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Gut Check No.324: What to Expect From Josh Gordon

Waldman examines the Browns' schedule and its passing game to forecast Gordon's year-end production.

Did you go all-in on Josh Gordon this year? Are you thinking about acquiring the troubled stud for a potential stretch run? What should you expect from Gordon when he returns? It's an all-Gordon column in this week's Gut Check. 

Paying The Free Agency Piper for Gordon: What Did I miss?

I own Gordon in two Footballguys' staff leagues. One of them is an IDP dynasty league where my squad is underperforming in part to some close losses due to poor lineup decisions and two major injuries. My roster is stocked with enough talent that I can limit the focus of my talent acquisition to a few positions and contend in 2015. A healthy and behaved Gordon will be a huge difference maker next year. 

Like most of you, I'm more concerned about the here and now. The other league where I own the Browns' receiver is Footballguys OMEGA. I'm 5-5 and coming off a week where the trio of Peyton Manning, Marshawn, Lynch, and Emmanuel Sanders accounted for over 115 fantasy points, but the rest of my squad is composed of mediocre performers I've had to scrape together during first-come, first-serve free agency because I blew my entire $500 budget on Gordon to begin the season. 

I like a challenge and I'll share the details because it's important perspective to consider when thinking about breaking the bank on a top free agent early in the season and wondering what you'll be missing if you pull the trigger. 

Three weeks ago, I was 2-5 and I have been unable to participate in our blind bidding since Week 1. I missed a shot at the likes of Martavis Bryant, Benny Cunningham, Allen Robinson, Tre Mason, and Justin Forsett. These five players were worth $549 in bids, which means in theory, I could have used the $500 budget that I spent on Gordon to win four of these five players.

There's no doubt that all five of these players could have helped my squad and I might be 6-4 or 7-3 instead of 5-5 and climbing over a pile of teams for a shot at a playoff spot. The only other free agent potentially worth the money in this league was Adrian Peterson (whom Adam Harstad blew his entire $500 budget to acquire last week). 

Despite missing a shot at five players who could have helped my team, these were the only paid-for skill player options that have earned their bidding prices in this league after 10 weeks. Although options like Chase Ford, Brandon Lloyd, Scott Chandler, Owen Daniels, Louis Murphy, aren't inspiring players, all of them have helped me in recent weeks as free acquisitions I've rotated on and off my roster.

My biggest mistake with my roster churning game thus far has been adding and dropping Branden Oliver a week before the Chargers' reserve kicked it into torrid mode. But it's all water under the bridge in Week 10: I'm 5-5 with a decent schedule against mostly underperforming teams in this league, the bye weeks no longer a major factor, and Gordon is returning in two weeks. 

The lone question that remains is will Gordon be productive enough to help your team (and mine) make a run? I'll share the method to the madness and a handful of forecasted scenarios ranging from fantasy disappointment to Man on Fire. 

Cleveland's Team Targets: How Does Gordon Fit in?

The official team stance is that Gordon will have to earn his way into the receiving rotation when he returns from his suspension. It could mean he'll earn limited targets in Week 12's match-up with Atlanta, but Martavis Bryant hasn't been the official starter in Pittsburgh and he has had to fight for his playing time in the offense. 

There are some cautious Bryant owners who probably wish they weren't in hindsight. Gordon may see limited time against Atlanta to get his game legs under him, but as long as he's in shape and well-prepared the current state of the Browns' passing game is low-hanging fruit for the big-play receiver. 

The following two charts detail the target distribution of the Browns skill players through Week 10 compared to Gordon's body of work from 2013. As you can imagine before looking at this chart, Cleveland is in dire need of a big-play element this year: 

Skill Player Targets (WR & TE Targets include rushing attmepts; RB targets don't.) 

PlayerTargetsConverted< 16<30> 3040+Red ZoneConvertedTDsTDs 30+ 
Andrew Hawkins 69 40 28 10 2 1 4 4 1 0  
Miles Austin 47 31 20 9 1 0 4 3 2 0  
Taylor Gabriel 42 27 16 7 4 2 6 6 0 1  
Travis Benjamin 28 17 9 5 3 1 4 3 3 1  
Jordan Cameron 31 13 6 4 3 3 3 0 0 1  
Jim Dray 13 10 6 3 1 0 2 2 1 0  
Gary Barnidge 16 9 7 2 0 0 1 0 0 0  
Ben Tate 11 7 5 2 0 0 0 0 0 0  
Terrance West 8 8 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 0  
Isaiah Crowell 4 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0  
Josh Gordon (2013) 66 38 21 10 7 2 5 2 0 3  
JG After Wk 10 93 53 27 19 7 7 10 1 1 4  
 

One of the most prominent takeaways from this distribution of targets is the fact that only 14 passes have been completed over 30 yards in the Browns' passing attack this year and almost half of them belong to tight end Jordan Cameron, who has only played in six games this year. Cameron has missed the past two weeks due to injury.

