caught just 12 passes last season, but they went for an average gain of 16.6 yards. (Larry French/Getty Images)
The Cincinnati Bengals are giving Andrew Hawkins his long-awaited shot at a starting job ... by allowing him to sign with the Cleveland Browns. The Bengals have decided not to match the offer Cleveland made Hawkins, a restricted free agent, meaning that the 28-year-old Hawkins will collect on the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet he signed with the Browns.
ESPN's Adam Schefter and the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport each reported the Bengals' decision. The team had until midnight Tuesday to make a call on Hawkins.
Hawkins caught 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns as a Bengal from 2011-13. However, just 12 of those receptions came last season, as Hawkins struggled with injuries and slipped down the list of options in the passing game.
He should receive a substantial upgrade in usage within the Browns' offense. The 5-foot-7 speedster will be penciled in as the starting slot receiver, with Josh Gordon commanding heavy attention outside. In Hawkins, Gordon and TE Jordan Cameron, the Browns have the makings of a very strong group of pass-catchers. They also added RB Ben Tate to the mix via free agency this week, leaving a No. 2 WR and -- most importantly -- a quarterback on their list of needs moving forward.
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The Bengals had tendered Hawkins at the minimum price tag of $1.4 million. Because Hawkins was undrafted out of Toledo in 2008 and later signed with the Bengals in '11, Cincinnati will receive no compensation from losing him in this manner. A second-round tender would have carried a $2.1 million hit and entitled the Bengals to a Round 2 pick had another team signed Cleveland, terms that likely would have kept the receiver in town.
Cleveland's offer, though, made it tough to justify keeping Hawkins. That was true even with Cincinnati sitting on its available cash this offseason. The Browns will carry a $5.8 million cap hit from Hawkins' contract in 2014, with a $3.8 million signing bonus prorated through the duration of that deal.
The movement of restricted free agents is rare in the NFL, as swiping a player off another team's roster under those rules often comes with the forfeiture or a draft pick. In Hawkins' case, the tender offered by Cincinnati worked in similar fashion to the transition tag Cleveland currently has on center Alex Mack -- should Mack sign the contract, he would receive approximately $10 million for 2014 but be unable to negotiate with other teams; if another team convinces Mack to sign an offer, the Browns would have to decide whether to match or let him walk.
The Browns are taking a risk with Mack's situation, just as they did by reaching out to Hawkins. The aggressive move for the ex-Bengals wide receiver paid off, as Hawkins might finally be able to tap into some of his upside with a more regular NFL role.
Hawkins has flashed some serious big-play potential. Even last season, those measly 12 catches went for an average gain of 16.6 yards, a nod to Hawkins' speed and elusiveness. As the lead slot receiver for Cleveland, Hawkins should see plenty of passes headed his direction (regardless of who's throwing them). He'll need to have a breakout 2014 season to justify fully that contract Cleveland handed him.