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How is Baker Mayfield supposed to be his best self with the Browns’ sorry WR corps?

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Jarvis Landry is pretty good. And then ...

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Baker Mayfield was always going to have a tough time punching through college football’s atmosphere and into new frontier of the NFL. And the Cleveland Browns just haven’t done a good job of making things easier for him.

Years of regrettable roster management surrounded the rookie quarterback with a questionable supporting cast. He’s currently playing behind an offensive line that’s allowed him to be sacked on nearly 8 percent of his dropbacks — more than fellow rookies Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. And while a budding running game is doing work to relieve the pressure from his shoulders, an ever-shrinking pocket is forcing him to rely on his receivers to step up and make the plays that will allow Mayfield to be his best self.

And that’s not happening.

The Cleveland receiving corps was shallow coming into the 2018 preseason. After six weeks, it may be the worst in the league. Offseason prize Jarvis Landry has proven himself worthy of the massive extension he signed in May, but he’s gotten little support from the rest of the targets on the Browns roster. Through six games, the former Dolphin has 27 more targets than any other wide receiver on the roster. Antonio Callaway, the rookie fourth-round pick who comes in second, has caught just 38.5 percent of the passes thrown his way.

Callaway is just part of the problem when it comes to frustrating misses. Cleveland’s targets dropped an amazing nine catches in Week 4’s overtime loss to the Raiders. The Browns as a whole have dropped 9.8 percent of Mayfield’s passes — by far the highest rate in the league.

It’s made the Cleveland passing attack easy to plan against. With no one else in the lineup to threaten opposing secondaries, opponents have double- and triple-teamed Landry in order to take him out of the equation. It’s worked; Mayfield targeted his top receiver nine times in Week 6’s loss to the Chargers. Landry finished his day with two catches for 11 yards — both season lows.

And help doesn’t appear to be on the way

The Browns’ WR depth chart has been a study in attrition

When the preseason rolled around, Cleveland’s unofficial depth chart at wide receiver looked like this:

WR1: Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Damion Ratley
WR2: (Josh Gordon), Corey Coleman, Antonio Callaway, Jeff Janis

That wasn’t great, but with Josh Gordon set to return from a pre-emptive strike against his substance abuse issues, Coleman hopefully reaching the potential that made him a 2016 first-round pick, and Higgins building off an up-and-down 2017, there was plenty of room for the Browns to exceed expectations.

But here’s how that group might look for Week 7’s game against the Buccaneers:

WR1: Landry, Ratley, Da’Mari Scott
WR2: Callaway, Breshad Perriman

That’s quite a change. Gordon caught a game-tying touchdown against the Steelers in Week 1, then dropped the straw that broke the camel’s back by allegedly injuring himself doing a photoshoot at the team facility, necessitating a trade to New England. On Sunday, he was Tom Brady’s top target in a 43-40 win over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. This may or may not be germane to the story, but it is 100 percent Browns.

Coleman was stuck playing with the second team, which caused him to ask for and receive a trade. To Buffalo. Where he failed to make the club’s final 53-man roster and is now a member of the Giants’ practice squad after failing to catch on in New England. Higgins is expected to miss a few weeks due to a sprained MCL. Janis didn’t survive the preseason.

Da’Mari Scott got called up from the team’s practice squad Tuesday. Perriman, the Ravens’ first-round pick in 2015, was signed last Saturday during a year where he’s been released by both Baltimore and Washington. In three-plus NFL seasons he’s got 43 career receptions, but head coach Hue Jackson is already lining him up for a major role alongside Mayfield.

And those depth chart shifts don’t include 2017’s leading receiver Ricardo Louis, who will miss all of 2018 due to neck surgery, or midseason signee Rod Streater, who broke his neck on punt coverage duty in last week’s loss to the Chargers. Undrafted free agent Derrick Willies, who had three catches in the team’s win over the Ravens, could miss the rest of the year with a broken collarbone. Ratley missed a chunk of Week 6 due to hip and back problems.

This is all very unfair to Baker Mayfield

All in all, five of the 12 players currently on the Browns’ injury report are wideouts. If anything happens to Landry Sunday, Cleveland will be forced to rely on:

  • a fourth-round pick (Callaway, who would have been an earlier pick if not for the myriad off-field issues that have followed him to the pros)
  • a sixth-round pick who broke out for six catches and 82 yards last week and zero catches for zero yards the rest of the season to date (Ratley)
  • a practice squad promotee who had 1,163 total receiving yards in four years at Fresno State (Scott)
  • and a player who has already been cut by two teams in less than two months (Perriman).

That’s especially bad for Mayfield, a quarterback who is known for taking risks downfield and fitting balls into tight spaces. A good receiving corps can elevate an enthusiastic gambler who can make those throws by adjusting to the ball and battling through the NFL’s best defensive backs to rip down 50/50 passes. But a limited group of wideouts can translate those big plays into turnovers — which we’ve seen in Mayfield’s five interceptions and three fumbles through four games.

Tight end David Njoku has lent some support — he’s the team’s second-most targeted player — but he hasn’t yet had the breakout for which he’d been primed. Njoku is ostensibly a deep threat who can torch defensive backs with his elite athleticism. But this fall, he’s been asked to stay closer to the line of scrimmage in support of a limited passing game. Of Mayfield’s 32 targets to his top tight end, 22 of them have come within 9 yards of his line of scrimmage. That’s dragged his yards per catch average down from 12.1 as a rookie to 9.1 in 2018 — a number more in line with what a decent tailback would bring to the table out of the backfield as a receiver.

And the Browns have a solid backfield targets in Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde, but the Mayfield/Tyrod Taylor duo have struggled to utilize them much. That pair combined for 133 receptions in 2017. This season, they’re on pace to finish the year with 53 total catches — though Johnson’s had nine receptions in Mayfield’s three starts so far. Each has seen their catch rate drop significantly this fall.

That leaves Mayfield with plenty of work to do in order to make an ever-changing receiving corps dangerous. Landry has shown off the chops to be his team’s top target, but he can’t shine if he’s getting thrown nothing but double teams. He needs support from his teammates, and while young players like Callaway and Higgins could get there eventually, they’re currently major question marks.

In the meantime, the Browns are going to be easy to figure out. The good news is the league’s fifth-ranked rushing offense can take some of the burden off of its rookie quarterback. The bad news is Cleveland may have to wait until 2019 — or beyond — to fix its receiving problems.