by Ray Kuhn
Welcome to the NFL, Johnny Manziel. Not only do you have to compete for the starting quarterback job with Brian Hoyer, which isn’t actually a bad thing and is a story for another time, but your best wide receiver entering the season is Miles Austin.
Of course, it was not supposed to be like that. Manziel, or Hoyer, was supposed to have the dynamic Josh Gordon to target downfield in 2014. Instead, it appears that Gordon’s season will be lost due to a suspension for drug use (though he is currently appealing), and now Austin is the guy. We also cannot forget tight end Jordan Cameron emerged as a threat last season, but out of Cleveland’s receivers Austin has the best track record.
You could make an argument for Nate Buerleson, or maybe Earl Bennett who Cleveland signed this off-season, but if healthy Austin is the one to watch. The Browns also added Andrew Hawkins, but all four of their top receivers come with question marks. However, if there is one that should be targeted on draft day and could be a sneaky WR4 or WR5 it is Austin.
As long as he can stay healthy, Austin will have value this season. That is an awfully big question, though…
Austin can be referred to as being an “old” 30 when the season starts. Staying on the field has been an issue for him, and last season was pretty much a dud as a hamstring injury limited him to just 11 games and 24 catches for 244 yards. Any injury is not a good thing, but a hamstring injury for an older receiver is even more problematic. At the same time, Austin has now had the entire off-season to get healthy and it is possible that last year can be just written off. The problem is that it has now been three years since he eclipsed 1,000 yards.
In 2009, Austin burst on the scene with 1,320 yards on 81 catches while scoring 11 touchdowns. He followed that up the following season with 1,041 yards on 69 catches and seven touchdowns. To say that piqued the interest of fantasy owners would be an understatement. Instead, Austin was limited to just 10 games due to injuries in 2011 (and began his downslide).
At this point he has received the injury prone label and really did not garner much free agent attention. I am not advocating declaring Austin healthy, but for me it’s more of an issue as to his role in Training Camp and how his hamstring appears to respond. In 2012 he also appeared in 16 games, this time gaining 943 yards while catching 66 passes and scoring six touchdowns.
Assuming that he is healthy, Austin’s 2012 performance should be the baseline for his projection. Again, that is a big assumption. Especially when he went virtually untouched on the free agent market until the Browns became desperate.
Once you get past the top 50 or so receivers, for the most part there are a lot of upside plays and interchangeable parts. I wouldn’t draft Austin with the expectation of having him be an every week starter as it is possible he ends the season with 40 catches and 500 yards, but there is also the upside and possibility for 65 catches and 900 yards.
Ultimately I think Austin will be a matchup play depending on bye weeks and who the Browns face. It is possible he becomes an every week starter, but I would not bank on it. I would expect some good weeks and some weeks where Austin vanishes. A projection of 55 catches and 600 yards with five touchdowns seems reasonable to me.