When the Browns travel to Baltimore, to play in front of a national television audience on Thursday, the best tight end ever to wear a Browns uniform will probably be in attendance. From 1978-1990, Ozzie Newsome caught 662 passes for the Cleveland Browns, including at least one catch in 150 consecutive contests from 1979-1989. Unfortunately, his place in the ring of honor notwithstanding, the "Wizard of Oz" stopped being a Cleveland Brown when he accompanied Art Modell to Baltimore before the 1996 season.
The Browns have retired five numbers, but Ozzie's #82 is still in regular rotation. Steve Heiden has worn it, and Ben Watson continues to wear it to this day. Despite my sentiments with Newsome and Baltimore, it's not a sour grapes move as much as it is the reality of making a number in the 80s unavailable for receivers on today's rosters. Heiden and Watson are both Tight Ends, like Ozzie, and the latter was the team's leading receiver in 2010 with 68 catches for 763 yards, both career highs for Watson.
Watson's numbers dropped off a bit in Pat Shurmur's offense a year ago. At 37 receptions for 410 yards, his yards per catch (11.1) were about the same, but Evan Moore, a late addition to the roster in 2010, put up similar numbers (34 receptions, 324 yards). Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the Tight End position than simply running routes and catching passes. You have to be able to block, which former Tampa Buccaneer Alex Smith does very well, and it virtually guarantees him a roster spot, despite lacking in the pass-catching (and short-yardage rushing) department.
In fact, it was Moore, a converted wide-out, that was given his walking papers to bring second-year player Jordan Cameron to the forefront. After an inspiring 6 catch, 33-yard rookie campaign, the Browns have been selling the idea of doing more to feature the 6'5" Tight End to anyone who will listen. Those who watch August football may have seen glimpses, but it was Sunday's game against Buffalo where the regular season fans got their first real view of what this guy is all about.
Cameron, who did not play in the Browns first two games of the season, ended the day with 5 catches for 45 yards, both team highs for the Browns. And while we'll hold off on preparing Canton for his arrival, what we saw on Sunday was a nice sample size. His long went for 18 yards, and the reality is that he was often Brandon Weeden's last resort, but he did have receptions for positive yards on both of the Browns TD drives on Sunday. By the way, Ozzie Newsome also had five catches (for 90 yards, TD) in the first of his 150 consecutive games with a catch. Nobody wants to put the cart before the horse here, Cameron's 11 career grabs might just be the beginning.
The biggest concern that the analysts have with the Tight End position in the NFL these days is that the prototypes are all in the gym, playing power forward. Trying basketball players on the gridiron is nothing new; the Browns drafted Sam Clancy in the 1982 Draft to play defensive end, even though he was a standout in hoops at Pitt. More recently, John Cooper pulled Rickey Dudley out of Randy Ayers gym to make him into a Tight End for Ohio State, and Dudley ended up playing for the Raiders, Browns, and Buccaneers over the course of a 9-year NFL career.
Now, the Browns took Cameron in the fourth round (#102 overall) out of USC in 2011, even though he was out-performed by two other Trojan Tight Ends statistically. In 2010, David Ausberry and Rhett Ellison both bested Cameron in receptions and yards, but the Browns second-year player was drafted higher than both of them. While a lot of people may get overly excited about the converted hoopster angle, and let their mind go directly to Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, a fairer comparison here might be Jimmy Graham of the Saints. That's still high praise. Former Cleveland State Power Forward J'Nathan Bullock was brought into Jets camp, but quickly waived, so it's not necessarily a perfect formula.
When the Browns drafted Cameron, Graham had only one season in the books for New Orleans. His humble beginnings included 5 TD receptions, and 31 catches for 356 yards. It only got better for Graham in his second season, but we do have to acknowledge that Drew Brees plays a role in any receiver's success down in the Bayou. Unless the Browns get a quarterback that develops an unprecedented chemistry with Jordan Cameron, don't expect any 100-catch or 1,000-yard seasons from him. To keep things on an apples-to-apples level, Cameron was targeted 7 times on Sunday, while Brees threw towards Graham 8 times (4 receptions, 16 yards) in an OT loss to Kansas City, but we don't want to get too excited about the contribution of a player on another 0-3 team.
The Saints aren't losing because they aren't scoring. Graham, who spent the majority of his time down at The U playing basketball, only hauled in 17 passes for 213 yards (but 5 TD) for the Canes, in his one season playing football. In three games this season, he has 17 catches for 172 yards and 3 TDs. He is the first Tight End in Saints history to have 1,000 yards receiving. With whatever respect is due Dudley for the transition, history will remember Tony Gonzalez as the one who paved the road from the hardwood to the gridiron. As a serviceable basketball player at Cal, Gonzalez chose to play football full-time after playing in the Sweet 16 for the Golden Bears as a Junior. With over 1,100 catches, and nearly 100 TDs, there can be no regret for the future Hall-of-Famer. With apologies to Mr. Newsome and Coach Ditka, Tony Gonzalez may very well end up being the best ever to play the position.
Antonio Gates was initially supposed to spend his collegiate years at Michigan State, spending his autumns with Nick Saban and his winters with Tom Izzo, but Saban angered Gates into playing basketball full-time at Eastern Michigan, which didn't last. In a round-about way, Gates ended up playing for Stan Heath on a memorable Kent State basketball team in 2002. He was undrafted by the NFL's 32 teams, and landed with the Chargers in 2003, catching passes from Drew Brees. Gates, another best case scenario power forward/tight end convert, is having a nice career of his own, now in his tenth season, with over 13 yards a catch. But, let me allow myself to bring this thing back to earth. We're talking about two guys (three if you want to include Graham) in the last fifteen years that are out of this world, what do you think the chances are that the fifth is going to be a guy that Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert found in the fourth round?
With a corps of receivers that strikes fear into the hearts of no one, it may be nice to watch this young weapon develop. We must remember that he's raw, and with the future invested in a powerful running back like Trent Richardson, the Browns might have to pick and choose their spots for Cameron while Smith and Watson are in to block. However, in passing situations, he does present the classic dilemma for defensive coordinators; he's too big for your typical corner and too fast for the average linebacker. We got a small taste of what we might see with this guy in the future, and you never know.
The future might not suck.