Josh Gordon’s off-field problems are well documented.
He was suspended in college for marijuana. He has been suspended several times in the NFL for drugs and driving while impaired, and spent a stint in rehab. Gordon, 27, has played in just 11 total games since the start of the 2014 season.
But 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound receivers making a league minimum salary don’t grow on trees. And the Patriots have issues and poor depth at wide receiver.
So the Patriots did what they always seem to do — they scooped up a talented asset for pennies on the dollar, with little risk involved.
The Patriots acquired Gordon in a trade on Monday, sending the Browns a 2019 fifth-round draft pick. The trade comes with a caveat — if Gordon doesn’t appear in 10 games with the Patriots this season, the Browns also have to send the Patriots a 2019 seventh-round pick, according to ESPN. To make room for Gordon, the Patriots waived Corey Coleman, another former Browns receiver who was signed off the street last week.
The Browns stood patiently by Gordon for several years as he dealt with his suspensions and substance issues (including sitting out the entire 2015 and 2016 seasons). But they finally grew tired of Gordon’s antics last weekend, when he injured his hamstring at a promotional shoot and wasn’t able to play in Sunday’s loss to the Saints.
There is certainly no guarantee that Gordon will be a productive player for the Patriots. He is one slip-up away from another major suspension. He hasn’t played in more than five games since the 2013 season. And learning the Patriots’ intricate offense is tough on wide receivers.
But there is no denying Gordon’s talent. A second-round supplemental draft pick in 2012, Gordon had 805 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie, then exploded in 2013, catching 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, earning first-team All-Pro honors. The Patriots have never had a 1,600-yard receiver, and Gordon did it in 14 games that season.
Gordon had a monster game against the Patriots that season, catching seven passes for 151 yards (with an 80-yard touchdown) and adding a 34-yard rushing attempt.
The Patriots don’t have any 6-3 receivers who can outrace and outmuscle a cornerback and average more than 18 yards per catch, as Gordon did in 2013 and 2017.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Belichick said in 2013. “He’s a complete player that can run fast, catch, big target and make a lot of yards on his own after the catch with his speed, size, and running ability.
“He makes a significant amount of yardage after he’s got the ball in his hands, but he also makes a lot of yardage down the field, too. He’s a really hard guy to defend, because they do so many things with him and you have to defend him at all three levels of the defense.”
It has been a while since Gordon was productive, of course. After earning his initial suspension in 2014, and sitting out the next two years, Gordon played in just five games in 2017, catching 18 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. And he caught just one ball for the Browns so far this season, a 17-yard touchdown in the season opener.
But the Patriots’ acquisition also comes with little risk. A fifth-round pick is usually just a backup or special teams contributor, if he makes the team at all (although the Patriots may have found a steal in the fifth round this year in linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley). If Gordon is hurt or suspended again or just flat out can’t crack the lineup for 10 games, the Patriots get a seventh-round pick in return.
And not only is Gordon cheap, but the Patriots can now control his rights for multiple years. He is currently making veteran-minimum salary of $790,000, or $46,470 for each week he is on the team (Gordon’s salary isn’t guaranteed). Gordon’s salary-cap number of $697,000 ranks 40th on the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
And they control his rights for next year, too. Thanks to his bevy of suspensions, Gordon is still playing on his rookie contract, and will be a restricted free agent next year. The Patriots can choose one of four options with Gordon:
■ Place a first-round RFA tender on Gordon. This would guarantee him a one-year salary of about $4.5 million (the amount won’t be set until next offseason) if he signs with the Patriots. If he signs elsewhere, the Patriots would get a first-round pick in return. This option doesn’t seem likely.
■ Place a second-round RFA tender on Gordon. This would guarantee him a salary of about $3 million, and net the Patriots a second-round pick if he signs elsewhere. This also seems unlikely, for reasons about to be explained.
■ Place an original-round RFA tender on Gordon. This would guarantee him a salary of about $2 million, and if he signs elsewhere, the Patriots would receive a draft pick that matches the round that Gordon was originally drafted in — in his case, the second round. If Gordon stays healthy and produces, this is one possibility.
■ Decline an RFA tender all together and make him a free agent. This is the other possibility if Gordon doesn’t produce or fit in.
At worst, Gordon doesn’t produce or gets in more trouble off the field, and the Patriots wasted a fifth-round pick and a roster spot on him. But at best, Gordon regains some of his old form, provides the Patriots with a big-play threat who can score from anywhere on the field, and remains under the Patriots’ control for two years at about $3 million.
For the Patriots, struggling to find consistency at wide receiver, this risk was a no-brainer.