It's a given who the top receivers are for the Cleveland Browns, but the third receiver is a giant question mark at this point. That's one of the position battles that will need to be determined as the team prepares to open training camp.
There are a few factors at play in this competition, not the least of which is the difference between the third receiver spot and cut does not appear to be significant. That's partly due to the fact none of them have proven much to this point. There are as many as six other options that might see the field before the player that wins the third receiver job, including two tight ends, two running backs and fullback Andy Janovich.
Rashard Higgins appears to be the early favorite to win the job based on the fact he's done the most in the NFL and the Browns opted to re-sign him. He has demonstrated excellent chemistry and efficiency with Baker Mayfield since Mayfield's rookie season, but his 2019 season was wiped out between injury and issues with the coaching staff, organization as a whole.
Higgins simply wouldn't be in Cleveland if the Browns still had the same front office and coaching staff as last year. They wouldn't have called. He wouldn't have answered.
First and foremost, Higgins has to find a way to be healthy and consistent. Even in his best season in 2018, he missed games with injury and it was noticeable in terms of what the team lost offensively. That season, Higgins was a security blanket and came up with a number of key receptions in games.
The two players potentially trying to unseat Higgins for that role are Damion Ratley and KhaDarel Hodge. Both have flashed, but neither has really caught on in a big way to this point. Ratley has the size and speed teams covet, but he hasn't produced at a high level since he was in Junior College.
Entering his third season, the team is hoping this is when the light goes on and they can take full advantage of his physical gifts. He offers size and the ability to stretch the field with deep speed.
Hodge was on the Los Angeles Rams as a special teams player with little consideration for his ability to play receiver. When the Browns claimed him, they thought he might be able to offer something at receiver. He saw some playing time when injuries hit Higgins last year, but much like Ratley, it's been largely flashes. His ability to contribute on special teams will give him a great chance to make the team, but it remains to be seen if he can elevate his game to being that third receiver spot.
It would be a massive success if Donovan Peoples-Jones, the sixth round pick out of Michigan, could develop enough to take that third receiver spot. Offering excellent size and elite explosion, Jones has great hands and can be a threat with the ball in his hands.
He was remarkably raw at Michigan as a route runner and wasn't asked to run a full route tree. That's likely been a big focus for him this offseason and if he can put it into practice, he could get that spot. It's a tall order for a rookie and it seems more realistic that he ends up as a fourth receiver that could be in some occasional packaged looks to try to let him go down the field.
One player to keep an eye on is D.J. Montgomery. He went on injured reserve last year in the preseason, but he showed some impressive flashes. Coming out of Austin Peay, he had excellent production and elite speed. At 6'1", he's not small either. Assuming he's healthy and ready to go, if he can pick up where he left off and grow from there, he could be a pleasant surprise.
Bisi Johnson, the third receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, where Kevin Stefanski was the offensive coordinator, caught 31 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Whoever wins that job for the Browns is also competing against players like David Njoku and Kareem Hunt to get on the field. They have to provide a compelling argument why they would be a better option, which could be easier said than done.