The NFL has conditionally reinstated Browns receiver and former fantasy WR1 Josh Gordon, who will have to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season for repeated violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy. Gordon will be eligible to return in Cleveland’s Week 5 meeting with New England, the same game in which Tom Brady will make his 2016 debut after a four-game suspension of his own.
Gordon’s reinstatement hit the fantasy community like a thunderbolt. He was an absolute monster in 2013, catching 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games, posting the fifth-most points per game—16.24—of any receiver since 2000, trailing ’07 Randy Moss (17.95), ’14 Odell Beckham (17), ’03 Moss (16.56), and ’11 Calvin Johnson (16.45). Seemingly destined for stardom, Gordon failed a drug test the next off-season and subsequently missed 11 games of the ’14 season. He missed all of last season for failing an alcohol test, a violation of the terms of his agreement in the league’s substance-abuse program.
Gordon instantly becomes one of the hardest players to value this year. On the one hand, everyone remembers what he was able to do the last time he was on the field for a full season. Had Gordon not been suspended at the start of the 2014 campaign, he would have easily been a top-three receiver. At 25, Gordon may still be maturing physically, and that could be a scary thought for defensive backs around the league.
On the other hand, if and when Gordon takes the field for the Browns on Oct. 9 against the Patriots, it will be his sixth game in the last 688 days. He wasn’t exactly great in the other five, either, catching a total of 24 passes for 303 yards at the tail-end of the 2014 season. Gordon is a supremely talented wide receiver who will have the benefit of working out with the Browns in training camp and, if the team sees fit, participating in preseason games. But the last time he played a game, LeBron James wasn’t even halfway through his final season with the Heat. Gordon’s going to have some rust to shake off once he gets back on the field.
There’s also the question of the talent around him in Cleveland. Gordon will be reunited with Robert Griffin III, with whom he spent two years as college teammates at Baylor. The pair got meaningful time on the field together in 2010, hooking up 42 times for 714 yards and nine touchdowns. Griffin is trying to resurrect his career in Cleveland, and while he’s working with the right sort of head coach in Hue Jackson, we’ve seen few quarterbacks flame out as badly as Griffin did in Washington. The offense isn’t short on weapons, with first-round wideout and fellow Baylor alum Corey Coleman joining holdovers Gary Barnidge and Duke Johnson in what could be a sneakily fun offense this season. All of that, however, depends on Griffin being put back together again and the offensive line jelling in a way that it didn’t last year.
Despite the abundant red flags around Griffin, he’s likely the most gifted passer Gordon has played with as a pro. He did all that damage back in 2013 with Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer as Cleveland’s starting quarterbacks. Campbell started half of the team’s games that year, with Weeden getting five starts and Hoyer taking the other three. It’s safe to say quarterback play didn’t lift Gordon to his dizzying heights that season.
As good as Gordon was back then, he’s no sure thing to re-enter the top-25 ranks at the position. Wide receiver has only gotten deeper in his absence, and Gordon has a ton of work to do to prove that he can still be the player he once was. There’s also the risk of him failing another test, which would knock him out of the league for life. At the same time, you don’t have to dig too deep to find his upside. Gordon is the No. 30 receiver on my board, just behind Jarvis Landry and Donte Moncrief, and ahead of Jordan Matthews and Allen Hurns.