When the Browns selected wide receiver Rashard Higgins with the third of their four fifth-round picks in the 2016 National Football League college draft, I believed it was a solid choice.
I thought he would be drafted higher and was happy to see he was there for the Browns. Of the four receivers they selected in that draft, I thought he had the best chance of doing well in an offense that badly needed quality wideouts.
One draft guru labeled the 6-1, 200-pounder “one of the most pro-ready” wide receivers in the lottery because he had grown up in a pro-style offense at Colorado State.
He established numerous receiving records for the Rams, catching 239 passes for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns. In 2014, he was named an All-America after leading the nation with 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
So it was puzzling when the CSU standout caught only six passes for 77 yards for the Browns last season and was targeted just a dozen times all season. He became an afterthought when game-planning.
Had Browns scouts simply made a mistake in evaluating him? It was apparent the coaching staff didn’t think much of him.
Drafting in the NFL is somewhat of a guessing game to begin with. In selecting four wide receivers, perhaps they figured the odds of uncovering a standout were in their favor. None really panned out.
When 2017 training camp convened in August, Higgins seemingly continued to be an afterthought. He caught only three passes – he was targeted six times – for 26 yards and a couple of first downs in two exhibition games.
He made the final cut, was waived a week before the season opener against Pittsburgh in order to pick up other roster cuts off waivers. He then was signed to the practice squad, where he languished until several days ago, when he was promoted to the varsity.
It raised more than a few eyebrows. What in the world had Higgins done to warrant the promotion? The Browns – and the Baltimore Ravens’ defense – found out Sunday in the 24-10 loss.
The fact he can be effective when playing slot receiver enabled coach Hue Jackson to incorporate him into the offensive game plan and he responded with seven catches for 95 yards, one more grab and 17 more yards than he compiled all of last season.
He displayed a soft pair of hands, the ability to get open, the willingness to go over the middle and a knack for making plays. He just might be the best receiver on a team desperate for receivers who can make plays.
The Browns certainly are not getting production from any of the other wideouts, most notably Kenny Britt, who is doing a pretty good imitation of Dwayne Bowe circa 2015.
With Corey Coleman, the top pick of that 2016 draft class, out now with a broken hand, Higgins just like that moves up as the Browns’ No. 1 receiver. He caught three of his passes and 79 of his yards with DeShone Kizer in charge of the huddle. His diving catch of a 35-yarder late in the opening quarter was a thing of beauty.
His motivation? “I don’t want to be cut no more,” he said following the game.
If Jackson is looking for a hot hand, it appears as though he unknowingly has unearthed one in Higgins. From practice squad to No. 1 receiver. Not a bad jump.
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Jackson remains solidly in Kizer’s corner despite the rookie’s uneven performance against the Ravens. He labeled the quarterback’s four-turnover afternoon “unfortunate.”
“There were some unfortunate things that happened and those were unfortunate things he will grow from,” he said in a pep-talk sort of way. “He’s not going to get rattled by this. He’s going to go back to work with more resolve . . . He’ll grow from this. No question about it.”
What was so surprising Sunday was the revelation Kizer has a history of migraine headaches. When he left the game after four series, speculation arose that maybe he had suffered a concussion. An hour or so of quiet in the dressing room appeared to have alleviated the migraine.
It is unknown whether the Browns had knowledge of his migraine history prior to drafting him. I’m not a doctor and could be arrested for practicing medicine online without a license, but this could be a problem given the unpredictable nature of migraines.
There might be others, but the last known NFL players with a history of migraines are wide receiver Percy Harvin, who played for eight NFL seasons with four different teams, and Pro Football Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, who played seven seasons in Denver.
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Is it me or is the Cleveland offense stodgy with regard to the running game. There is no imagination or creativity to what Jackson, who has all but pledged to run more this season, is trying to accomplish when his quarterback hands the ball off to a running back.
In two games thus far, the Cleveland running game has compiled 150 yards, a deceiving figure when you notice running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr. and Matthew Dayes have only 98 of those yards. Doesn’t take a math major to figure out that’s 49 yards a game.
It seems everything is up the middle or off tackle. Where are the quick- toss plays, the misdirection plays, the counter traps? If they are in the playbook, it sure would be nice to see them hauled out on game day. If they aren’t, why aren’t they?
As for the passing game, where are the designed rollouts? When was the last time fans saw the very mobile and very athletic Kizer either roll out with a moving pocket or roll out one way as the flow heads in the opposite direction? That’s one way to fool opposing defensive linemen.
Based on the first two games, the playbook looks more than a bit old-fashioned. Pre-snap shifting of skilled personnel, especially on run plays, means absolutely nothing if the end result is another Crowell run up the middle for two yards.
Is it because the offensive line is better and more comfortable at pass protection? Is it because they aren’t quick enough or athletic enough up front to, for example, pull and lead a quick-toss sweep? How unique would that be? The quick opener, it seems, has lost its quick.
And what ever happened to the screen pass? That and the draw play were innovations the late Paul Brown introduced to the NFL. Perhaps a running back running a wheel route out of the backfield.
Anything to get away from the dull and boring exercise of watching Crowell, Johnson and Dayes up the middle or off tackle for a couple of yards on first down. Try winning first down with something innovative and creative for a change.
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Riddle me this: Why does free safety Jabrill Peppers play anywhere from 20 to 25 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap? Is it defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ way of keeping everything in front of the rookie?
When he was drafted, it was thought the versatile Peppers would be all over the field, sometimes showing up as a box safety. Sort of make opposing quarterbacks account for his whereabouts.
Peppers quite often is so far back, he is out of television camera range even on wide shots. There appears to be a canyon between him and everyone else near the line of scrimmage. Is it any wonder tight ends take advantage of that space?
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco targeted tight ends Benjamin Watson, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle 13 times Sunday and completed every one for 121 of his 201 passing yards. On way too many of those passes, they were wide open and not because of a busted coverage. It was because they roamed the canyon freely.
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The Ravens won in true formula style Sunday. The defense caused five turnovers for the second straight week, the running game churned out 135 yards and Flacco kept mistakes to a minimum. He doesn’t overwhelm you with his statistics. He just beats you.
Yes he had one interception, but that was more like a long punt, heaving the ball about 60 yards to the Cleveland 9, where Jason McCourty picked it off early in the second quarter. Five plays later, Britton Colquitt was punting.
It’s not necessarily how many interceptions you throw. It’s where you throw them. All of Kizer’s interceptions were in Baltimore territory, including one in the end zone.
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The Browns had hoped to improve the pass rush numbers on both sides of the ball this season. Last season, they were far and away the worst in the NFL at protecting their quarterbacks, allowing 66 sacks. Defensively, they recorded only 26, one more than the worst team in the league.
It’s worse in one category this season and barely better in the second after two games. The offensive line has allowed 10 sacks (only six last season) and recorded three (two last season).
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Finally . . . Jackson made it quite clear, and rightly so, there will be no quarterback controversy. Kevin Hogan did a nice job filling in for Kizer Sunday, but he is the backup quarterback and will remain there pending Kizer’s health status. . . . Why does it seem Peppers is so timid on kickoffs? He returned only one of five kickoffs for just 18 yards Sunday. On two others, he caught the football one yard and three yards inside the end zone and chose to take a knee. . . . The Browns this season have run 46 plays on the ground, representing 36.2% of the offense. Breaking that down even further, the three non-quarterbacks account for 34 of those plays, or 29.7%. So much for Jackson’s goal of an improved run/pass ratio. . . . Duke Johnson Jr. touch watch: Four carries, 21 yards; three receptions, 59 yards. Seven touches, 80 yards. Oh and one costly pass deflection.