Last year, Gordon accounted for seven receptions for 30 yards or greater during the first 10 weeks of 2013 and added the same number of catches of greater than 30 yards after Week 10. Although the loss of center Alex Mack has hurt the Browns' ground game, the lack of a big-play weapon on the perimeter of this offense allows opposing defenses to place more defenders in the box. Defenses playing the Browns passing game don't have to devote multiple defenders to bracket a player and units have more confidence in sitting on routes while compressing the field. 

Watching the games, I've seen that one of the most effective vertical plays for the Browns has been a throwback to the opposite side set up with a play-action bootleg. These are great play calls, but they are not staples of a consistent vertical passing game that put constant fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. The Browns need a receiver capable of beating any corner deep without the benefit of trickery and neither Cameron nor the quartet of Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, and Miles Austin possess this ability without a receiver like Gordon opposite them to create a mismatch or a blown coverage.

With Gordon returning to the lineup, Cleveland has the running back talent--and enough healthy linemen--to see its ground game become more efficient. If Gordon and Cameron return soon, opposing defenses will pay for bracketing one of these two options and Brian Hoyer will make them pay.

Some may want to attribute a struggling vertical game to Hoyer, whose arm strength is among the worst of current NFL starting quarterbacks, but Hoyer had four plays in two games where he completes passes over 30 yards in length and in the Buffalo match-up where he got hurt, Gordon dropped a wide-open slant that would have gone for a 92-yard score based on the location of the Bills' defenders and Hoyer's accuracy to hit the receiver in stride.

I realize that some of you may not count a short slant for a long gain as a vertical play and the contention is Hoyer's lack of a plus-arm. However, Hoyer has demonstrated decent anticipation and accuracy on deeper routes, and where he struggles, Gordon is just the type of big, strong, high-jumping option capable of winning 50/50 balls that make the likes of Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo, Matt Stafford, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees look at least "pretty good" in the deep passing game.

With the exception of Brees, those quarterbacks all have big wide receivers with dangerous strength and speed after the catch to turn these short catches into long gains. Something that people neglect to realize is that the short routes for the likes of Calvin Johnson, Demayrius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Julio Jones, and Jordy Nelson all set up the vertical game with double moves or well-run deep patterns where they hint at the shorter route. Gordon is of this ilk that Cleveland has lacked for 10 weeks and counting. 

Same Chart as Above Converted to Percentages

One area where some areas may fear that Gordon won't directly help fantasy owners is the red area. During Gordon's fantastic 2013 stretch run, the receiver had a 10 percent red zone conversion rate with 1 touchdown between weeks 11-17.

PlayerTargetsConverted< 16<30> 3040+Red ZoneConvertedTDsTDs 30+ 
Andrew Hawkins 69 58% 70% 25% 5% 2.5% 4 100% 1 0  
Miles Austin 47 66% 65% 29% 3% 0% 4 75% 2 0  
Taylor Gabriel 42 64% 59% 26% 15% 7% 6 100% 0 1  
Travis Benjamin 28 61% 53% 29% 18% 6% 4 75% 3 1  
Jordan Cameron 31 42% 46% 31% 23% 23% 3 0% 0 1  
Jim Dray 13 77% 60% 30% 10% 0% 2 100% 1 0  
Gary Barnidge 16 56% 78% 22% 0% 0% 1 0% 0 0  
Ben Tate 11 64% 71% 29% 0% 0% 0 0% 0 0  
Terrance West 8 100% 88% 13% 0% 0% 0 0% 0 0  
Isaiah Crowell 4 75% 100% 0% 0% 0% 0 0% 0 0  
Josh Gordon (2013) 66 58% 55% 26% 18% 5% 5 40% 0 3  
JG After Wk 10 93 57% 51% 36% 13% 13% 10 10% 1 4  
 

Some of this can be attributed to a Browns' offense that lacked an established running back after it traded Trent Richardson in Week 3. Even when Richardson had an 11-touchdown season for the Browns in 2012, Gordon was 4-of-9 with 1 score on his red zone targets. This is closer to Gordon's rate of 40% during the first 10 weeks of 2013. 

I'm not buying any of this as gospel for Gordon's red zone potential, because in 2012 was Gordon's rookie year and the Browns ground game authored only four rushing touchdowns in 2013. Cleveland's 2014 RB depth chart already has 12 rushing scores--all attempts inside its opponents' 20--and the threat of the ground game is palpable enough for Gordon to benefit, especially when Cameron returns. 

Cleveland's Remaining Schedule 

Here are the average points allowed for each defense on Cleveland's schedule once Gordon returns to action. I sorted the receivers in to WR1-WR2-WR3 based on my perception of the type of skills they offer that are similar to Gordon in role and function within their respective offenses. 

