The Cleveland Browns went with potential over production when they selected USC tight end Jordan Cameron in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft. Throughout his first two seasons, the Browns were still waiting on Cameron to start realizing his potential.
Cameron’s third season could be his breakout year. In an otherwise disappointing loss to the Miami Dolphins to open the Browns’ season, Cameron had the best game of his career to date, catching nine passes for 108 yards.
Calling Cameron’s entire football career to date unproductive would be an understatement. In three seasons at USC, he caught just 16 passes for 126 yards and one touchdown, all in his senior season. In his first two NFL seasons, he caught just 26 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown.
The Browns took a chance on Cameron and continue to believe in him as a starter because he fits the prototype for a modern NFL tight end. He is a former college basketball player with ideal size for the position (6’5”, 245 lbs) and great speed and leaping ability relative to his size.
Cameron has flashed the ability to be a very dynamic playmaker from the tight end position, but has never put it together consistently.
If his Week 1 performance is an indication of things to come, he could finally be ready to make the leap to becoming not only a legitimate starter, but also becoming a player who opposing defenses have to game plan against week in and week out.
Star Potential on Display in Week 1
Cameron led all tight ends in Week 1 with nine receptions and was third with 108 receiving yards. For an offense in need of pass-catchers to step up as playmakers, Cameron had more than double the yards from scrimmage of any other Browns player on Sunday.
Cameron displayed many of the skills that many other basketball players-turned-tight ends, such as Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham, have utilized to become offensive stars. First and foremost, Cameron’s ability to leap up and catch the ball away from his body enabled him to make a number of challenging receptions against the Dolphins.
His first catch of the game didn’t come until the second quarter, but it was an impressive display of how he uses his athleticism to create a wide catch radius.
As Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden bided time by scrambling around the pocket, Cameron was able to get open against Brent Grimes on a deep out toward the right sideline.
Weeden’s pass was thrown slightly high and wide right, but Cameron did an outstanding job of leaping up, tilting his body rightward and making a strong-hands catch, fully extended away from his body for a 22-yard gain.
Cameron does a great job of finding the football in the air, using his athleticism and body control to get to the ball and then securing the grab with his hands. Another example came later in the second quarter, when Cameron caught a pass in the right rear corner of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown.
Cameron did a great job, again, on this play on leaping up, high-pointing the football, securing the grab in his hands and then having the body control to get both of his feet down in bounds for the catch.
How Cameron got to the catch point was just as impressive. Cameron did a great job all game of making quick double moves off the line, which he did on this play to make Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler hesitate. That gave Cameron the step he needed off the line, and he was able to separate from Wheeler to get open on his post corner route.
With the ability to beat coverages with his speed and route-running, but also make difficult catches when the ball is in the air, Cameron will be a tough challenge for anyone on opposing defenses to cover. As he demonstrated Sunday, Cameron has good quickness off the line, the speed to separate from defenders and the ability to run a wide variety of routes smoothly.
A tight end with Cameron’s measurables and skill set can consistently create mismatches, and the Browns took advantage of that Sunday by moving him all over the field.
Over the course of Cameron’s 69 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he lined up in a wide variety of positions.
He was used as both an in-line tight end next to the offensive tackle and as a flex tight end/slot receiver on the middle of either side of the field. He was also used as an outside wide receiver on at least one play and came out of the backfield as an H-back on a number of occasions.
By lining up in various spots on the field, Cameron can create confusion for defenses and take advantage of favorable matchups that result from that confusion. Once he gets a matchup he likes, he can use his speed and route-running to get open, and then, he has the skill set to make a play on any throw in his vicinity.
For one week, Cameron appeared to be the Browns’ most valuable receiving weapon, especially with No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended and out of the lineup.
If he can continue to play the way he did against the Dolphins, he could emerge as one of the NFL’s premier receiving tight ends. That said, he still has to improve as an all-around tight end to prove that he belongs on the field on every play for the Browns.
Where Cameron Still Needs to Improve
Although Cameron made the biggest impact of any offensive skill-position player, he did not get Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) best overall rating for a Browns tight end in the game. That recognition went to Gary Barnidge, who played less snaps (44) than Cameron, but had a slightly better overall rating (plus-1.7 to Cameron’s plus-1.2).
The biggest reason why Cameron’s rating was lower than Barnidge’s was Cameron’s deficiencies as a blocker. While Cameron’s size gives him the potential to be a fine blocker, he continued to struggle in blocking Sunday.
Cameron didn’t do anything special as a run blocker, though he was able to use his acceleration and quickness to make a few solid downfield lead blocks. He struggled, however, when he was assigned to block in-line at the line of scrimmage.
Specifically, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Cameron struggled with the assignment of going up against Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake. On a few different occasions, Wake went straight into Cameron’s pads and drove him back into the backfield. Cameron needs to become better at obtaining leverage as a blocker. He also had a whiffed cut block attempt in this game.
Given his value as a receiving threat, Cameron will be used more as a pass-catcher than a pass-blocker. That said, poor pass blocking could keep him off the field in key situations, which limits his ability to become one of the NFL’s top tight ends.
Noticeably, Cameron was out for a stretch during the Browns’ final series—an obvious passing situation—because he was replaced in the lineup by Barnidge as a pass-blocker.
Cameron also made a couple of key mistakes in this game. He was flagged for a false start on the Browns’ final drive of the first half, though he later made up for it with a couple of key catches, including his touchdown. His biggest error of the game, however, led to an interception.
Mostly sure-handed on Sunday, Cameron let one slightly high pass from Weeden went right off his hands. The pass went up into the air off his hands and fell into the hands of Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson.
While the pass was not thrown perfectly, it is still a grab that Cameron should have been able to make, considering some of the more difficult grabs he made throughout Sunday’s game. The Browns are counting on Cameron to emerge as a reliable receiving option, but he must stop dropping and tipping passes off his hands to do that.
What Browns Should Expect from Cameron
Taking a chance and patiently developing Cameron looks like it could pay off this season. He can make plays as a short, intermediate and also, deep receiver, create mismatches from various spots on the field and utilize his size and athleticism to make tough catches.
It is unlikely that Cameron will consistently have 100-yard receiving games, but it is certainly possible that Cameron could remain one of the NFL’s most productive receiving tight ends throughout the season. He is one of the most gifted receiving tight ends in the league, and his playmaking seems to be far from done this year.
Cameron’s next chance to impress will be against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
All screenshots were taken from NFL Game Rewind with all illustrations added by the author first-hand.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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