BEREA — Andrew Hawkins was born with a strike against him. And it’s a sizable one.
In a game of giants, a microscope is helpful to find the slot receiver listed at 5-foot-7 and a generous 180 pounds.
The lack of size almost cost Hawkins a career in the NFL, so he’s made it his mission to not give skeptical talent evaluators any more ammunition.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist,” he said. “So I get frustrated with myself when I don’t make a play or I don’t do something right because whenever they talked about my strong points, I wanted it to be a long list and my negatives would only be size. I don’t want anybody to say, ‘Well, he’s small and he doesn’t work hard.’ Or, ‘He’s small and he doesn’t care.’
“That’s something I took to heart. The skills, the ability, that’s one thing, you can have your opinion. But I don’t want anyone to ever say he didn’t work hard, because I really pride myself on maxing out my effort. I don’t want to count myself out. Everybody else can count me out. I won’t do it to myself.”
Hawkins has been a star of the offseason for the Browns. He was signed away from the Bengals as a restricted free agent for four years and $13.6 million, including a $3.8 million signing bonus, and has made an immediate impact.
He took a hitch late in minicamp practice Wednesday and weaved his way through the defense with the speed, quickness and agility that have coordinator Kyle Shanahan and receivers coach Mike McDaniel excited to draw up plays for him.
“He’s been one of our most consistent guys through spring,” coach Mike Pettine said. “Comes out here, he’s one of the hardest workers. Doesn’t know any speed other than full-speed. He is a guy that is truly trying to get better every day that he takes the field. I think that’s a great example for our younger guys.”
With Josh Gordon facing a possible suspension and several other receivers signing late or dealing with injuries, Hawkins has been the stabilizing force among the wideouts.
“I’ve been extremely impressed with him for two different reasons, physically and mentally,” McDaniel said. “It doesn’t take long to see how quick he is, how explosive he is. The way he approaches his day-to-day work, there’s no question why he has put himself in this position. He’s a truly special individual in that regard.”
Hawkins, 28, had 86 catches for 995 yards, an 11.6 average and four touchdowns — all in 2012 — in three seasons with the Bengals. First-year Cleveland general manager Ray Farmer saw enough to make him a priority in free agency.
Hawkins figures to get more opportunities with Cleveland and be a huge upgrade over Davone Bess in the slot. Bess struggled with drops before leaving the team late last season with personal problems, then was cut in the offseason. Hawkins should provide a nice complement to a strong running game and tight end Jordan Cameron.
“The one guy I like more and more every day I work with is Andrew Hawkins,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said recently. “The guy runs his routes so hard. It reminds me a lot of my time in New England with (Wes) Welker where the guy runs every route to win.
“He’s going full blast. You see him out there and you can tell when he walks back to the huddle he gave his all on every play and he’s just a competitor.”
“Wes Welker is one of those guys that I’ve looked up to my entire career, so that in itself is a compliment,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know if I’m Wes Welker yet, but I appreciate the compliment.”
Hawkins’ impact has been felt on the other side of the ball, too. Rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, the No. 8 pick, offered him a noteworthy compliment.
“He’s out there making plays every day. I’d rather guard Gordon than him,” Gilbert said, referring to the league’s reigning yardage leader. “He’s so little and quick, those guys are hard to get a handle on.”
Hawkins is best-suited for the slot, which makes the comparisons to Welker natural. But McDaniel believes Hawkins is more versatile and can be used outside. That’s essential, because Shanahan doesn’t want to have to go with three-receiver sets just to get Hawkins on the field.
“Because of his vertical speed you can move him outside,” McDaniel said. “I think he’s a mismatch inside or outside. We move him all over the place.
“His body type is more a fit for slot receiver. But one component he has that guys I just spoke of (Welker, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman) don’t really have is he’s a 4.3 guy. He’s got the vertical speed. So corners on the outside can’t squat on his routes. They have to respect the vertical threat.”
Inside or outside, Hawkins said Shanahan’s scheme is designed for the playmakers to succeed.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the players as opposed to some offensive coordinators who say, ‘Hey, make this play work,”’ Hawkins said. “Kyle and those coaches do it to where, this will put you guys in the best position to make plays based off your abilities. That’s going to be special.”
The road to the Browns was a long and winding one. He was undrafted out of Toledo and was invited to Cleveland’s rookie minicamp in 2008. He wasn’t asked back and the odyssey began.
He worked as a caddie and sweeping floors in a wind turbine factory. He interned in the Lions’ scouting department. He finished second on Michael Irvin’s reality show that gave an NFL shot to the winner. He played in the Canadian Football League. He was cut by the Rams.
He finally landed with Cincinnati in 2011. The footwork that makes him special was finally appreciated.
“I think that’s my whole game, honestly,” Hawkins said. “That’s one thing I’m good at. I’m not 6-5. I’m not 240 pounds. Quickness and speed is my game.”
The biggest doubt regarding Hawkins is the ability to stay healthy. He was limited to eight games last year by an ankle injury and looks like he’s one direct hit away from the trainer’s room. But McDaniel said managing and protecting his small body isn’t a concern.
“If he was frail, I would say yes. He is a compact, rocked-up 170 at 5-7,” McDaniel said. “And he’s quick enough, where he’s not really ever taking big hits.”
No big hits while making big plays is a powerful combination.
“I’m telling you, Hawkins is virtually unstoppable,” veteran receiver Nate Burleson said. “His route-running is incredible.”