NFL Nation: Andrew Hawkins

Bengals offseason wrap-up

May, 23, 2014
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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.
With so many toys at Jay Gruden's disposal in Robert Griffin III, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts, Jordan Reed and DeSean Jackson, how does Alfred Morris fit in offense?

Morris
In his three years as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator, Gruden had two 1,000-yard rushers in Cedric Benson (1,067 in 2011) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,094 in 2012). The Bengals ran for 1,788 yards, 1,745 yards and 1,755 yards in Gruden’s three years as coordinator.

But he also had A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Andrew Hawkins and Mohamed Sanu at receiver. In the playoff loss to the San Diego Chargers, he got pass-happy.

“Jay sees the offense through the eyes of the quarterback, and having played the position, he has a great deal of respect for the position,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said at the NFL owners meetings in this Washington Post story. “He’ll say these guys are the luckiest guys because he would’ve given his right arm – left arm, I guess – to have the opportunity to be an NFL quarterback. So, he really is conscientious of that. He really has things unfold through the eyes of the quarterback."

Because he sees things as a quarterback, will he rely more on the passing game? It has been an argument used against Jason Garrett for his years as the playcaller with the Dallas Cowboys. Sean Payton was a quarterback and he leans more to the pass with the New Orleans Saints.

It’s only natural.

But Morris offers Gruden a better running back than what he had in Cincinnati. He rushed for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie in 2012. He followed that up with 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013.

Was it a function of Mike Shanahan’s scheme and the coach’s ability to find running backs anywhere and everywhere?

The NFL is a passing league these days, but Gruden can’t get away from Morris and become too pass-happy if the Redskins want to be successful.
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.
There’s no official word from the Cincinnati Bengals, but several reports -- including from ESPN’s Adam Schefter -- say the Bengals plan to match the Cleveland Browns' offer sheet given receiver Andrew Hawkins.

The Browns deserve credit for making an aggressive move to add a guy with playmaking ability.

It will cost the Bengals, but clearly they value Hawkins’ contributions to their passing game if they match. Cincinnati has five days to make a decision.

What’s next for the Browns if the Bengals match the offer sheet? Julian Edelman of New England makes a lot of sense.

Edelman is close friends with Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, he went to Kent State, and he is reliable. He stepped in for the departed Wes Walker in 2013 and caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards.
Upgrades, replacement parts or both?

Did the Cleveland Browns take a step forward on the first day of free agency with their three signings, or did they merely bring in replacements for guys who left?

Maybe it depends on point of view.

The Browns lost an inside linebacker and receiver this offseason when they released D'Qwell Jackson and Davone Bess. They lost a safety when T.J. Ward signed with Denver as a free agent.

In free agency, they agreed with an inside linebacker in Karlos Dansby, agreed to an offer sheet with receiver Andrew Hawkins and agreed with safety Donte Whitner.

Out goes one, in comes another.

All the new guys are good players. Whitner and Dansby are aggressive guys who are not afraid to lead. Both are older than the guys they replaced, but both can play. Hawkins is younger than Bess, and (assuming the Bengals do not match the offer) is faster, more explosive and more dependable than Bess, who developed a good case of the dropsies in Cleveland.

Are the Browns better than they were on Tuesday? The team would say yes, that they have added explosive, aggressive players who can make impact plays on defense, in the passing game and on special teams. Too, the players signed -- while not "big-ticket" guys -- are good, dependable players. They are far better than just "guys" who fill the roster. They can play, and that's good.

But the argument can be made that because the Browns lost players at each of the positions, the team merely has filled holes. The players may be better, but it's not like upgrading from a college backup to Tom Brady. The two defensive guys lost contributed to the Browns the past few years. The new guys may be better, but they are better by degrees, not leaps and bounds. Still, by that measurement, the Browns improved. But they won't make significant steps forward until they add players to the mix, not remake the mix.

If the Browns take what they've done and add another good player or two, they will have taken a step forward. The draft awaits, and the Browns have more picks than some teams do in two years.

The first day of free agency was a start. It wasn't merely treading water. But it also wasn't a huge splash. It was a start.

But for a team that has a bunch of false starts the past few years, a start is something.
CINCINNATI -- One of Marvin Lewis' most-used phrases is "explosive plays."

The object of the game defensively is to cut down on the amount of them, the Cincinnati Bengals coach likes to say. Offensively, he adds, the idea is to rack up as many as of them on offense as possible.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins is an explosive play waiting to happen. If the Bengals fail in the next five days to match the offer sheet the Browns have extended the restricted free agent, they could be doing their offense a real disservice.

