The NFL is a copycat league, every team in the league saw what Darren Sproles did in New Orleans in 2011 and 31 other teams have tried to find their own version. Some were more obvious (Chris Rainey in Pittsburgh, LaMichael James in San Francisco), others were inferred (Jacquizz Rodgers in Atlanta, Dexter McCluster in Kansas City), and mysteries like Randall Cobb and Andrew Hawkins were uncovered in Green Bay and Cincinnati, respectively. What to expect the rest of the year? Quite simply, more of the same.
Hawkins has had a heck of a ride to a starting job, his speed (4.34 40) has kept him on radars but at 5'7", 180 pounds soaking wet, he did not fit the profile NFL teams want. He bounced around the CFL and NFL pratice squads with a cameo on Michael Irvin's Reality Show, 4th & Long, where he finished runner-up for a job on the Dallas Cowboys. Eventually, after three years of trying to make it to the NFL he got an offer from the Bengals, after Jordan Shipley blew out his knee after Week 1 in 2011 Hawkins finally got the dream job. Initially he was restricted to special teams, but thanks to a thin depth chart with the recent departures of Chad Johnson (Ochocinco? Johnson? whatever), T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Terrell Owens, a role was etched out for him on offense.
"Baby Hawk," as Bengals fans refer to him, became a bit of a cult figure within the organization. His ability to keep the chains moving, especially on 3rd downs (nine of his 28 touches were 3rd down conversions), and generally creating mismatches for defenses caused the Bengals to re-evaluate him this offseason and etch a bigger role for him. While every team out there was trying to find their version of Sproles, the Bengals quietly had their version in-house and signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to be the primary back. Green-Ellis will never be confused with a dynamic play-making running back in space (no plays over 20 yards in 2011 and has never been utilized strongly in the passing game), his role is to churn out the tough yards between the tackles. Outside of A.J. Green, there is not much to speak of at wide receiver, either. There are a couple of rookies that barely saw any action week 1 (Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones), a 2nd year undrafted rookie free agent who's very limited (Armon Binns), and a dynamic returnman that never developed as a wide receiver (Brandon Tate). Quietly, the Bengals prepared Baby Hawk to take the passing downs RB role. It worked because no one was looking his way as attention was diverted elsewhere.
He only had 36 snaps in week 1, but to draw parallels Randall Cobb only had 39. The average depth of his targets was less than a yard off the line of scrimmage, Cobb's nine targets? 1.8 yards off the line of scrimmage. Of those 36 snaps he was targeted one out of four snaps catching eight passes for 86 yards. All NFL coaches wish they could get that sort of productivity and reliability from a secondary weapon. Not every play was designed for him, but when under duress Hawkins appeared to be Dalton's first look when he needed a safety valve. While Green is obviously the down field threat and tight end Jermaine Gresham is the best possession receiver available, Hawkins looks like a dangerous option on underneath crossing routes, wide receiver screens and quick outs. Hawkins has a specific role that he plays for the Bengals, which always helps a fringe player's stock, and offensive architect Jay Gruden knows he needed this guy to keep defenses off balance and not just focus on shutting down A.J. Green.
Who should you be taking him over? For starters, Week 1 darling, Kevin Ogletree. There are several others, but Ogletree sticks out. He benefited from a hobbled Miles Austin and Dez Bryant being taken out of the game plan, and Jason Witten playing, even though he should not have. Like Cobb and Hawkins, his snaps were limited. Unlike Hawkins and Cobb, there isn't an etched out role for Ogletree when everyone around him is healthy. He'll be a nice 3rd wide receiver, but not someone you can turn to in a pinch week-in and week-out. Hawkins is that guy, and it starts this week.
With Joe Haden suspended, the Browns will utilize a lot more zone than usual and bracket coverage on Green. This is the sort of defense Hawkins will abuse, especially with the Browns' issues at linebacker featuring two undrafted rookie free agents in prominent roles. Much like last week Dalton will be under duress from a better than advertised Browns pass rush and behind an injured and shaky offensive line, he'll be looking to get rid of the ball quickly, again. Expect very similar numbers from him this week and going forward, and given his slipperiness, there is some breakaway touchdown ability here too. Underdogs everywhere, this is why you never give up. Put in the work and you will be rewarded.