Greg Little played multiple positions at the University of North Carolina and sat out his entire senior season, so the Browns knew developing him into a reliable NFL wide receiver would be a project when they drafted him last year.
Through the first four games this season, it has become painfully obvious that Little remains a work in progress. His athletic ability is undeniable, but he continues to routinely drop passes.
“There’s a lot that you don’t see that we work on, everything from philosophically how you approach catching the football to putting in the practice,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. “We go through it all the time. I’ve seen it before where young players work through this and become legitimate catchers in this league.”
Shurmur cited Brandon Gibson as an example of a wide receiver who overcame his problems with drops. The Philadelphia Eagles traded Gibson, a sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft, to the St. Louis Rams during his rookie season. Shurmur spent the majority of his two-year stint as the Rams’ offensive coordinator with Gibson.
“He’s doing a good job for them now,” Shurmur said of Gibson, who has 131 career receptions. “He was forced to play early and he had a little bit of a problem with [drops], and now it’s not a problem. It happens and you hope that’s the case in Greg’s case.”
Little, who missed his senior season at UNC because the NCAA suspended him for accepting impermissible benefits from an agent, failed to secure three passes he could have caught Thursday in the Browns’ 23-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. His most glaring drop cost Cleveland a chance to cut its deficit to three points with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-14 from the Ravens’ 34-yard line, rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden’s deep pass slipped through the hands of Little in the front of the end zone as he leapt, bent backward and extended his arms while Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb dived at him. The Browns trailed 23-13 at the time.
“In order to be just great you have to make a great play and that would have been a great play that people would always remember and tell their kids about,” Little said. “You just remember where you were when a play like that was made.
“Great receivers make great catches. It could have ignited our defense. We would have needed only a field goal at the end, or maybe we would have stayed aggressive and gone for the touchdown to win it.”
Instead, the Browns (0-4) suffered their 10th consecutive defeat dating to last season as Weeden’s desperation pass intended for Little sailed out of the back of the end zone with no time left. Their next game is on the road Oct. 7 against the New York Giants (2-1), and their chances of pulling off an upset will only decrease if miscues like drops continue to haunt them.
The Browns lead the league with 11 drops this season, according to STATS LLC. And by STATS’ count, Little is tied for second with four drops.
“We can’t give away gimmes,” Shurmur said. “We had some drops, not acceptable. There’s a zero tolerance for that. I will say this — we have some tough guys out there playing that are not catching the ball efficiently enough, and we just need to keep working with them. That’s the reality of it.”
Little, who played receiver and running back in college, led the Browns with 61 catches for 709 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. But he also finished last season tied for second with 12 drops, according to STATS.
After Little dropped a crucial third-down pass late in the first half of the Browns’ 24-14 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, Shurmur issued warnings during a Monday afternoon news conference. He made it clear he wanted Little to stop posing like Olympic track star Usain Bolt to signal first downs. More important, Shurmur said, “We can’t play a guy that’s going to drop footballs.”
But benching Little against the Ravens never seemed to be realistic. Fellow starting wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was sidelined with an injured hamstring. Josh Cribbs replaced Massaquoi in the starting lineup, and Cribbs was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a concussion he suffered during a punt return.
Little quit the posing and proved he can make plays with his 43-yard reception from Weeden in the second quarter. As he ran a fade route along the Ravens’ sideline, Little turned, jumped and grabbed the ball over cornerback Cary Williams, sparking the Browns’ 94-yard touchdown drive that was capped by rookie Trent Richardson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:32 left before halftime.
“As I make plays like that, [Weeden] feels more confident putting the ball in the air and knowing I’m going to come down with it,” Little said.
But consistency is the main problem for Little. He was targeted 10 times against the Ravens and caught four passes for 77 yards. He has been targeted 25 times this season, and he has 11 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.
In other words, Little he has a lot of ground to gain before he can evolve into the go-to receiver the Browns need. They’re just hoping he catches on sooner than later.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.