BEREA — Staring at a possible indefinite suspension for All-Pro Josh Gordon and with free agent pickup Nate Burleson nursing a broken arm suffered in offseason workouts — the team’s projected starters at receiver — the Browns ignored wideout with their three picks Friday night on the second day of the NFL Draft.
The Browns could’ve taken USC’s Marqise Lee, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews, Indiana’s Cody Latimer or PennState’s Allen Robinson at No. 35 in the second round, but selected Nevada offensive lineman Joel Bitonio.
Seven receivers were selected before the Browns picked at No. 71, and they again spurned the position by grabbing Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey.
The Browns then traded fourth- (No. 106) sixth-round (No. 180) picks to San Francisco in order to move up to No. 94 and select Towson running back Terrance West.
The Browns had a perceived need at receiver before the draft. They appear to have a gaping hole after ESPN reported Gordon is facing a suspension for failing a marijuana test that would cost him at least the 2014 season. The report broke an hour before the second round began.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer opened his news conference late Friday night by saying he wouldn’t answer questions about Gordon or Burleson, referring to it as “a lot of shocking supposedly news.” He received several questions anyway and said he doesn’t know when he’ll have clarity on the Gordon situation.
“Until I really have something to tell (people), there’s nothing I can say,” Farmer said.
With the third round chugging along, ESPN reported Burleson broke his arm — the same one he fractured last year trying to protect his pizza — on an accidental hit during offseason workouts.
Burleson had surgery to repair the plate in his arm and is expected to be 100 percent for training camp, according to a tweet from his agent, but the Browns could be without their top two receivers. That would thrust Greg Little and Andrew Hawkins into the starting lineup.
Coach Mike Pettine said the league doesn’t require the team to discuss injuries at this point in the year, so he won’t.
Despite the uncertainty, Farmer insisted he wasn’t worried about the depth at receiver.
“I’m not concerned because we play games in September,” he said. “And right now there’s plenty of time to acquire players and make things happen.”
Farmer mentioned trades, the picks today and players cut by other teams as ways to add receivers before the season.
The Browns’ first chance to catch a receiver in the draft was with the No. 4 pick, when Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M’s Mike Evans were available. But the Browns traded the choice to Buffalo, which selected Watkins.
One of the benefits of taking Watkins would’ve been an insurance policy at No. 1 receiver if Gordon found more trouble. According to ESPN’s report, which cited unnamed sources, he found it.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus declined to comment but told ESPN the information was “not true.”
The Browns referred comment to the league, which didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. Rosenhaus declined to comment.
Gordon was suspended for two games without pay to start last year and fined an additional two game checks. Because he’s in Stage 3 of the NFL drug policy, Gordon would face an indefinite suspension from the league. He could apply for readmission after a year.
“That’s something you’re going to have to talk to Drew Rosenhaus about,” Gordon told ESPN when reached by phone. “I really don’t know anything about it.”
Despite the suspension last year, Gordon led the NFL with a franchise-record 1,646 yards receiving in 14 games. He led the Browns with 87 catches and nine touchdowns.
Gordon claimed last year’s suspension was for taking prescription cough medicine that included codeine, a banned substance. He has a history of failed marijuana tests. He was dismissed from the Baylor team after two, and never played at Utah after another flunked test.
A source told ESPN Gordon received a letter this winter from a league physician telling him he failed a test. A second letter, sent in late April, informed him of the suspension.
Farmer and Pettine tried to shift the conversation back to the picks they made Friday. The Browns have drafted five players in two days and made four trades. They have only two picks left today, No. 127 in the fourth round and No. 218 in the seventh. They opened the draft with 10 picks.
With their initial pick Friday, the Browns added a possible starter at guard.
Bitonio (6-foot-4, 302 pounds) appeared in 51 games at Nevada, starting his last 38. He played 26 games at right tackle before moving to the left side for his last 12. He allowed only two quarterback sacks since the start of his junior season.
“We wanted to upgrade our toughness, our nastiness, and that’s one of the things he embodies when he plays,” Pettine said.
Bitonio is the son of the late Mike Bitonio, who used to practice mixed martial arts and competed in the mixed martial arts World Combat Championships — long before UFC became popular. Mike fought Bart Vale in the first round and tapped out after eight minutes, but the fight became iconic among MMA fans because of the toughness Mike displayed during the bloody beat down.
Bitonio never got into MMA, saying he tried a little sparring when he was little but mainly stuck to basketball and football while he was growing up. But while his father didn’t pass along the technical aspects of mixed martial arts, Bitionio learned plenty from his father’s experiences in the octagon.
“He was tough as nails, man. He was just a hard worker, tough,” Bitonio said. “In his other job, he laid carpet; he did flooring and flooring install. He was just a tough guy and he was always telling me, ‘Be mentally tough, be physically tough, no one is going to be able to outwork you.’ I think I take those traits to the football field, to the weight room, to the classroom, and he was a huge inspiration in the way I play and just my attitude on the field.”
Kirksey (6-2, 233) moved from inside to outside linebacker as a junior but expects to move back for the Browns. He was productive for the Hawkeyes and has good athleticism.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Kirksey said of being drafted. “I’ve been playing this game since I was 7 years old and to see my name go across the screen and know that I’m going to be an NFL player gets me fired up.”
Farmer, who has established himself as a wheeler and dealer in his first draft, was afraid West was going to be taken before the Browns picked again at No. 106 today, so he made another trade. West (5-9, 225) rushed for 2,509 and 41 touchdowns as a senior.
“It means a lot that they wanted me,” he said. “And now it’s time to do my part, which is hard running and helping them win some games.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook and follow him @scottpetrak on Twitter.