December 17, 2014

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Time for big catch: Browns want upgrade at wide receiver, but will it be through draft or free agency?

INDIANAPOLIS — If it seems like the Browns always enter the offseason with a need at wide receiver … it’s because they do.

The position was a significant weakness in 2008, ’09 and ’10. Last season was slightly better with the emergence of rookie second-round pick Greg Little with 61 catches, but the outcry for an upgrade hasn’t quieted. Even the Browns’ decision-makers admit there’s work left to do.

Through the years the Browns have tried to find the answer in the draft, and the scouting combine is filled with tantalizing talent. This year is no different, but why wait until April if you can solve the problem in March in free agency?

“Anybody that’s proven who can do it in this league, that helps,” coach Pat Shurmur said.

Shurmur kept the door open for drafting a receiver high — even Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon with the fourth pick — but indicated he’d prefer a veteran.

“I think it’s important if you can add leadership and experience to the team, but he’s also gotta be a guy that can play,” he said.

The Browns have signed just two “big-name” free agents since returning in 1999 — Cleveland native Joe Jurevicius in 2006 and Donte Stallworth in 2008.

Jurevicius caught 90 passes and provided leadership in two seasons before a staph infection helped end his career. Stallworth was paid nearly $10 million and caught 17 passes in his only season. He was cut after killing a pedestrian in a car accident in Miami.

This could be the year the Browns try their luck again. A starting-caliber wideout would not only take pressure off Little, he would allow Mohamed Massaquoi, Joshua Cribbs and Jordan Norwood to fill more natural roles off the bench. A veteran could also mentor a position group that’s raw.

“Obviously veterans are able to add a little bit in terms of leadership and how to prepare,” Shurmur said. “You look for a veteran player at each of the position groups, though there are some young players who are very mature that handle that.”

The Browns will have options when free agency starts March 13.

DeSean Jackson is an obvious fit — general manager Tom Heckert drafted him in Philadelphia and he fills the need for speed — but the Eagles are expected to keep him.

San Diego’s Vincent Jackson, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, New Orleans’ Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson, the New York Giants’ Mario Manningham and Indianapolis’ Pierre Garcon are also slated to become free agents. Even if some are franchised (reportedly Bowe) or re-signed (maybe Johnson), the Browns will have a chance to sign someone who could come in and start across from Little.

Free agency comes with disadvantages. The best players command huge dollars and have mileage on their tires. Heckert’s overall philosophy is to build the team through the draft, and he could decide to stick to that plan at receiver.

Blackmon is considered the clear-cut No. 1. He measured 6-foot, 207 pounds and isn’t a speed demon, but is physical and productive (121 catches in 2011 for 1,522 yards and 18 touchdowns). He won’t run today after tweaking a hamstring.

“A receiver like Blackmon is going to garner a lot of interest,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “There are going to be a lot of people contemplating being aggressive about going up and getting a receiver that can be an impact player in this league.”

Dimitroff traded with the Browns last year to acquire the sixth pick so he could draft Alabama receiver Julio Jones. The Browns had a need at receiver then, but chose to pass on Jones and add picks.

Some draft experts rate Blackmon a notch below Jones and A.J. Green, whom the Bengals took at No. 4 in 2011.

“They are very great athletes,” Blackmon said. “They came into the league and did a really good job this year, both A.J. and Julio. I am very competitive, so I would put myself right up there with them.”

Shurmur said just because the Browns passed on Jones doesn’t mean they wouldn’t take Blackmon in the top five.

“I think anything’s an option at his point,” Shurmur said. “He’s a guy who could get picked as high as anybody likes to. He’s a fine player.”

If the Browns pass on free agency and Blackmon, No. 22 is the next place to find a wideout — if the pick hasn’t been used to get Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Baylor’s Kendall Wright is the fastest of the group who might be there, with Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd, South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery and LSU’s Rueben Randle also in the mix.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.