From the time he stepped foot in Paul Brown Stadium fresh out of the CFL three seasons ago, Hawkins proved that big gains were his forte. Making defenders miss was one of his greatest strengths. The elite, sub-4.4 40-yard speed his 5-foot-7 frame contained was key in his ability to turn a simple screen pass at the line of scrimmage into a 20-, 25- or 30-yard gain downfield.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Andrew Hawkins
AP Photo/Gregory BullAndrew Hawkins has demonstrated the ability to gain plenty of yards after the catch.
For a team hellbent on rededicating itself to the run and hoping to use play action among other tools to open up the passing game for quarterback Andy Dalton, screens to the outer edge and quick interior dump routes to slot receivers could help keep linebackers and safeties honest. As the Bengals look to better their offense under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, it would behoove them to do that as much as possible. Given the combination of Hawkins' size with the comparative enormity of the Bengals' offensive tackles and guards and tight ends, Hawkins' potential for confusion could be limitless.

It was tough last season to see just how much havoc Hawkins could cause thanks to an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season. Even when he returned, he was slow to get back to form, getting caught from behind at the end of a couple big gains because his body wasn't quite in midseason form. He was just beginning to reach that point in the last few weeks of the season, finally starting to feel and look like his old self.

The Browns are banking on an adequate bounce-back year from him. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported they had extended him a multi-year deal. According to other reports, that deal is for four years and $12.2 million. It could climb to near $15 million after escalators are tabulated. NFL Network's Albert Breer reported Hawkins would be making more than $4 million guaranteed.

Such a deal puts to shame the $1.4 million low-round tender the Bengals offered Hawkins and their two other restricted free agents last week. Because of his status as a restricted free agent, though, the Bengals reserve the right to match the offer if they would like. Signs point to them being deliberate across the next five days as they make that decision. (Since this story was originally written, Schefter has reported the Bengals have plans to match the offer)

Hawkins has been a slot receiver most of his entire career. He finished the 2012 season as the Bengals No. 3 pass-catcher behind Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. With the emergence last fall of Marvin Jones, as well as Mohamed Sanu's high position on the depth chart, Hawkins has been considered by many to be the No. 4 receiver on the team entering free agency. If you include Gresham and fellow tight end Tyler Eifert, Hawkins suddenly slips to the sixth pass-catching option.

Perception and reality aren't always the same. You have to separate 2013 Hawkins from the 2012 version to see his real potential. He didn't have enough opportunities to prove himself last year because of the injury, making it tough to evaluate his year. Still, despite his limited production (12 receptions, 199 yards, no touchdowns), his yard-after-catch numbers impressed.

Of Hawkins' 199 yards, 188 came while he was playing in the slot, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Of those, 114 came after the catch. That means 60.6 percent of his yards gained last season came after the catch. In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. He had 257 yards after the catch, and 449 overall. Only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot, but none of their percentages of YAC yards came close to Hawkins'.

"Explosive plays" are largely indefinable. Some consider them runs of 15 yards or more or passes of 20 yards or more. Others consider anything greater than 15 yards to be explosive. Following the latter logic, we see that five of Hawkins' 12 catches in 2013 resulted in gains of 15 yards or more. On one of them, he gained 25 yards after the catch. On another, 17. One more picked him up an additional 41 yards.

Credit that quite simply to speed and playmaking ability.

While the former Toledo standout would gladly call Cleveland home the next four years, Cincinnati has a few reasons to prevent that from happening. As the Bengals try to lock down other players whose contracts expire next year, and hold out some sliver of hope that offensive tackle Anthony Collins might be convinced to stay, it may make little sense to spend $3 million per year or more on the No. 4 receiver. But again, the perception about what type of player Hawkins is doesn't meet his reality.

He's a playmaker, pure and simple.



CINCINNATI -- There will be other, more glamorous free-agency signings than the one the Cincinnati Bengals announced just before noon Tuesday. That is a fact.

But that shouldn't diminish the importance of the organization's decision to bring back Brandon Tate.

OK, so his name didn't have the free-agency sex appeal of Michael Johnson's. He wasn't courted by as many teams as Andrew Hawkins and won't be making as much money next year as Anthony Collins. Still, his return to Cincinnati has a much deeper meaning than the fact he's a little-used backup receiver who occasionally returns a few kicks.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Brandon Tate
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY SportsFifth-year veteran Brandon Tate is considered to be one of the Cincinnati Bengals' "core special teams players," says coordinator Darrin Simmons.
Tate's re-signing embodies what this particular offseason will be all about for the Bengals. When it comes to adding and retaining players, the mission in 2014 is about creating depth. You've already seen it in free agency with Cincinnati's re-signing of offensive guard Mike Pollak last weekend. You'll see it in the draft when the Bengals start looking at cornerbacks who can play both the edge and the slot, as well as offensive linemen who can line up at some combination of guard, center and tackle.

