Will the signing Andrew Hawkins pay off for the Browns?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Hawkins is officially a Brown after the Bengals opted not to match his offer sheet. Was the deal a coup for Cleveland or a move it'll come to regret?

When it comes to salary hierarchy on an NFL offense, there is no question quarterbacks lead the way. Left tackles come next, typically followed by No. 1 receivers, running backs, right tackles, etc. Somewhere well down the list is the slot receiver, or at least it has been.

While the best pure slot receivers rack up catches and yards in bunches, their production is often met with the rationale of "yeah, but slot receivers are a dime a dozen." Some of the most prolific slot receivers have struggled to find lucrative contracts in free agency. That mentality and salary trend began to change in recent seasons. Teams are more willing to pay for production in the modern-day NFL, but in order for a slot receiver to find a deal, he typically has to have produced at nearly a 100-catch-per-season level.

Then there is Andrew Hawkins.

Hawkins hasn't produced like a Wes Welker. Hawkins doesn't have the versatility to play inside or out like a Victor Cruz. Hawkins doesn't even have a 100-catch season on his resume like a Julian Edelman. Consider for a moment that Edelman's totals from last season (105 catches, 1,056 yards, six TDs) are more than what Hawkins amassed in three seasons with Cincinnati (86 catches, 995 yards, four TDs).

The fact Edelman's four-year, $17 million deal is only moderately better than Hawkins four-year, $13.6 million pact makes it seem like either the Patriots got a steal or the Browns overpaid. Dexter McCluster's three-year, $9 million contract doesn't make Hawkins' deal look any better for Cleveland. On paper, it certainly looks like the Browns drastically overpaid for Hawkins. Whether that proves to be the case will depend entirely on how Hawkins takes advantage of a massive opportunity.

A year ago, Edelman received little interest before signing a one-year, $1 million deal. He didn't change drastically as a player from 2012 to 2013, but his opportunity changed. He wen't from buried on the depth chart to starting. Hawkins now has that same opportunity. Injuries derailed the start of his season last year and he fell to fourth on the depth chart. He's an instant starter in the slot for Cleveland and could be in line for 100 or more targets next season. With Josh Gordon drawing coverage on the outside, Hawkins is going to be free to work and use his exceptional quickness and lateral agility.

If you were a general manager, which of these four players would you prefer?

Player Catch Rate Yards Per Target Yards Per Catch Average Annual Salary
Player A 71.6 percent 7.8 11.1 $6 million
Player B 66.4 percent 6.3 9.4 $5.7 million
Player C 65.1 percent 7.5 11.6 $3.4 million
Player D 67.1 percent 6.8 10.2 $4.25 million
Player E 66.4 percent 5.8 8.7 $3 million

Players A and C are the most efficient of the four, although Player C makes nearly half of what Player A does. Player D is third, both in yards per target and salary while Player B is the second-highest paid but the second-least productive. In this case, Hawkins is Player C, Welker is Player A, Edelman is Player D, McCluster is Player E and Danny Amendola is Player B.

All of a sudden, that contract doesn't look so bad.

That isn't to say Hawkins will immediately become as productive as Welker, but at least on a per target basis he has been. Hawkins has done more with his opportunities than Edelman, he just hasn't had the benefit of a 150-target season. McCluster provides value as a return man, but is no where near the receiver Hawkins is.

Which brings us back to that contract. Hawkins is an immediate upgrade over Davone Bess and should be one of the top targets for whoever plays quarterback for the Browns next season. If he is targeted 125 times, it's entirely realistic Hawkins will produce on a similar level to what Edelman did last season. The biggest difference is when Hawkins' numbers spike due to bigger opportunity he won't immediately hit the market. The Browns will have him locked in for three more seasons at a very reasonable rate.

It's a gamble, sure. Hawkins has had injury issues and has never proven he can handle a 100-plus target workload. However, with plenty of salary cap space, it's a worthwhile gamble for the Browns who will pay Hawkins $5.8 million next season. If he works out and blows up, great, you have your slot receiver for the next three seasons on the cheap. If not, the deal won't hurt you long-term and you can move on.

On paper it looks it may look like a bust, but by next year the Browns might be lauded for one of the shrewdest moves of free agency.

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