INDIANAPOLIS: Head of football operations Sashi Brown is optimistic the Browns will be able to welcome former All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon back to the team with open arms.
“I’m hopeful that Josh, as a person, made the strides that he set out to make and can come back and contribute,” Brown said Thursday during the NFL Scouting Combine.
Gordon has applied for reinstatement into the NFL after being banished for the entire 2015 season because of recurring violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“By all signs, he’s on a path to come back and be reinstated,” Brown said.
Brown added he doesn’t know a specific date when the Browns should learn definitively whether Gordon will be reinstated, but he doesn’t expect it to be before free agency begins March 9.
News of Gordon filing his application broke Jan. 20. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must render a decision within 60 days of receiving it, so a ruling will likely be made mid-March.
Although Gordon has been suspended three times by the league since the Browns picked him in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, Brown is willing to give him another chance.
“He understands that he’s made some mistakes in the past,” Brown said. “I think he’s accountable for those and everything that we see and hear in talking to his representation and those that have been in communication with him is that he’s eager to get back and contribute. And we feel like if he’s accomplished those things, there’s a spot for him on the roster.”
Goodell recently said he wants to make sure Gordon won’t repeat his pattern of behavior.
“Josh is taking it seriously and has learned from his mistakes,” Brown said. “He’s serious about wanting to be a pro and be one of the best wide receivers in the game. If he’s done all the things, puts himself in that position and cleans up some of the mistakes, then certainly we would welcome him back.
“I think it’s going to be a tremendous environment for him to reestablish himself. I wouldn’t characterize it as simply, ‘Is he just not going to be suspended again?’ We want him to come in and be competitive, be a great teammate, be a great member of the community, be a great Cleveland Brown.”
Gordon played 14 games during his second season, led the league with 1,646 receiving yards to go along with nine touchdown catches and earned an All-Pro nod. If Gordon makes a comeback and stays clean, the Browns would have the dominant, vertical threat coach Hue Jackson seeks.
But on Wednesday, Jackson emphasized the importance of high character and explained he would need to spend time with Gordon to “see if he’s the right fit” before welcoming him back.
“Obviously, he’s a very talented individual,” Jackson said. “But at the same time, it’s got to fit right for us as we move forward.”
Aside from their director of player engagement checking in with Gordon, the Browns are not permitted to communicate with him during the banishment.
“We’ll need to still have kind of our own discussion with Josh and figure out what he wants to do and be here,” Brown said. “Our anticipation is he would be open to it.”
Brown was asked how he balances Jackson’s desire for high character with giving Gordon another chance despite him being suspended for 27 of the past 32 games.
“We hold him accountable, set the expectations and make sure he understands exactly what that means, that you’re going to come out and compete in practice, you’re going to be reliable and accountable to your teammates,” Brown replied. “I think Josh is wise enough to understand that if he comes back, he’s going to have to prove that a bit, and eyes will be on him.
“But I’m confident he can do it. I know him well enough. He’s a good, young man, means well. He’s just got to get past a few things and hopefully has learned. If he hasn’t, he won’t be part of the organization. But I trust that he’ll have learned enough that he will give himself an opportunity to do that. But we’ll see.”
Trying to retain some
Brown believes it’s not a forgone conclusion the franchise will lose all of its impending unrestricted free agents when the market opens March 9.
Center Alex Mack, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Travis Benjamin and free safety Tashaun Gipson are the main ones. The others are inside linebacker Craig Robertson and special teams aces Johnson Bademosi and Tank Carder.
“There’s a possibility that we’ll have a few back,” Brown said. “We won’t be panicked on any one player, but there’s some guys we feel like can contribute for us, and we absolutely want to do everything we can, see if we can reach a deal that works for them and us and keep them.”
Mack can opt out of his contract, and March 4 is his deadline to do so.
“My estimation would be if he’s going to be in Cleveland, we’ll get to a deal before his opt-out date,” Brown said, adding Mack met with him and coaches last week in Berea.
The Browns also have talked to the agents of Schwartz and Benjamin, Brown said, adding he met with Benjamin’s agent Wednesday night and those discussions haven’t broken down despite a recent NFL Network report to the contrary.
Brown said he doesn’t expect to use a franchise or transition tag to prevent a player from free agency, but he mentioned Gipson as a candidate. The deadline to apply a tag is Tuesday.
“We would hope to come to a long-term deal with Tashaun, so I don’t expect [to use a tag] at this point,” he said. “We are in contact with him, and we’ll see if we’re able to sign Gip.”
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was set to meet with the Browns on Thursday night. The rendezvous had a special meaning for Cook, a projected first- or second-round pick, because the Hinckley native and Walsh Jesuit High School graduate grew up rooting for the Browns.
“It’d be great [to play for them],” he said. “Growing up a Browns fan, growing up going to the games as a little kid, watching it and visualizing myself being out there, playing in that stadium, playing in the NFL, it would just be a dream come true. It would be surreal.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.