By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — The Browns stripped a rival of a quality player. Call it a free agent fumble.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was scooped up by Cleveland on Tuesday after the Cincinnati Bengals declined to match an offer sheet for the elusive playmaker.
The Bengals announced their decision to let Hawkins go about eight hours before a five-day deadline to equal Cleveland’s offer to the slot player was to expire. The Browns signed Hawkins, a restricted free agent, to a four-year, $13.6 million offer sheet last Thursday.
Hawkins, 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, fills a major need at slot receiver. The Browns recently released troubled wide receiver Davone Bess and were in the market for an inside playmaker. Hawkins fits that bill and should help Cleveland’s offense with his quickness and big-play potential.
Hawkins had just 12 catches for 199 yards last season, when he was sidelined by a high-ankle sprain. In 2012, he had 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns.
“I don’t want to let Andrew go without making note that he has been a very hard working and contributing player,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said in a statement released by the team. “He has set a great example of being a great teammate. But we’re fortunate to have a lot of depth at wide receiver, and we’re excited to move forward.
“Our leading receivers from last year will all return, and we have another group who know our system and have earned our confidence that they are ready to see more action.”
Hawkins is the sixth free agent signed by the Browns, who want to rebuild through the draft but have managed to address some needs this month for new coach Mike Pettine.
“We’ve added several players to the roster that will continue to push in the direction we want this team to go,” new general manager Ray Farmer said. “A couple key things to keep in mind: What we’re doing is finding talented players that can be good starters in this league, and guys that can compete to push those guys that end up being the starters. Since we last talked about the state of our roster, we’ve added Jim Dray, Ben Tate and now Andrew Hawkins – all offensive guys who we think can help advance our mission.
“These acquisitions are about steadying our ship and moving Cleveland closer to competing in our division and competing for championships.”
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