Versatile Austin of WVU leads iffy receiver class

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part of a series previewing the NFL draft by position.

The recent signing of former Buffalo receiver David Nelson by the Browns seemed minor when first announced.

But when you realized how needy the Browns are at the position and how productive Nelson was two years ago in Buffalo, the addition suddenly seemed important. Nelson, who had 61 receptions in 2011, was unknown to fans a few weeks ago, but now it appears he might be the third receiver on the depth chart.

The Browns are far from being blessed with deep talent in the passing game. Greg Little and Josh Gordon, the top two receivers, combined for 103 receptions, 1,452 yards and nine touchdowns last season. With Josh Cribbs out of the picture, Nelson and 2012 rookie Travis Benjamin are next in line.

Little recovered from a rough 2011 rookie season in which he led the NFL in dropped passes. Gordon, acquired in a supplemental draft in exchange for this year’s second-round draft pick, wasn’t spoken of highly by general manager Mike Lombardi when he was an analyst for the “NFL Network” last year.

Don’t look for a big upgrade this offseason. There are no prime prospects worthy of being selected sixth overall. Without a second-rounder, the Browns might have to wait until next year to address the need.

One way the Browns could conceivably select a receiver in the first round is with a trade down several spots. The best prospect at that point is Tavon Austin of West Virginia, a 5-9, 174-pound speedster with exceptional all-purpose skills.

Austin led the nation in receptions per game (8.77), registering 1,289 yards and 12 touchdowns. He paced the nation in all-purpose yards, adding 643 on the ground, 813 on kick returns and 165 on punt returns to his receiving total.

Austin’s return skills will certainly add to his value in the estimation of the team that acquires his services.

“I think it will help a lot,” Austin said. “It’s one of my specialties. I really take pride in my punt returning and kick returning. A lot of teams are looking for a guy who can do multiple things on the football field. I think I’m that guy.”

Austin’s quickness is undeniable, but his small size could work against him.

Teams interested in a larger receiver might have an interest in Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson (6-2, 216). Patterson caught 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns for a bad Volunteer team. Patterson led the SEC in all-purpose yards with 1,858.

Patterson has outstanding speed for a player of his size. He poses problems for small cornerbacks with his big-play abilities, but his technique needs to improve.

Austin and Patterson could be the only receivers selected in the first round. Neither is projected to be a top-10 selection, which indicates how weak of a receivers group the draft presents.

There aren’t many first-round talents available at tight end. That’s not good news for the Browns, who are looking at underachieving Jordan Cameron and free-agent acquisitions Gary Barnidge and Kellen Davis. Ben Watson, the starter last season, won’t be back.

Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame tops the tight end prospects. Eifert (6-6, 250) is a smooth, athletic player that should have no problem fitting into a team’s offense because of his ball-catching abilities. He’s not a strong inside blocker.

Eifert had 50 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns in 2012.

“That has been what everyone said I was lacking,” Eifert said. “So I’ve spent a lot of time working on my blocking with coaches, working on the technique things. Just the little things which make a big difference.”

Zach Ertz of Stanford could be the second tight end off the board. Like Eifert, Ertz (6-5, 249) is an inviting target because of his size. He led the nation among tight ends in catches (69) and yards (898), while hauling in six touchdown passes.