Receiver Andrew Hawkins got the stability he long sought when the Cincinnati Bengals declined to match the four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet he signed with the Cleveland Browns in March.
"Football is my life," Hawkins said. "Now that I don't have to focus on making a living anymore, I can focus on being a great football player."
Undrafted in 2008 out of Toledo despite running a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Hawkins worked out for the Browns but didn't make the team. He bounced around cities, countries and reality shows trying to find a team.
In 2009, Hawkins signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Before his first game, he was a contestant on 4th and Long, a football-reality show hosted by Michael Irvin, with a spot on the Dallas Cowboys' roster on the line. Again, Hawkins came up short, finishing as the runner-up, so he played two years in the CFL.
Hawkins, a 5-foot-7, 180-pounder, said he never questioned his path. His older brother, Artrell, played safety in the NFL for more than a decade.
"He influenced me a lot and helped me out over the years," Hawkins said. "I look up to my family so much, if they were truck drivers instead of football players, I'd be a truck driver."
It was in Cincinnati where Hawkins started to find his career path, signing with the Bengals in 2011. He had a breakout season in 2012, when he had 51 catches for 533 yards and all four of his career touchdowns, but he was limited to eight games in 2013 because of a high ankle sprain.
Still, Hawkins said he didn't think it was his ideal situation.
"Cincinnati was great for me, but every year I wasn't sure if I was going to make the team or not," he said. "It was tough at times."
Now healthy, Hawkins looks to be a big part of a Browns offense that could be without Pro Bowl receiver Josh Gordon, who is appealing a one-year suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Although questions loom over whether the Browns have enough talent should they have to replace Gordon, quarterback Brian Hoyer believes Hawkins could be a piece to that puzzle.
"I love him. He's a hard worker, and he's so skilled at what he does," Hoyer said. "He's so quick and fast that his size doesn't matter. There are no limits to what he can do."
Hoyer said he could see Hawkins lining up outside of the slot, a role he rarely saw in Cincinnati. The Browns used Hawkins on the outside frequently yesterday, the first day of padded practice at training camp.
"Camp is all about trying everything," Hawkins said. "(Offensive coordinator) Kyle (Shanahan) has been known to be very creative in his play-calling, and I'm open to anything."
Although Hawkins considers himself one of the fastest players on the team, he said he has plenty of competition, as the Browns are the fastest team he has ever played on. One of his "burners" is rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert, who ran 40 yards in 4.37 seconds at this year's combine. Gilbert covered Hawkins throughout practice yesterday.
"I think I'm pretty fast, but he's definitely a challenge to cover," Gilbert said.
--Coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer had an edge over rookie Johnny Manziel in the first day of practice with pads.
"I thought Hoyer was sharper; Manziel was inconsistent," Pettine said. "But that's true of any rookie this early in camp."
--The Browns signed receiver Marlon Moore, who played last season with San Francisco and Miami, totaling seven receptions for 62 yards. Entering his fifth NFL season, Moore has 19 career receptions for 306 yards and two touchdowns.
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By JOSH NORTH - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)