By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Nate Burleson’s experience and leadership skills made him attractive to the Browns. The wide receiver’s inability to stay on the field made him expendable.
Burleson, an 11-year veteran, was among the most notable players released Saturday as Cleveland got down to the NFL’s 53-player roster limit. Burleson was slowed by a hamstring injury throughout much of training camp and missed three exhibition games. The time away allowed the team to take a closer look at some young receivers and Burleson was let go.
“Nate is a true professional and it was a difficult decision for us,” first-year Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “Ultimately, his availability was a concern with all the time he missed and we liked what we saw in the other players at that position.”
The Browns are thin at wide receiver after Pro Bowler Josh Gordon was suspended for the entire 2014 season for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. The team decided to keep undrafted free agent Taylor Gabriel and Charles Johnson, who missed last season while recovering from knee surgery, over Burleson, who was signed in April.
“Gabriel’s an explosive athlete, he’s very strong for his size (5-foot-8, 172 pounds),” Pettine said. “He has the ability to get off the line against press (coverage), which a lot of times you don’t find with smaller guys. A lot of times, you have to put them off the ball or have him on the move.”
Cleveland’s wide receiving corps is not only thin but small, and general manager Ray Farmer may be looking to add through a trade. In Gabriel, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound Andrew Hawkins and 5-10, 175-pound Travis Benjamin, the Browns have some deep flyers but few weapons to throw to over the middle.
In addition to Burleson, the Browns released running backs Dion Lewis and Chris Ogbonnaya along with cornerback Leon McFadden and guard Garrett Gilkey, a pair of 2013 draft picks.
The Browns waived rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, leaving Rex Grossman to begin the season as Cleveland’s third QB behind starter Brian Hoyer and backup Johnny Manziel. Grossman recently signed with the Browns, who are hoping he can help Hoyer and Manziel with the team’s new offensive system. Grossman spent time in Washington with Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Grossman made his debut Thursday night against Chicago, completing 4 of 8 passes.
“Rex is a veteran, he’s played in this system, he’s good for the guys in the (quarterback) room, and he also showed that he can still throw it,” Pettine said. “And that’s the most important thing. He can still play.”
The release of Lewis and the versatile Ogbonnaya gave undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell a roster spot. He rushed for 102 yards against the Bears, ripping off a 48-yard touchdown run. Crowell beat out Lewis, who missed last season after breaking his leg.
Pettine said the Browns were impressed with Crowell’s body of work since camp opened.
“It wasn’t something where he was on the outside looking in and, all of a sudden, he had that big night,” Pettine said. “He had flashed at practice and he was a guy that we knew had that type of ability. But you still have to show it in games, and we had kind of earmarked (the Bears’) game as one where we were going to feature him a little bit more. And, to his credit, he went out and performed.”
The Browns also put cornerback Isaiah Trufant on injured reserve with a knee injury and said wide receiver Marlon Moore is on the suspended list.
The club made 21 moves to get down to the league’s mandatory level, but the Browns may not be done tweaking their roster.
“I think the 53 is always going to be fluid, especially at the start of the season.” Pettine said. “Ray and his staff have done an outstanding job of keeping tabs on the league and I’m confident they will continue to make any moves that are necessary to give us the best possible 53.”