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Fantasy Wild Cards: Can Josh Gordon Be the Player He Was in 2013?

The wideout could be the most dynamic player on the board, or a nonfactor

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fantasy football is won and lost by players who wildly outperform—or underperform—expectations. Roll the dice on the right player, and you’ll cruise through your league (hello there, Todd Gurley owners!). But put too much stock in a guy who busts, and it’ll be a long wait until next year’s draft (Isaiah Crowell owners: I’m sorry). Welcome to Fantasy Wild Cards, where we’ll examine the players with the biggest boom-or-bust prospects for the upcoming season. Will these players make your fantasy season, or break it?

In June, his future quarterback said he’s “never seen anybody like him.”

In July, the wide receiver that would be lining up alongside him said he was “unstoppable.”

And by last week, Josh Gordon, one of the most exciting and talented players in football, was … gone, announcing that he wouldn’t join the Browns for the start of training camp as part of his “overall health and treatment plan” as he attempts to break back into the NFL after multiple seasons away dealing with substance use and anxiety.

The wide receiver emphasized that this absence was planned, and that he is doing “great” both physically and mentally. The Browns have placed him on the non-football illness reserve list “until he is ready to return” and Gordon indicated that he’ll be “ready” for the season, but no return timetable was given. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reported that Gordon’s absence means he will need to “make a written request for reinstatement to the Browns, and the Commissioner will have to approve it” before he is allowed to return for the season.

Gordon’s comeback is one of the most inspiring stories in the NFL today, and it’ll continue to be a stirring story line whether he is back in September or needs to delay his return as he prioritizes his mental health and well-being. But as far as on-field and fantasy considerations go, Gordon’s continued recovery is another wrinkle for the biggest wild card in football. Gordon showed in 2013 that he has the talent to be the best wideout in the NFL, but after Gordon played just five games over the past three seasons, it’s a fair question to ask whether that player still exists.

Gordon’s average fantasy draft position currently sits at 42nd, and 16th among wide receivers (in 12-team, standard leagues). That means he’s being selected like a WR2, above the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Brandin Cooks, and Alshon Jeffery. Gordon will not be a bargain-bin option come draft season; owners who want to take a gamble on him will have to push their chips into the pot.

At least that’s the case now. His stock has taken a nosedive in the past week, but it may bounce back up by late August.

Gordon may be worth gambling on; his upside is nearly unmatched—everyone remembers his 1,646-yard, nine-touchdown 2013 season, but many forget that it came in just 14 games, and that Gordon was only 22 (!) then.

Cleveland hardly resembles the team it was in 2013, as virtually the entire roster has turned over since then, but that may help Gordon, now 27, approach the ceiling he set for himself five seasons ago. For one, no matter whether the Browns start Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield at quarterback, Gordon will be catching balls from the most talented passer he’s ever had. Here’s a quick list of every professional QB he’s ever caught a pass from:

  • Brandon Weeden
  • Jason Campbell
  • Brian Hoyer
  • DeShone Kizer
  • Johnny Manziel
  • Thaddeus Lewis

Oof. In 2013, Gordon mostly caught passes from Weeden and Campbell, and neither was a good fit for the wideout’s skill set. Gordon earns a good chunk of his production on deep balls (defined as passes that travel more than 20 yards downfield), and in 2013 he was targeted deep 36 times (tied for fourth among receivers) for 586 yards (third), according to Pro Football Focus. But Weeden and Campbell were never prolific downfield throwers—even with Gordon, Weeden threw deep on just 12.4 percent of his pass attempts (22nd) that year, and Campbell was even more conservative, chucking the ball deep on just 10.7 percent of his attempts (30th).

Taylor, who currently has the inside track on the starting job, has never hesitated to throw deep passes; he threw downfield on 13.8 percent of his throws (tied for 10th) in 2017, and his passer rating of 83.3 on such throws dwarfed those of Weeden (57.0) and Campbell (69.2) in 2013. And Taylor did that with … [squints] … Zay Jones and Deonte Thompson as his main deep weapons. In 2015, the last year Taylor had a healthy Sammy Watkins to work with, he threw deep on 17.9 percent of his throws, the highest mark in the league, and his 109.7 passer rating on such throws ranked fourth.

It’s impossible to know how Mayfield may play as a rookie, but he threw for 1,580 yards on 78 deep attempts last year at Oklahoma, and his adjusted completion percentage of 60.3 percent on such throws ranked first among draft-eligible passers, per PFF. If Mayfield wins the job, he won’t be afraid to sling it downfield to Gordon.

Gordon’s potential isn’t solely represented by what he did five years ago. He appeared in five games last season and made an immediate impact. Here he is in his first game back—his first time on an NFL field in 1,078 days—successfully battling for position against Chargers corner Casey Hayward, who made the Pro Bowl last year and was the no. 1 graded coverage corner in the NFL by PFF.

Even all these years later, leaving Gordon in single coverage is still a clear mismatch.

In his five appearances, Gordon caught 18 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. Those are solid numbers—Gordon’s 67.0 receiving yards per game ranked 14th last season among players who appeared in at least five games, and the 42 targets he racked up in those appearances would have ranked 12th had he kept that pace for an entire season. In fantasy points per game, Gordon ranked just 27th among wideouts, but that’s because he caught only one touchdown, which is more likely a result of a small sample than a reflection of any issues with his play in the red zone. All of this makes drafting Gordon at his current ADP seem like a worthwhile risk.

But, of course, there is considerable downside to drafting Gordon: He also played five games in 2014, when he accomplished about as much as he did in 2017. He was suspended for the first 10 games of the 2014 season for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, and despite a 120-yard effort in his return to the field, he disappointed in his next four appearances. Gordon finished the season with 24 receptions for 303 yards and no touchdowns.

The rough similarity of Gordon’s 2014 and 2017 campaigns leads to the natural concern that 2013 is the anomalous year in Gordon’s career, and that his production over his past 10 career games (63.8 yards per game) represents a more reasonable expectation for him moving forward. If that’s the case, taking him with the 42nd pick in fantasy is an overpay when more reliable options are available.

Gordon will also be playing next to former Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry in 2018—and that could result in him sharing targets more than ever before. For Miami last season, Landry was tied for the third-most targets for a receiver in the NFL, and while he primarily makes his living on short routes from the slot (his 8.8 yards per reception was phenomenally low), he’ll almost assuredly siphon away some targets from Gordon.

Is an over-the-middle pass like this one Gordon caught last year against the Steelers …

… more likely to go to Landry in 2018? There’s no doubt that Cleveland will want to feed the ball to Landry after giving him $47 million in guaranteed money this offseason. In addition, the Browns will likely want to keep developing second-year tight end David Njoku and third-year wide receiver Corey Coleman, who is in a prove-it season after a disappointing start to his career. Cleveland’s offense won’t just be the Gordon Show.

Gordon may be the ultimate wild card in fantasy this season. His ceiling is as the best receiver in football, his floor is as a guy who doesn’t get back on the field. Gordon could end up anywhere from fantasy bell cow to fantasy bust.

But in fantasy football, if you ain’t first, you’re last, right? Winning a championship is the goal of all fantasy owners, and that makes Gordon a worthwhile gamble with a fourth-round selection. There’s virtually no one with more pure talent available at that point in a fantasy draft.