Average Fantasy Points Allowed (PPR)

TeamQBsWR1sWR2sWR3sTEs
Atlanta 17.5 17 14.23 5.3 7.08
Buffalo 17.82 13.59 11.61 4.41 7.07
Indianapolis 17.52 13.1 11.7 5.95 13.62
Cincinnati 18.08 15.04 9.72 4.21 10.27
Carolina 22.14 19.9 10.2 4.6 6.08
Avg. 18.6 15.7 11.5 4.9 8.8
 

The schedule ahead is favorable for the a true WR1 with similar skill sets (not talent) to Gordon to produce between 11.4 to 15.7 fantasy points per game against these defenses. This range is based on the average of the WR2s as the low side and the WR1s as the high side. For a more conservative range, use the WR3 average as the bottom number, and I think this is a reasonable starting point to begin forecasting a projected average ROS (rest of the season) fantasy average for Gordon. 

Putting it All Together

During his 30-game career, Gordon has averaged 8.5 targets, 4.5 catches, 81 yards per week. He's scoring a touchdown early every other week.  Last year's torrid pace was 11.4 targets, 6.2 catches, 118 yards, and a touchdown a little more often than every other week. 

Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden were the quarterbacks for most of the 2013 season, and both have better arm strength than Hoyer. However, neither are as skilled at reading the field and displaying accuracy when moving to that second or third read. Weeden in particular tends to ramrod targets based on knowing where receivers are supposed to be (and not so much where they really are). In one of his starts, 10 of Weeden's 24 completions went to Gordon in a 10-261-2 stat-line versus the Jaguars. Don't expect Hoyer to lean so hard on Gordon.

With Jordan Cameron returning, there's a good chance that the greatest fantasy beneficiary will be Hoyer. I'd expect Gordon to cannibalize some of Andrew Hawkins' targets and most of Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin's. One of these three receivers will be relegated to the slot or the No.4 option in 2x2 sets.

Using the points allowed averages for the defenses that Cleveland will face should help refine what to expect with Gordon, given his career average falls in line with what his opponents allow. 

Fantasy WR3 Scenario (or Worse): 4.9 points per game fits a good estimation of what could happen if Gordon remains a part-time starter during the final six weeks of the season, and he fails to earn his way into the good graces of the coaching staff. A WR2 average of 11.5 points per game is probably the safest projection for Gordon if you want to factor in a slow start, but a stronger finish as he transitions back to the field. A WR1 average of 15.7 points per game would be the most optmistic forecast if you expect the talented option to hit the ground running. 

In yardage terms, the 4.9 WR3 fantasy-point average equates to roughly 2 catches per game for 17 yards over the next 5 weeks and only 1 touchdown during that span. It's a possibility no one wants to entertain, but if Johnny Manziel and Isaiah Crowell are examples of coach's mentality of "no one is bigger than the team," then we might see Gordon encounter a similar guiding hand from Mike Pettine.

I'm not saying Pettine's treatment of either rookie is actually a pattern of this mentality. I don't know, but it's important to entertain the possibility that the handling of these two talents have a similar thread. Personally, I don't believe Pettine is thinking this way, but if he is then a 4.9 average might fit this narrative. 

Fantasy WR2 Scenario: An 11.9 fantasy points per game average is roughly 4 catches and 40-45 yards per week with 3 touchdowns during the final 5 weeks. Modest starter numbers, but still helpful fantasy production if need receiver help. I'd consider this Gordon's true floor if he's healthy and in the good graces of the staff. It also fits the staff's claims that it won't force feed Gordon, which, when you look at his average production, the team rarely has.  

Fantasy WR1 Scenario: The WR1 average of 15.7 fantasy points per game is roughly 4 catches for 70 yards per game with 4 touchdowns. This seems most fitting for Gordon's abilities as a fantasy floor and his fit within the Browns' offense if he wasn't returning from suspension. 

I'm most confident in the WR1 average because of Hoyer's competence, the ground game, and the return of Cameron all provides enough balance to prevent defenses from bracketing him in every passing situation. Sadly, I wouldn't be surprised if Gordon's first week is somewhat disappointing despite playing a weak Atlanta unit. Unless we hear that Gordon is on fire in practice then I'd project 2-3 catches for 40-50 yards against the Falcons. 

With a week under his belt and a full two weeks of practice with Hoyer, 3-4 catches, 50-60 yards, and a score against Buffalo seems reasonable. I'd expect a bit of a let-down against Indianapolis' physical corners with similar production without a score. If Gordon remains healthy after these three games and the protracted layoff, then expect bigger efforts against the Bengals in Panthers during the final weeks. 

Gordon and Hoyer should be in sync by this point and consecutive 100-yard games wouldn't be out of the question. I'm forecasting 6 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals and ringing up the Panthers for 6 grabs for 110 yards and 2 scores.

Man on Fire Scenario: If Gordon sets Atlanta on fire during his opening game, which considering he's been working out at the Browns' facility and reportedly working very hard, there's little preventing the receiver from doubling that forecast average.

I'm not predicting Gordon to become a dominant fantasy force down the stretch. It's possible, which is why his appeal was strong enough to blow the bank on him. For those of you who gambled, these more reasonable projections should help you determine how else you'll need to fortify your lineup during your stretch run.

For those of you who were more measured about Gordon's prospects and hope to acquire him in a deall, perhaps these projections will help you negotiate a more sensible offer from the current fantasy owner. I doubt it, but it's worth a try. 

Don't come knocking on my door.