Since their starting rotations are nearly set with defensive end Michael Johnson as the only casualty from 2013's regular rotation (it seems it will stay that way), the Bengals are calmly going through this offseason looking like a team with few major needs to address. That's why once the attention surrounding Johnson and Collins begins to fade, the Bengals' focus will shift toward role players, such as Tate.

The role Tate played last year in his third season in Cincinnati was an important one. Among qualifying kick returners he ranked ninth in the league in kick return average, consistently advancing the ball 26.1 yards per return. He also served as the team's primary punt returner once injuries in the secondary forced longtime return man Adam Jones to be a special teams observer.

While he was mostly better at returning kickoffs than he was at returning punts, Tate still had a knack for breaking a timely punt return, too. Arguably his best punt return of 2013 was a 29-yarder in overtime that helped set up Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal at Buffalo in October.

"Brandon's numbers speak for themselves, and I've got a lot of confidence in him," Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons said. "This could be a real breakout year for him."

Simmons and the Bengals haven't yet said whether Tate will remain the team's starting punt returner, but his statement of confidence seems a clear indication they're hopeful he can continue contributing there. With the anticipation of having a fully healthy secondary ahead of training camp, the Bengals have good reason to put Jones back in the normal punt-return rotation.

Tate's return gives the Bengals options, and those options could even increase in the coming months depending upon which players the Bengals end up drafting. Some of the defensive backs who stand the best chance of being claimed early in the draft by Cincinnati have punt and/or kick return experience.

Along with Tate's occasionally explosive special teams play, he also provides a measure of sure-handedness. In his five NFL seasons -- the first two in New England -- Tate has only one fumble and three dropped passes in 71 attempts. He's another veteran who not only knows what it takes to win in Cincinnati, but has some measure of postseason experience with a franchise regarded as one of the NFL's modern-era dynasties.

There's also the depth Tate provides at receiver. One of the deepest returning positions, the Bengals have strong personnel numbers at receiver. Still, they need to bolster their ranks there just in case. Hawkins is an unrestricted free agent, as is Dane Sanzenbacher. After offering tenders to both players last week, the Bengals are in wait-and-see mode until another team formally offers the pair salary numbers that can be matched. In the event Cincinnati can't match one or both of the free-agent receivers, at least they still have Tate as a last resort pass-catching option.

No, Tate's re-signing isn't sexy nor should it even be attempted to be construed that way. But it's just the type of important, depth-chart specific move that a team looking to build off its relative success from a year ago is trying to maintain.

Britt, Hawkins on Redskins' radar

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
5:15
PM ET
If the Redskins upgrade at receiver, it might take a reclamation project to help them do so. According to multiple sources, the Redskins are interested in Tennessee receiver Kenny Britt, whose career to date has been marked by an inability to maximize his so-called potential.

Britt
Britt
Hawkins
A team source also said the Redskins are interested in restricted free agent receiver Andrew Hawkins. They also could be in on free agent running back Darren Sproles, according to Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman.

None of these names should be surprising given that the first two have been attached to the Redskins for some time. Hawkins played for Redskins coach Jay Gruden in Cincinnati. Hawkins is restricted, but the Bengals gave him a low tender. That means the Bengals would have the ability to match, but the Redskins would not have to surrender any compensation because he was an undrafted free agent.

If the Redskins sign Hawkins, it likely would mean the end of Santana Moss' Redskins career. They still feel he can play, but Hawkins is younger and faster. He's caught 86 career passes in three seasons, although he missed eight games this past season with a high ankle sprain.

If nothing else, Hawkins, who turned 28 on Monday, is a terrific story, as this Sports Illustrated article can attest.

Britt is a classic case of signing a guy just in case he finally achieves what many thought he might upon being a first-round pick in 2009. He's caught 157 passes in five seasons but never more than 45, and in three seasons he's played in 12 games or fewer. He tore his ACL in 2011, and the knee has reportedly been an issue since that time. Britt also has had multiple run-ins with the police since entering the league and was suspended for one game in 2012 after an arrest on suspicion of DUI.

At one point the Redskins were thought to be interested in receiver Hakeem Nicks, too. But that interest might have cooled.

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