No Browns player proved to be a more fearless leader during the past three years than wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Yet the business of the NFL, where production and financial considerations supersede everything, led the Browns to terminate the contract of Hawkins and announce his release Monday.
In a video published on Uninterrupted.com, Hawkins explained he met last week with the Browns, who went 1-15 this past season, and the two sides agreed it would be best to part ways. He had one season left on his contract and was scheduled to make $1.8 million in 2017.
“I want to thank the Cleveland Browns for not only understanding my situation and where I’m at in my career, but more importantly giving me the opportunity to wear the storied orange and brown over the last three seasons,” Hawkins said. “We didn’t have the success that we hoped for, but at the same time, I’m confident that we laid the groundwork for a bright future.
“So to Cleveland Browns fans, thank you from the bottom of my heart for rooting for me, supporting me and my family over the last three seasons. Be optimistic because Hue Jackson is one of the best coaches in all of football, and he’s changing the culture there on a daily basis.”
Hawkins tried to spearhead a cultural shift beyond football by taking a stand on social issues.
In 2014, he wore a T-shirt while the Browns warmed up for a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals to support two black Ohioans killed by law enforcement. The shirt read “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” on the front and “The Real Battle for Ohio” on the back. A day later, he delivered an impassioned speech to reporters, defending his protest after the Cleveland police union president called it “pathetic” and demanded an apology from the Browns.
Hawkins and former Browns quarterback Josh McCown, another veteran cut by the team this offseason, were among five NFL players who met with members of Congress in November in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways to improve relationships between law enforcement and black communities. Hawkins and McCown also spoke about race relations earlier this month in a Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality panel discussion during Super Bowl festivities.
“He was an outstanding example to our young players both on and off the field,” Browns head of football operations Sashi Brown said in a news release. “The well-intended work he did in the Cleveland community was greatly appreciated and the respect he earned throughout our league for never being afraid to responsibly create an educated dialogue around a societal issue is commendable. I’m not sure where Andrew’s next stop will be but his history shows that whatever he sets his mind to accomplish, success is sure to follow.”
Hawkins, 30, indicated he intends to continue his NFL career when he said in the release, “no matter where I play next, I will always be part of the Browns family.”
Agent Craig Schaeffer told the Beacon Journal by phone Hawkins definitely plans to keep playing.
“He’s in the best shape of his career, he played all 16 games last year and he wants to help a team win a ring in the next couple of years,” Schaeffer said.
But Hawkins’ future away from the field might be even more promising because he’s pursuing a master’s degree in sports management from Columbia University.
The Browns swiped Hawkins away from the Cincinnati Bengals when he was a restricted free agent in 2014. He responded with the best season of his six-year NFL career, compiling 63 catches for 824 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games as a full-time starter.
The past two seasons weren’t as stellar for Hawkins. He played eight games in 2015, starting all of them before being sidelined for the rest of the season because of a concussion, and had 27 catches for 276 yards without a touchdown. He started five of 16 games last season and finished with 33 catches for 324 yards and three touchdowns.
The dip in production left Browns fans lamenting the organization’s decision to keep Hawkins this past season and cut another diminutive receiver, Taylor Gabriel, 26, who had 35 catches for 579 yards and six touchdowns to help the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl.
Still, without Hawkins, the Browns’ need for a veteran leader in their receiving corps is even more urgent than before.
“Hawk was a rock for us last season,” Jackson said in the release. “He kept our locker room together and led by example as he gave everything he had on the field. Our young players are going to be better players and better people because of the time they spent with Andrew Hawkins.”
In the Uninterrupted.com video, Hawkins characterized his departure from the Browns as “bittersweet” because of the relationships he formed with teammates.
“I’m going to miss all the guys and everything,” Hawkins said. “But at the same time, I’m excited for what this future holds.”
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.