The circle is complete.
Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins began his NFL career – kind of – at a Browns rookie minicamp after going undrafted out of Toledo in 2008. He wasn’t given a contract and didn’t make his first NFL catch until 2011 with the Bengals.
He returned to the Browns on Tuesday when the Bengals declined to match the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet he signed Thursday with Cleveland.
“I do think it came full circle,” Hawkins said on a conference call. “I was very appreciative of my tryout in 2008 because I didn’t have any other team willing to bring me in for a tryout. So being able to go in and get the opportunity they gave me was a blessing to me.
“It was a great experience. I do think I did well at the tryout. I felt in some way, shape or form indirectly it helped bring me here to Cleveland now.”
The move not only gives the Browns the slot receiver they sought when free agency began last week, it weakens a division rival.
Hawkins is undersized at 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, but he’s a big threat with the ball in his hands. He has elite speed, quickness and explosiveness, which makes him good in the slot and difficult to stop after he catches the ball.
His best season was 2012, when he made his only two career starts and caught 51 passes for 533 yards and four touchdowns. In three years, he has 86 catches for 995 yards and four touchdowns, but the Browns believe he’s yet to hit his ceiling.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to come in and be the spark they’re looking for, man,” Hawkins said. “Some things I’m good at is run after the catch and hopefully be a leader where I can bring everything I’ve done to this point in my career over to the Cleveland locker room.”
Hawkins should be a nice complement to Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon and Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron. The Browns still need a No. 2 wideout to start opposite Gordon, and will likely try to find him in May in a draft deep in receivers, perhaps Clemson’s Sammy Watkins with the No. 4 pick.
The Bengals didn’t want to lose Hawkins and originally intended to match the offer, but the structure of the contract signed with Cleveland, which included a $3.8 million signing bonus, changed their thinking. The Bengals had placed the low tender on Hawkins, making him a restricted free agent. The low tender allowed them to match any offer but doesn’t entitle them to any draft-pick compensation from Cleveland.
“I don’t want to let Andrew go without making note that he has been a very hard working and contributing player,” coach Marvin Lewis said in a release announcing Cincinnati’s decision. “He has set a great example of being a great teammate. But we’re fortunate to have a lot of depth at wide receiver, and we’re excited to move forward.”
Hawkins wanted to remain inside the AFC North.
“It mattered a lot, man,” he said. “It mattered in my decision which team to pursue an offer sheet with because I’m used to this division. I know how the division works. I grew up watching the division. So staying in the division was important to me, and I’m glad I was able to do so.”
The road back to Cleveland was a long one, full of detours.
Hawkins, 28, worked as a caddie and sweeping floors in a wind turbine factory. He finished second on Michael Irvin’s reality show that gave an NFL shot to the winner. He played in the Canadian Football League. He was cut by the Rams.
“I needed it. I don’t think I would be here today had it not worked out the way that it did,” he said. “So if I could go back, 100 times out of 100 I would do it the same way. So it all works out, man. I think it helped build character. It helped me appreciate where I’m at, and I understood from Day One what a privilege it was to play in the National Football League. So to come back and bring it back to Cleveland, it’s a special feeling.
“I don’t care if you’re trying to make it to the NFL, become a police officer or a writer, whatever it is there are going to be obstacles. There are going to be times when you lose things … I would pray and I just felt if I kept working God would work the rest out … I felt God would oversee my steps and things would happen out of nowhere that I wouldn’t expect that would keep me going.”
The Browns were desperate to find a playmaker out of the slot after Davone Bess’ disastrous 2013. He was released earlier this month after failing to fulfill expectations on the field in addition to off-the-field troubles, including an arrest after an incident at a South Florida airport.
Hawkins missed the first half of last season with an ankle injury, catching 12 passes for 199 yards in eight games. He can also return kicks.
“To get hurt the way that I did last year in camp, that’s a freak accident, someone stepping on my heel,” he said. “It was disappointing. I was able to work back to 100 percent a lot faster than was anticipated. I’m looking forward to coming out this year and playing 16 full games and just putting my best foot forward and just really proving my worth.”
One new teammate, in particular, is happy to have him.