Nate Burleson vowed to become the type of leader the Browns wrongly assumed had been added to their receiving corps last year.
When the previous regime traded for Davone Bess last April, it believed he would help guide All-Pro Josh Gordon and the team’s other young receivers. However, Bess never accepted that role as his well-documented personal issues mounted and ultimately led to the franchise cutting him last month.
The Browns whiffing so badly in that attempt prompted veteran running back Willis McGahee to tell reporters in October that Gordon, 22, needed a mentor to show him the ropes. McGahee insisted he couldn’t do the job because the guidance should come from another receiver.
Burleson, who agreed to a one-year contract with the Browns on Sunday, fits the profile. He has learned the value of leadership during his 11 NFL seasons and has already devised a plan for how he’ll approach the locker room in Cleveland.
“I’m going to quietly talk at the beginning,” Burleson said Monday during a conference call. “I’m not going to come in and try to stomp my feet and demand respect. I’m going to earn respect by how I work as an individual, how I show up and be a professional, and, more importantly, make plays. Guys respect playmakers, and with talented receivers already there, I’ve got to go out every day and show this is a legit wide receiver. I’m going to lead by example and then establish those relationships.”
Calvin Johnson’s praise
Burleson spent four seasons with the Detroit Lions and established a reputation for his leadership. Former teammate Calvin Johnson made the Pro Bowl in each of those four seasons, so working with a superstar receiver like Gordon won’t be new to Burleson.
“Calvin basically said, ‘That young boy [Gordon] is good,’ ” Burleson said. “And for a guy like Calvin, who has very little words, to kind of give that credit to a young guy, it basically tells everybody in the world to watch out, the next big thing’s here. It’s up to Josh to compete and play at a high level and stay consistent, and I think he has the right mindset for that.”
Although Gordon is a dominant player, concerns about his off-field behavior loom. He served a two-game suspension last season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and he’s another failed drug test away from facing banishment from the NFL for at least a year.
“If I can take a guy out to dinner, hang out outside of the locker room, then I’m definitely going to do that because that’s one of the more important times when the lessons are learned, when you’ve got the jerseys off and you kind of unveil yourself and it’s not all football,” Burleson said. “That’s how I got so close to the receiving corps in Detroit. That’s how I was able to really get to know Calvin on a personal level because we spent so much time with each other off the field. That’s the plan. I’m going to continue to do that. That’s part of my nature, though. That’s just who I am. I’m a social butterfly, and I feel like positive conversation, positive reinforcement is always going to supersede anything else.”
Burleson will turn 33 on Aug. 19, and injuries have limited him to 15 games with 13 starts the past two seasons. He caught 39 passes for 461 yards and a touchdown last season despite missing seven games with a broken arm suffered in a bizarre one-car crash caused by his attempt to keep pizzas he’d purchased from sliding off the passenger seat.
“A healthy Nate Burleson in 16 games can tap dance around 1,000 yards easily,” Burleson said.
Even if that’s true, Burleson is not a long-term solution to the Browns’ need for a No. 2 receiver who can start opposite Gordon. Burleson could be in the mix for significant playing time next season if he can stay healthy, but his presence shouldn’t preclude General Manager Ray Farmer from drafting a receiver in May. Most analysts believe this year’s crop of receivers is so rich that it could yield starting-caliber players in the third round.
A third-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2003, Burleson said he’d welcome any newcomers. After all, he’ll never forget how Marcus Robinson groomed him in 2004, even though they were vying to start opposite six-time Pro Bowler Randy Moss.
That showed Burleson how vital leadership can be to an NFL locker room.
“It’s very important to me just because it was given to me,” Burleson said. “You give back to the league what was given to you.”
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 www.facebook.com/browns.abj.