Two tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez, caught more passes than Cleveland's Jordan Cameron in 2013. Just one, Graham, finished above Cameron in receiving yards.
Cameron's breakthrough, Pro Bowl season vaulted him into the stratosphere at his position group, where he is now considered one of the league's clear rising stars and a potentially game-changing player for the Browns. The question tailing him into 2014: Just how dominant can he be?
If reviews from his early-summer workouts are any indication (and, historically, they're a grain-of-salt proposition), Cameron may be on the verge of solidifying himself as one of the NFL's most productive receiving threats. He finished last season with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, despite a muddled QB situation and Josh Gordon being targeted 149 times.
Gordon may not be around at all this season, the result of a positive drug test. And Cleveland presents a far more promising picture at quarterback, via Brian Hoyer's return from injury and Johnny Manziel's arrival.
The stars are aligning for Cameron.
"He has been the most consistently dominant performer in each practice," Browns.com senior editor Vic Carucci wrote of Cameron early this month. "The fourth-year tight end seems to have taken his game to a higher level than last season, when he made his first Pro Bowl. Cameron is showing a better understanding of coverages, which is helping him to find openings deeper downfield, and he looks to be an even more dangerous red-zone target."
Wednesday, Cameron drew more praise from his team's website.
"The Pro Bowler was impossible to cover in the spring," Kevin Jones wrote. "Maybe it’s just mundane OTAs and minicamp. Or maybe Cameron, 25, is still improving as a dual-threat receiver who can line up anywhere; a scary thought. ... Comparing the film, the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Cameron has shown improved foot work and explosion in the open field once he has the football."
Even in an offense made vanilla at times by that QB carousel and a downtrodden run game, the Browns managed to vary Cameron's usage last season. They frequently pushed him out into the slot or used motion to create some space.
The plans may be even more dynamic in 2014, with Kyle Shanahan running the offense under new head coach Mike Pettine. Earlier this month, we took a look at a few of the ways Shanahan's scheme might resemble what Manziel ran at Texas A&M. Without rehashing much of that post, the key bullet points to recall are:
1. Shanahan has shown a knack for adjusting his play calling to fit his personnel
2. His preference for misdirection -- especially with a mobile QB -- creates more space downfield
The latter point is of critical importance for Cameron's 2014 outlook. Even with Gordon on the field last season, opposing defenses were able to pay extra attention to Cameron. None of the Hoyer-Jason Campbell-Brandon Weeden QB trio threatened to take off much and the team's leading rusher, Willis McGahee, topped out at 377 yards.
As such, Cameron saw a lot of this:
That shot is from a 27-11 Cleveland loss to Pittsburgh, one of Cameron's worst performances of the season: three catches on nine targets for 32 yards. The Steelers were able to focus a multi-level attack on him, with a deep safety keeping Cameron from stretching the field and linebackers boxing him in underneath.
Put the threat of Manziel running into that picture and the defensive responsibilities would shift drastically, likely requiring at least one of those pictured LBs to lock in on the Cleveland QB. Every extra defender needed to harness the quarterback obviously means one less guy defending passes, and thus more space for the receivers running routes. Simple misdirection would accomplish a similar goal, as opposed to the straight drop-back Campbell utilized on the play above. Pittsburgh was able to corral Campbell with a three-man rush, giving its defense an eight-on-four advantage versus the Browns' route-runners.
"There's a read option available in this system and it's hard for defenses to cover that," Cameron said of Shanahan's new offense, via FOXSports.com. "It's tough on a defense to scheme for and it opens it up for the receivers and tight ends."
Drawing a linebacker away from Cameron's route will be a goal for Shanahan. There are advantages, too, should defenses counter the Browns' new scheme -- and Manziel's running potential -- by dropping a safety down into the box.
Below, we see a single-high safety look. Cameron was lined up to his QB's right, and the two receivers on that side managed to run their coverage corners out of the area. The linebacker responsible for Cameron was too slow sliding out to cut off his route, and the lone deep safety was unavailable to come up in support because he had to prevent any over-the-top shots.
Any additional cushion for Cameron would be devastating on defenses. He managed to haul in those 80 grabs last season in large part because he proved competent at battling for balls in traffic -- taking advantage of any tiny sliver of room he found.
"Definitely had to game plan for him, especially in the red zone," said Pettine, whose Bills defense held Cameron to 36 yards receiving in a 37-24 Browns win last year. "He’s a guy that he can be covered but he’s not covered. A good quarterback can essentially throw him open. I think that’s one of the advantages of having a guy that has that kind of length and those kinds of ball skills."
What Pettine means by that phrase "throw him open" is this: Quarterbacks often are asked to lead their receivers into space with their passes, even if those receivers appear to be covered when a pass is released. The margin for error is greater with an athlete like Cameron, due to his size, quickness and body control. Hoyer was rather effective at that task in his brief time under center last season; Manziel picked up more than a few of his home-run plays at A&M by giving Mike Evans a chance.
Visually, this is what "throwing a receiver open" can look like. Hoyer has set to throw before Cameron has really gotten into his break to the sideline. There were two defenders bracketing Cameron as the pass was released, but Hoyer managed to complete it by dropping the ball in at the sideline, where Cameron had position.
So, what's realistic to expect of Cameron this season?
Well, Shanahan has fed his tight ends before -- Chris Cooley caught 77 passes under Shanahan in 2010, Owen Daniels finished with 70 catches and 862 yards (both career-highs) with Shanahan calling plays for Houston in 2008.
The numbers Cameron posted in 2013 should stand as his baseline for the coming season. He should see more than the 109 targets he was given last year, 27 fewer than Graham. Cameron caught 73.4 percent of the passes thrown his way, the best mark of any player with more than 65 receptions; he dropped just five attempts all year.
At a similar rate of success, with more room to maneuver and an increase in the looks Cameron's way, a 100-catch, 1,000-yard season certainly falls within the realm of possibilities. In other words, those accolades tossed Cameron's way during rather meaningless spring and summer workouts figure to be just the tip of the iceberg.
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