BEREA — Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi couldn’t catch up last year.
He arrived at training camp with a chipped bone in his ankle and a cast on his left foot. As he hobbled around the practice fields, the new West Coast Offense was being installed without him and the time to build chemistry with quarterback Colt McCoy was disappearing.
He returned in time for the regular season and started 13 games, but set career lows with 31 catches for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He also lost three games in the middle of the season to a concussion — his second in two years.
This year, Massaquoi is setting the pace.
He showed up for training camp completely healthy and with a spring in his step. As he flies around the field, his understanding of the scheme is obvious, as is the talent that has been too often hidden in his three years with the Browns.
“He’s in the best shape he’s been in, is running excellent routes, catching everything and really just focusing,” receivers coach Mike Wilson said Monday. “This is the Mohamed I expected, without dealing with some injuries.
“This year he came back and, boy, he’s determined. I think he’s going to have a great year.”
The early evidence points in that direction. Massaquoi has made the most plays of any receiver, including a few difficult ones again Monday.
He showed good hands and body awareness on a fingertip catch along the sideline with safety Ray Ventrone closing.
He went low to scoop a Brandon Weeden pass behind him as safety T.J. Ward jumped in front trying for an interception. He picked up the first down on an out from Weeden on fourth down to extend a successful two-minute drill.
Massaquoi has been at his best on outs and comebacks along the sideline with a defender on his back. The contested catches have consistently been completions.
“Mo’s a good athlete, he understands burst at the top of a route, and he doesn’t stand there and wait,” Wilson said. “He comes back to the ball, and that’s the key.”
Massaquoi’s explanation is simpler.
“Just focusing a lot more, so I don’t make those lackadaisical or lazy drops,” he said. “Just making sure that I’m locked in.”
Massaquoi, 6-foot-2 and a few pounds lighter at 204, said there’s no question this is the healthiest he’s felt to open a camp.
“I didn’t really expect to have a slow start due to injury or anything like that, so I was able to just work, run routes, get in shape, catch a lot of balls,” he said. “Just so when I got here, I could just continue to go and just get a little bit better.”
This is a critical season in Massaquoi’s career. He’s in the final year of the contract he signed after being a second-round pick (No. 50 overall) in 2009, so it could be his last chance to impress the Browns and the league.
He insists he’s not thinking about his contract.
“Because it’s really not the motivating factor for anything,” he said. “Right now I just want to play the best that I can play. Everything else is sort of secondary. For me it’s just to put together a good body of work this year, staying healthy and playing good football.”
A lot was expected from Massaquoi, especially after a solid rookie season of 34 catches, 624 yards, 18.4 average and three touchdowns. But the production has declined and the questions have increased.
Did the concussion-causing hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison in 2010 ruin him? Can he stay healthy? Does he have the commitment to excel?
“I see the passion this year,” said Wilson, who’s in his second year in Cleveland. “He’s really focused and been very consistent, and that’s the key on this level.
“This year he wants to prove that last year wasn’t his best year. This year he’s got the mind-set that he’s off to an excellent start in camp and just keep building on it, keep getting better.”
The receiving corps drove the Browns conversation in the offseason. It wasn’t talented enough, the team should’ve improved it with a high draft pick, supplemental pick Josh Gordon will save the position.
Massaquoi’s name only came up when he was being ripped. The first few days of camp won’t change the general perception, but Massaquoi is in the right frame of mind. He has consistently lined up across from Greg Little with the starters and sees himself continuing in that role.
“Yeah, no question,” he said. “Just because this year I expect for me to play the way I’m capable of playing, stay healthy, take care of my body, work through all the little things and just come to work every day.”
Gordon, who was chosen in the second round of the supplemental draft, is 6-3, 225 pounds with loads of potential. He’s been a fast learner and was the third wideout Moday when the first-team offense ran the two-minute drill. The acquisition of Gordon and fourth-rounder Travis Benjamin could pave the way for Massaquoi’s exit at some point, but that’s not what he sees.
“It’s more talent, it’s more tools and the ultimate goal is just to get better (as a team),” Massaquoi said. “And for me just personally, I just want to play as good as I can.”
He’s off to a strong start.
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