Former fantasy stud Josh Gordon on road to regain stardom

On a rebuilt Cleveland team, wide receiver Josh Gordon is clean, sober and fully prepared to succeed on the field again. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Josh Gordon’s comeback is one step closer after the Cleveland Browns removed him from the active/non-football injury list on Saturday.

I know. I know. Whenever Gordon is mentioned in fantasy football conversations someone in the room inevitably spouts off:

“DUDE! He was something five freakin’ years ago!”

In this day and age of 24-hour news cycles, instant information and constant yearns for expeditious gratification, an abrasive response tied to the once troubled receiver is justified.

1,826 days. 43,829 hours. 2,629,743 minutes. 11 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movies.

DUDE! That was an eternity ago.

Imagine for a second what a half-decade ago in the NFL looked like. TV debaters hilariously argued about the future “greatness” of recent draftees E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. Select individuals talked up Michael Vick as THE No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts. And annual obituaries penned about Frank Gore’s impending playing demise commenced; pieces some of us are still waiting to publish.

But that year, 2013, a statistical torrent unleashed from one of the unlikeliest sources.

Gordon began his pro football journey sans the typical camera flashes, overindulgent glitz and dapper attire touted NFL draftees experience. He was selected in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, an exercise even the most dedicated football fan pays minimal attention to.

Demons from his upbringing in Houston, extensive drug use which followed him to Baylor then Utah, nearly ended his NFL career before it began. He was an obvious risk. Still, for an individual with enrapturing measurements (6-foot-3, 225-pounds), his freakish athleticism was too tantalizing for Cleveland to pass up.

As we all know, the gamble paid off. His 50-805-5 opening act, the fifth-most yards recorded by a first-year player in franchise history, opened eyes.

The following fall, Gordon entered September riding a lightning bolt. Though attached to a trio of quarterbacks most would describe as “several steps below acceptable” – Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell – and after serving a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, a harbinger of dark days to come, he shocked the sports universe. He left defenses powerless. Records fell by the wayside. Exuberant fantasy fans erected shrines in his honor. Gordon’s 87-1646-9 line, achieved in only 14 games, was the single greatest season by a 22-year-old wide receiver in NFL history.

However, the unfortunate events that followed is the story most recount. Addiction, festering inside the wideout for years largely due to high anxiety and immaturity, became a seemingly irreparable wound. The hammer dropped. Nearly expelled permanently from the league, he suited up just five times 2014-2016. Still, during his stint selling Chevy Suburbans at a car dealership in Randolph, Ohio, his legend grew to a mythical Sidd Finch level. Reflecting on the past kept the fantasy community captivated and optimistic.

When would Roger Goodell come to his senses? Would he ever gift Gordon another chance? If so, could the wideout thrive again?

Officially reinstated November 30, 2017, Gordon, cold off the street, strutted into Los Angeles enveloped by unknowns. In vintage fashion, he, despite Deshone Kizer’s numerous overthrows, defied the odds and delivered four catches for 85 yards. The Chargers’ Casey Heyward, one of the game’s staunchest cover corners who squared off against Odell Beckham Jr., Tyreek Hill and Demaryius Thomas earlier in the year called him his “toughest matchup” to date. The reborn receiver totaled 18 receptions, 335 yards and a score over five games, the 21st-most valuable WR output during the stretch. Even his most defiant critics were awestruck. The long layoff hadn’t squelched his immense talent.

Back from a planned mental maintenance … or “Hard Knocks” dodge … or both, his disappearance sent his ADP of 40.3 WR19 pre-news to 50.4 and WR25 afterwards. That hasn’t changed much in the week he’s been with the team (49.7 WR19).  But don’t be fooled, Gordon is about to embark on a fantasy redemption tour for the ages.

Here’s why:

Gordon’s final stat line form 2017 didn’t draw rave reviews, but considering the circumstances it should. Extrapolate what he accomplished in five games over a full season (58-1072-4) and he was essentially T.Y. Hilton, a useful WR2-WR3 in 12-team formats. Spectacular? Not quite. Employable? Undoubtedly.

