BEREA — Browns coach Mike Pettine didn’t pull any punches during his first meeting with wide receiver Charles Johnson.
“I told him I didn’t know much about him, but I went on You Tube and watched his Grand Valley State highlights,” Pettine said. “They were impressive. You could see he was worth taking a peek at.
“Charles is explosive, deceptively fast, and his catch radius is bigger than most. He’s also got long arms and big hands. He is a guy that we hope can emerge as someone that can help us.”
Those words were music to Johnson, whose rookie season had more ups and downs than a roller coaster, but now has a legitimate chance to make Cleveland’s team as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder scored 31 touchdowns and caught 128 passes in two seasons with the Lakers, but wasn’t invited to the 2013 NFL scouting combine. He still earned a seventh-round selection by the Packers because of a strong pro day performance.
Johnson then put himself in the mix for a roster spot in Green Bay, only to face more adversity when he hurt his left knee and missed the first two preseason games.
With three young daughters and a fiancee to support, the former NCAA Division II All-American attempted to play through the pain.
In hindsight, it was a mistake because Johnson had torn his anterior cruciate ligament.
“I knew I had people counting on me, so I just kept going, even though my knee was really hurting,” the 25-year-old Kentucky native said.
“I had a few MRIs, but I was more concerned about missing the time that would cost me a job. That wound up happening anyway, but the Packers brought me right back for their practice squad, so I couldn’t stop then, either.”
Johnson’s perseverance paid off Oct. 12, when the Browns plucked him off Green Bay’s practice squad and added him to their 53-man roster.
He signed a three-year, $1.5 million contract that ended his financial issues and allowed him to move his family to Northeast Ohio.
Just when it looked like things were falling into place, however, Johnson became an NFL punch line as Cleveland’s medical staff discovered the torn ACL.
His season was over, but the jokes about the Browns signing a player with a blown out knee were just starting.
“When (trainer Joe Sheehan) told me I had an ACL tear, I begged him to let me go out there until it hurts too much, but they couldn’t let me do that,” Johnson said. “I’ll always be grateful to the Browns because they didn’t have to keep me around at that point. They could have let me go back on the street or go back to Green Bay, but they didn’t.
“I’m going to come out here and work as hard as I can to reward them for having faith in me. Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever, and I’m not going to do that.”
Cleveland certainly could use the help, given the uncertain status of Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon and the injury-prone histories of Miles Austin and Nate Burleson.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer and Pettine have spoken highly of Johnson, whose size is a major plus with undersized quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.
Both decision-makers also like the character Johnson showed by taking two years off in the middle of his college career to care for his ailing father in Cincinnati.
The Erlanger (Ky.) Lloyd High graduate spent his freshman season at Eastern Kentucky and his sophomore year at Antelope (Calif.) Valley, but worked two restaurant jobs in 2009 and ’10 while continuing his studies at a community college.
“I’m really excited for him to get his opportunity,” Farmer said. “This is a young man that put a lot of work into recovering from an ACL injury. He’s an interesting prospect, and everybody now is getting a chance to see what we thought about him live.”
Though fans’ first glimpse of Johnson occurred during the opening week of training camp, Hoyer and wide receiver Travis Benjamin have kept close tabs on him for a while. All three players underwent reconstructive knee surgery last fall and rehabbed together in Berea.
The trio also spent countless hours studying Cleveland’s new playbook, which can only help Johnson’s chances of contributing when the regular season begins Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh.
“C.J. is such a hard worker and has the size and speed to succeed,” Hoyer said. “For a big guy, I also think he gets in and out of routes pretty good. A lot of people around here are excited to see what he can do — and I’m one of them.”
Leonhard, Lee signed to one-year deals
The Browns signed veteran safety Jim Leonhard and guard Ryan Lee to one-year contracts, increasing their roster to 89, which is one below the NFL preseason limit.
Leonhard is reunited with Browns coach Mike Pettine, who previously tutored him with the Bills, Ravens and Jets. The 5-8, 188-pounder, who also spent one season with Denver, previously announced that this will be his final NFL season.
Pettine served as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator in 2013, while the 32-year-old Leonhard made a career-high four interceptions for the Bills.
Lee has not appeared in a regular-season game, but was a member of the Pittsburgh and New Orleans practice squads as a rookie in 2012. The 6-3, 290-pounder from Furman went to training camp with St. Louis last year, but was released in the final roster cuts.
Contact Brian Dulik at firstname.lastname@example.org.