WHEN DETROIT chose Calvin Johnson with the second pick of the 2007 draft, it was the ultimate impulse buy: a plasma-screen TV for a house without walls or electricity. GM Matt Millen, who signed Johnson to a six-year, $64 million contract after spending three other top 10 picks on wideouts in the previous four years, was clearly fixated on shiny things. The Lions went 7--25 over the next two seasons, but one bright spot was Johnson's explosive 2008 campaign: 1,331 receiving yards (fifth in the NFL), 12 touchdowns (tied for first with the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald) and 78 receptions. (The next-closest Lions receiver, Shaun McDonald, had 35.) And Johnson caught those passes from five Detroit quarterbacks—Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper, Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton and Drew Henson—none of whom had an accuracy rate above 60%, the league's baseline for competence. Even more important, Johnson didn't merely give the Lions hope. He also defied the NFL's theory of receivers' success. (The QB always comes first!)
Like Johnson, Josh Gordon was panned as a wasted pick when Cleveland took him in the second round of the 2012 supplemental draft, the NFL's equivalent of a clothing collection bin. (Gordon was the only player picked among the eight available.) Although he contributed immediately—his 805 yards and five touchdowns led the 5--11 Browns that fall—it seemed Gordon would be little more than an above-average player on a below-average team.
But this season Gordon is challenging Megatron for the title of most exciting receiver. Despite being suspended for the first two games after he tested positive for a banned substance (he says it was codeine), Gordon has seven games with more than 100 yards. He also became the first NFL player to have 200 receiving yards in consecutive games: On Nov. 24 he had 237 yards on 14 catches in a 27--11 loss to the Steelers, and on Dec. 1 he added 261 yards on 10 catches in the Browns' 32--28 defeat by the Jaguars.
Like Johnson, Gordon has had to adjust to a revolving cast of quarterbacks because of injuries to Brian Hoyer (ACL), Brandon Weeden (concussion) and Jason Campbell (concussion). Those Browns signal-callers, like Detroit's party of five, haven't cleared the 60% baseline. Not that the NFL's ninth-most-targeted receiver (133 passes) is complaining. "I only have to do my job," says Gordon. "As long as guys have enough time to throw, I feel like there's not too much science to me making a play."
And even if those plays—all a credit to the 6'3", 225-pound Gordon's catch radius—haven't resulted in many victories for the Browns (4--10), Gordon has given Cleveland a building block and the rest of the league more food for thought: Maybe in this pass-happy, rookie-salary-friendly era, in which QBs can still take a few seasons to develop, a splurge on a wideout is money well spent.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NO FLASH IN THE PAN In his second year Gordon has become the first Browns wideout since '07 to surpass 1,000 yards in one season.
Read about the workout that saved Gordon's career at MMQB.com