His secondary metrics, however, present a much stronger case. Gordon finished WR2 in average depth of target (17.5) and totaled 2.09 yards per route (WR13). He routinely obliterated various defensive alignments. According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, his 87 percent success rate versus zone looks, primarily accumulated on quick-hitting slants, was off the charts. Most astonishing, he was one of seven WRs to finish the year inside the top-13 in success rates versus press and man coverage. The others to achieve the feat: Odell Beckham, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas and Stefon Diggs. Good company. Not to be overlooked, he tallied a 75 percent success rate on nine and post routes, which made up 38.5 percent of his overall tree. And all of that was accomplished with a quarterback, Kizer, who couldn’t hit a parked 18-wheeler from five yards out. Chew on this, Gordon ranked WR86 in catchable target percentage.

Ignore the surface numbers. Under the microscope Gordon immediately regained “elite” status in many areas.

Organized offseason. Structure is paramount for anyone with a bumpy past. It keeps one focused and away from pitfalls. For the first time since the months leading up to his breakthrough campaign in 2013, Gordon participated in the team’s full offseason program. On campus at Browns facilities, he was prompt, reportedly worked his tail off, a training regimen the receiver called “six quarters mentality,” and grew muscles kinesiologists were probably unaware existed. Forget Hawkeye, Gordon, on physique alone, is the real forgotten Avenger.

His time at franchise headquarters reportedly boosted his confidence and competitive nature while also helping him establish a rapport with new coaches and teammates, invaluable continuity that should have him hit the ground running come September.

QB upgrades. The Browns, who’ve featured 16 different starting QBs since Gordon joined the team six years ago, traded in a dilapidated Airstream for a suburban home in the hills. Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield are massive advancements. Disagree? From 2015-2017, Taylor ranked QB7 in deep-ball rate (21.2%). He rarely uncorked downfield in Buffalo last year, but he didn’t have a weapon the caliber of Gordon. Remember how effective he was with a healthy Sammy Watkins in 2015? According to Pro Football Focus, he slotted at QB9 in accuracy percentage on passes beyond 20 yards posting the second-highest QB rating (109.5) on those deep throws. When surrounded with suitable field stretchers the veteran can flick it.

Mayfield’s all-field marksmanship also shouldn’t be underestimated. With Oklahoma last year, the greenhorn ranked top-10 in every completion percentage category imaginable, including top billing in deep-ball connections. It’s no surprise the No. 1 overall pick has impressed in camp displaying a strong, on-time delivery and solid command of the offense. When Hue Jackson inevitably inserts him into the lineup, the offense won’t skip a beat. He’s the remedy to Cleveland’s seemingly endless QB woes.

It’s no stretch to think in Todd Haley’s pass-first offense, a scheme that aggressively attacks defenses with explosive pass plays no matter what the scoreboard says, Taylor (or Baker) tosses to Gordon will at times take on the appearance of Big Ben-to-Brown.

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Less is more. With short-field vacuum Jarvis Landry, Duke Johnson, David Njoku and Antonio Callaway (?) on roster, Haley has many egos to satisfy. It’s the main reason why fantasy owners are shying away from Gordon. His 26.4 percent targets share from ’17 is unsustainable, but even a modest reduction in workload isn’t a death knell. In fact, with defenses forced to account for others around him, he’s bound to draw occasional premium coverage; exploitable man-on-man situations. Last year, he tallied a 70 percent success rate (WR13) in such scenarios.

In the likely event he attracts 22-23 percent of the QB looks, he’s in an advantageous position to make the most of his opportunities. Duplicating what a Marvin Jones (WR11 in .5 PPR) or Doug Baldwin (WR14) achieved last fall on 105-115 total targets is absolutely conceivable.

Described as “unstoppable,” “a physical freak” and “never seen anything like him” this summer by teammates, the recharged former All-Pro is everything fantasy owners should want. The downsides associated with Gordon are obvious, but those who chase the river in Round 5 or later in 12-team drafts could wind up stacking ‘ships.

Lake Erie’s elusive leviathan is about to resurface.

Fearless Forecast (assuming 16 games): 73 receptions, 1,109 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns, WR10

Want to bull rush Brad? Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise.

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