincinnati Bengals would miss if they were unable to match an offer sheet restricted free-agent receiver Andrew Hawkins had signed with the Cleveland Browns on Tuesday.

The theory? That they would miss out on a versatile slot receiver whose speed could allow him to be used in a variety of ways under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Hawkins' yards-after-catch statistics were clear indications that he is a playmaker who needs the ball in his hands. That was the reality.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Hawkins
Photo by John Grieshop/Getty ImagesAndrew Hawkins averaged 9.5 yards after the catch last season.
The perception about Hawkins, though, was that while, yes, he was a good playmaker, he didn't deserve to have the ball in his hands any more than Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert or Jermaine Gresham did. Quite simply, because of where he appeared on the depth chart, he was perceived to be the Bengals' No. 4 receiver. He was perceived, at worst, to be their sixth or seventh pass-catching option behind the two tight ends and running back Giovani Bernard.

But perception and reality aren't always the same.

Hawkins' reality appears to be one that will be calling Cleveland home for the next four years. A source told ESPN.com on Thursday that the Bengals weren't expected to match the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet the Browns gave Hawkins. The deal includes $10.8 million in the first two years.

When the Bengals offered tenders last week to their three restricted free agents, they got each of them at the low-round level. That meant that since all three were undrafted players, the Bengals wouldn't receive draft-pick compensation as they normally would had the players been draft selections. Without draft-pick compensation, they wouldn't get anything in return if they couldn't match offers extended to the players by other teams.

By setting a low-round tender of $1.4 million, they also were sending the message that they felt confident each of the free agents wouldn't get many looks on the open market and that they could hold on to them relatively cheaply.

From a business standpoint, it's an understandable and quite admirable tactic. After all, because of the perception about who he is on the depth chart, Hawkins isn't a major piece of Cincinnati's offense. He's just another regular piece to the bigger puzzle. The Bengals have other receivers such as Sanu, Jones and A.J. Green who have their own rather impressive pass-catching prowess. So if they ended up losing Hawkins, there wasn't much to worry about. Others are there who can easily fill his void. The tactic also made sense because in the event Hawkins didn't field any offers and they ended up keeping him, they could save a little extra money and push it over to other places. That's important because Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are all in line for bigger restructured deals.

It all makes sense. But it also set the Bengals up for learning an unfortunate lesson: that perception and reality aren't always the same.

The perception before free agency began was that Hawkins wasn't likely to field much external attention. He only played in eight regular-season games in 2013 due to a serious ankle injury that held him out of the first half of the year. As a result, his production was far lower than what it was the year before. He was basically a non-factor on a team that was oozing with talent at its skill positions.

Hawkins' reality, though, was a little different. After teams saw what having a shifty slot player like Percy Harvin did for Seattle in the playoffs, several knocked on Hawkins' door. Washington was rumored to have had interest because of Hawkins' connection to head coach Jay Gruden, the Bengals' former offensive coordinator. Because of their own uncertainties about departing slot receivers, Denver and New England were among those who had reasons to be interested, too.

Cleveland entered the fray because it needed another good receiver after Davone Bess was released earlier this offseason. The Browns also had to be intrigued by the fact that Hawkins spent three seasons playing for their in-state and division rival.

Had Hawkins been placed under a higher-level tender -- say the second-round tender -- he likely would have remained a Bengal. His tender would have been for about $2.2 million and Cincinnati would have earned a second-round pick as compensation in the event it didn't want to or was unable to match another team's offer sheet. Very few teams might be willing to part with a second-round pick for a player who was perceived to be a No. 4 receiver.

Even if the Bengals ultimately did want to part with Hawkins, the option of a second-round tender just seems to be more of a win-win scenario than the one they now are left with; no draft-pick compensation from a rival in exchange for a true playmaker.

The real lesson here is that hopefully the Bengals learned to evaluate more thoroughly the next time they're confronted with a similar situation involving an undrafted restricted free agent. They thought they had Hawkins pegged right, but it turns out they were a little wrong.

Perception and reality aren't always the same.
The Cleveland Browns focused on improving their defense on the first day of free agency. By Day 3, the Browns received their first big addition to the NFL's 18th-ranked offense, although it will likely be their smallest as well.

Hawkins
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, all 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds of explosive speed, will likely join the Browns because the Cincinnati Bengals are not expected to match the offer sheet on the restricted free agent.

Not only does Hawkins replace Davone Bess, he brings an entirely different skill set to the slot receiver position. Bess was a possession receiver. Hawkins is a sparkplug. Bess averaged 8.6 yards per catch last season. Hawkins averaged 9.5 yards after the catch.

In three seasons with the Bengals, Hawkins proved he was a big play waiting to happen. He could take a pass on a screen or a shallow crossing pattern and turn it into a 20-yard play. Hawkins' size makes him elusive. His speed makes him dangerous.

In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot.

Why would the Bengals let him go? The Bengals have so much depth at wide receiver that Hawkins' opportunities were going to be limited. This is why it's a good move for Hawkins as well as the Browns.

Joining the Browns means Hawkins has come full circle in his career. A three-year starter at the University of Toledo, Hawkins wasn't drafted but he received a tryout for the Browns rookie minicamp. He did well enough that he was told he would be signed. But the Browns later told him they were going in a different direction.

Hawkins' journey took him to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes for two seasons before he got another shot at the NFL in 2011. But he was cut by the St. Louis Rams at the start of training camp. The Bengals picked him up, and Hawkins went on to catch 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons.

He'll be a good fit to a Browns passing game that already has talent with two Pro Bowl targets in wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. But Hawkins represents just a small piece of the Browns' puzzle, which still has major question marks at quarterback and running back.

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