The Browns prevailed today in the Battle of Ohio for ex-Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
The Browns signed Hawkins, who was a restricted free agent, to a four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet last week. The offer sheet was submitted to the Bengals Thursday, so they were given five days to match it.
The Bengals’ deadline wasn’t until midnight today, but they announced at 3:46 p.m. via Twitter that they won't match the Browns’ offer. With Hawkins joining the Browns, he’ll be penciled in as their primary slot receiver. The move allowed the Browns to fill a major need and weaken an AFC North rival in one fell swoop.
It'll also give Hawkins' career a sense of symmetry. He went to rookie minicamp with the Browns in 2008, but he didn’t receive a contract and fought for the next few years en route to earning his big break in the NFL.
"Can't thank the Cincinnati Bengals organization and fans enough for giving me my first fair shot at the best job in all the land," Hawkins wrote on Twitter today after the news broke. "That being said, [I'm] excited to join the Browns (where it all started) and giving all I got to help bring championship football back to Cleveland!"
In a statement, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis explained the franchise's decision regarding Hawkins.
“I don't want to let Andrew go without making note that he has been a very hard-working and contributing player," Lewis said. "He has set a great example of being a great teammate. But we're fortunate to have a lot of depth at wide receiver, and we're excited to move forward. Our leading receivers from last year will all return, and we have another group who know our system and have earned our confidence that they are ready to see more action.
“It’s a given that we will invest in players to the limit of the salary cap, but the system means teams have to make choices, and we don’t believe this match, at this time, would serve our goal of allocating resources roster-wide for the best possible team come September.”
The Browns don’t owe the Bengals any draft-pick compensation for Hawkins because he went undrafted after his career at the University of Toledo ended following the 2007 season. The Bengals reportedly tendered him for $1.45 million.
Hawkins’ deal with the Browns includes a $3.8 million signing bonus, a league source told the Beacon Journal, speaking on condition of anonymity because the terms of the contract were not announced. It’s also front-loaded with $10.8 million due in the first two years, NFL Network reported.
The structure of the contract and the Bengals’ depth at wide receiver, as Lewis explained, undoubtedly contributed to their decision to let Hawkins walk. With A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the roster, the Bengals used Hawkins primarily as a fourth-string receiver last season.
But Hawkins, 28, is expected to play a much more prominent role for the Browns. They need him to fill the void created by the departure of slot receiver Davone Bess, whose off-field issues led to the team cutting him March 5 after it traded for him and signed him to a three-year contract extension during last year’s draft.
The Browns still need a No. 2 wide receiver to start opposite All-Pro Josh Gordon, but they’ll likely wait for May’s draft to find one. The Browns have 10 selections, including two in the first round (Nos. 4 and 26 overall). Most draft analysts consider this year’s wide receiver class one of the deepest in a long time.
The 5-foot-7, 180-pound Hawkins missed eight games last season with a high-ankle sprain and had 12 catches for 199 yards. He dropped one pass, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
In 2012, he had 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games. He had three dropped passes, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Hawkins was able to show his explosive athletic ability best in 2012. He ranked eighth in among 105 NFL receivers with an average of 6.9 yards after catch per reception, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That season, Hawkins also finished tied for 52nd out of 105 receivers in the website’s overall rankings.
During Hawkins’ first NFL season in 2011, he had 23 catches for 263 yards in 13 games for the Bengals. He did not drop a pass, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
After Hawkins failed to secure a job with the Browns in 2008, he spent two years with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League before catching on in the NFL with the Bengals. As Hawkins pointed out, now he’s back where it all started.
The Browns are glad to have him. Quarterback Brian Hoyer welcomed Hawkins by writing on Twitter, “Great to have you on board and on our side for the Battle of Ohio!”