Football / Sports

Hawkins keeps foot on gas to prove himself with Browns

BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland Browns slot receiver Andrew Hawkins is among the smallest players in the NFL, but the chip on his shoulder is the size of a mammoth nose tackle.

Hawkins' diminutive stature and unconventional path to the NFL are driving forces behind the tireless work ethic he has brought to the Browns since they swiped him from the AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals on March 18. Perhaps the only attribute more powerful than his speed and quickness is his relentlessness.

In other words, Hawkins won't be accused of loafing in practice anytime soon. His habits and hustle have turned the heads of coaches and teammates throughout organized team activities, which wrapped up Friday with the team moving on to its three-day mandatory minicamp starting Tuesday.

"Being a smaller guy and not getting the opportunities all the time, I think I always wanted to do everything right," Hawkins said Tuesday after practice. "I'm kind of a perfectionist. So I get frustrated with myself when I don't make a play or I don't do something right because whenever they talked about my strong points, I wanted it to be a long list and my negatives would only be (my) size.

"I don't want anybody to say, 'Well, he's small and he doesn't work hard.' Or, 'He's small and he doesn't care.' That's something I took to heart. The skills, the ability, that's one thing, you can have your opinion. But I don't want anyone to ever say he didn't work hard because I really pride myself on maxing out my effort. I don't want to count myself out. Everybody else can count me out. I won't do it to myself."

Hawkins, 28, is accustomed to being treated like an underdog.

He went undrafted after his career at the University of Toledo ended following the 2007 season, forcing him to toil as a part-time caddie and factory worker. He tried out at Browns rookie minicamp in 2008 but failed to earn a contract. He eventually secured a roster spot with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, and after two seasons in the CFL, he caught on with the Bengals in 2011.

Hawkins still carries himself like someone who has everything to prove.

Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer became so impressed with Hawkins' determination shortly after OTAs began that he compared Hawkins to the Denver Broncos' Wes Welker, a five-time Pro Bowler and one of the best slot receivers in the league. Hoyer and Welker were teammates for three seasons with the New England Patriots.

"The one guy I like more and more every day I work with is Andrew Hawkins," Hoyer said. "The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with Welker, where the guy runs every route to win. He's going full blast. You see him out there and you can tell when he walks back to the huddle, he gave his all on every play. He's just a competitor, and I think the more guys you get like that, the better your team becomes."

Hawkins knows he has a long way to go if he wants the comparison to stick.

"Coming from my background and situations where you don't get a lot of opportunities, you take every opportunity like it's your last and after a while it becomes second nature," he said. "So that's just how I work and how I do things. Wes Welker is one of those guys that I've looked up to my entire career, so that in itself is a compliment. I don't know if I'm Wes Welker yet, but I appreciate the compliment."

Nevertheless, the Browns believe they strengthened their receiving corps considerably when they signed Hawkins, who was a restricted free agent, to a four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet that the Bengals declined to match. He was acquired to fill the hole created by the departure of Davone Bess, whose off-field issues led to the Browns cutting him March 5.

Hawkins, though, will likely be relied upon even more than originally thought because All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon faces a potential season-long ban from the NFL stemming from a reported failed marijuana test. Gordon is appealing in an effort to have the suspension reduced.

Hawkins refuses to be consumed by the fear of life without Gordon.

"You lose guys all the time," Hawkins said. "That's professional football. It's a 100 percent injury rate. You lose guys here and there, so to us it doesn't matter.

"There's so much work that needs to be done. We can't rack our brains with a bunch of hypotheticals. We're worried about learning the offense, and that's the way we're going to keep it."

Regardless of what Hawkins needs to tell himself to stay focused, he'll have a chance for a breakout season.

His best production was in 2012, when he had 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games. ProFootballFocus.com ranked him 52nd out of 105 NFL receivers. He also finished eighth with an average of 6.9 yards after catch per reception, according to the website.

A high-ankle sprain suffered during training camp last year prevented Hawkins from building on his strongest season. He had just 12 catches for 199 yards in his final season with the Bengals and was used primarily as a fourth receiver behind A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

Now he's hoping to step out of those shadows and shine for the Browns. He is convinced that he'll be featured much more in the version of the West Coast offense implemented by new Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan than the system used by former Bengals offensive coordinator and new Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden.

"Over there (in Cincinnati) I think it was more of the style and the offense of Gruden," Hawkins said when asked if he expects a more prominent role in Cleveland. "It's a little different than here. We did have a bunch of talent over there in Cincinnati. That's a special situation to be in for them, and here we have a lot of talent, too, but I think here we're using it a lot better in the way (Shanahan is) varying things and bouncing people around and letting everybody play to their strength.

"The way Kyle and the offensive staff draws these plays up, it's something that, I don't want to say it takes pressure off the player, but it's the way an offense should be run. They put guys in the position to do what's best for the team, and that's good. It takes a lot of pressure off the players, as opposed to some offensive coordinators who say, 'Hey, make this play work.' Kyle and those guys do it to where they say, 'We think this and this will put you guys in the best position to make plays based off your abilities.' "

Hawkins' role as a leader also figures to expand with his new team.

"He's been one of our most consistent guys through spring," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "He's one of the hardest workers. (He) doesn't know any speed other than full speed. He is a guy that is truly trying to get better every day that he takes the field. I think that's a great example for our younger guys."

They have certainly noticed.

"He's out there making plays every day," rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the eighth overall pick in this year's draft, said of Hawkins. "I'd rather guard Gordon than him. He's so little and quick. Those guys are hard to get a handle on."

Especially when they never let their foot off the gas.

"That's just how I've always been taught," Hawkins said. "That's kind of been my mantra playing football. Just go out there every day and give it all you have, and I think that's what sets you up for the best chance for success."

(c)2014 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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