Athletes can perform in vastly different ways after spending extended time away from their sport. For every Michael Vick, who returned from his two-year prison sentence in 2010 to set career highs in numerous passing categories for the Philadelphia Eagles, there is a Ron Artest, experienced a steady decline after being suspended for a majority of the 2004 NBA season.
In the case of Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Josh Gordon, considering just how volatile the past few years have been for him, his career could follow either of these paths.
Ever since being selected by the Browns in the second round of the 2012 Supplemental Draft, Gordon has battled seemingly unending drug suspensions.
Although his rookie season went swimmingly, Gordon’s tribulations started immediately afterwards, as he was suspended for two games in 2013 just months after the season was over, and with time, the suspensions snowballed. After Gordon’s latest ban, which had already lingered for almost two seasons, had been made indefinite midway through 2016, it seemed as though Gordon’s career, at just 25 years of age, was over.
The Browns’ head coach, Hue Jackson, was quoted as saying that the Browns were “going to move on” from the beleaguered wide receiver, and local radio analysts like Tony Grossi actually went as far as to impose bans on themselves from talking about Gordon on social media. However, in crazy, miraculous fashion, as suddenly as Gordon seemed to have been erased by the NFL, he resurfaced.
Just this past season, after meeting with league commissioner Roger Goodell in late October, Gordon was subsequently reinstated from his indefinite ban for the Browns’ Week 13 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Possibly sensing desperation due to the Browns’ winless start, or maybe simply having been swayed by a sudden change of heart, Hue Jackson now sang a different tune. Calling Gordon’s struggles with substance abuse a “disease,” Jackson made sure to note that Gordon would be a significant part of the Browns’ game plan going forward.
Since then, Gordon has played in four games, racking up 220 receiving yards and one touchdown.
From a fantasy football perspective, this makes Gordon an extremely unique case. At Baylor, Gordon was the epitome of the “traits vs. production” dichotomy. On tape, Gordon looks like a clone of the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones (who, ironically, the Browns traded out of an opportunity to draft in 2011).
With the same scorching speed, overwhelming size, strength at the catch point, and inane body control in adjusting to poor throws, Gordon, like Jones, truly is the complete package. However, Gordon’s on-field output told an entirely different tale.
Racking up just 721 yards and seven touchdowns over two seasons, Gordon’s stat line alone made him a major risk, and that is without even factoring in Gordon’s struggles with substance abuse and numerous team-imposed suspensions in college.
Initially, though, that risk seemed to pay off for the Browns. After eclipsing 800 yards as a rookie, Gordon went off in 2013. In just 14 games, Gordon hauled in 87 passes for a ridiculous 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns–from quarterbacks like Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, and Brian Hoyer.
If that isn’t otherworldly enough, Gordon put together two consecutive 200+ yard receiving games, making him the first player in NFL history to accomplish such a feat. With a season like that under his belt, Gordon seemed poised to swiftly develop into the record-breaking, Hall of Fame-type talent that his physical profile made him out to be.
From that point on, however, through the endless months and years of suspensions, Gordon’s production only petered out. In his five starts after returning from a ten-game ban in 2014, Gordon managed just 303 yards and no touchdowns. When dilated over an entire, 16-game schedule, the total fails to even eclipse 1,000 yards.
This year, fresh off of nearly three seasons out of the league, Gordon’s numbers have told a similar story. After coming in hot with 85 yards against the Chargers, one of the NFL’s most daunting defenses, Gordon’s production has consistently declined each week.
While such a discrepancy from season to season may not make sense at a glance, on film, the underlying reasons are clear. Firstly, it must be noted that Gordon’s tools are still very much evident. Against the Chargers, Gordon was a physical menace.
Whether it be in making a contorting high-point grab over CB Casey Hayward, stiff-arming his way to a hefty gain towards the end of the game, or even simply adjusting his body to sharp throws behind him, Gordon showed that, even years removed from football, he remains a marquee talent.
Simply put, Gordon is a “baller”–the game comes naturally to him. On just a week of practice with the team, Gordon was already instinctively finding the sticks on third downs and naturally making hands catches away from his body. With that said, though, many of the game’s nuances have yet to return for him.
Gordon’s most notable struggle has come in his chemistry with quarterback DeShone Kizer. There were numerous plays over the course of Gordon’s four starts where Gordon and Kizer simply have not been on the same page.
While it may be subtle, such as in Gordon cutting off a hitch a couple steps too late, it still kills the play, and may suggest that Gordon requires extensive offseason work with his quarterback room to truly be successful.
Furthermore, Gordon has appeared slow coming out of breaks. On hitch routes in particular, Gordon has been able to stop and turn on a dime at the top of the route, but has failed to come back to and attack the ball out of the break. Considering Kizer’s existing accuracy issues, this bizarre tendency from Gordon exacerbated even the most benign of misses.
So, in projecting Gordon’s fantasy future, there are numerous variables to take into account. Firstly, will Gordon be able to avoid relapsing into his past struggles, and stay off the suspended list? Considering that he now has a daughter to raise, and has been through an extensive rehabilitation program, it is only fair to say that he will.
Secondly, will Gordon be able to develop much-needed chemistry with his future quarterbacks? Assuming that he avoids any future suspensions, it is reasonable to assume that he would after a full off-season.
Finally, will Gordon be able to overcome his recent issues in coming out of breaks and playing the ball? Such a correction would require a great deal of meticulous coaching. Unfortunately, Hue Jackson is rumored to be returning to the Browns after this season, and considering how he has bungled the development of so many other players, including safety Jabrill Peppers and running back Duke Johnson, Jr., his tutelage will likely do Gordon no favors.
However, that may not even end up being an major issue when all is said and done. One problem with having Kizer at QB is not just in that he is inaccurate; it is in how he is inaccurate. When Kizer misses, he tends to miss high, which has given Gordon virtually no chance at the ball on countless plays.
So, even though Gordon has played with inaccurate quarterbacks his entire career, his catch percentage (40%) this year, is more than ten percentage points lower than in any other. However, if Kizer is replaced, Gordon’s numbers will likely rise, even if the issue in playing the ball is not coached up.
With that said, look for Gordon to rebound next season. His 2013 production is utterly unsustainable, and may never be replicated. However, after a full offseason of team work, extended playing time, and, potentially a new quarterback, 75 catches for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns seems like a reasonable–if not conservative–projection.