CLEVELAND - The Browns moved a step closer to swiping a player from one of their AFC North rivals.
Cleveland signed Bengals slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to a contract offer sheet on Thursday, a Browns spokesman said. Cincinnati will have five days — until next Tuesday — to match the reported four-year, $13.6 million deal, which includes a $3.8 million signing bonus, or they'll lose the speedy and elusive Hawkins.
The Browns are in the market to fill the slot position after releasing troubled wide receiver Davone Bess last week. The Bengals have not said what they intend to do with Hawkins, who caught just 12 passes last season and missed four games with a high ankle sprain.
In 2012, Hawkins had 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns. The 28-year-old Hawkins was in Cleveland's rookie minicamp in 2007, but wasn't signed. He played in the Canadian Football League before signing with the Bengals.
If he joins the Browns, the 5-foot-7 Hawkins would provide a nice complement for Pro Bowl wide receiver Josh Gordon and another option for quarterback Brian Hoyer, who at this point is the favourite to begin next season as Cleveland's starter.
As they await Cincinnati's decision on Hawkins, the Browns are exploring other options and are believed to have interest in New England's Julian Edelman, a free agent who caught 105 passes last season as Tom Brady's primary target.
Edelman took over the role once held by Wes Welker and finished with 1,056 yards receiving and six touchdowns. The former Kent State quarterback also handled punt return duties for the Patriots. He has another local connection because he was a teammate on the Patriots with Hoyer, who backed up Brady for three seasons.
On Thursday night, the Browns hosted Houston free agent running back Ben Tate, who could fill a major hole for Cleveland. Tate was supposed to meet with the team on Wednesday but his visit had to be postponed because of a severe winter storm.
Tate rushed for 771 yards and four touchdowns last season, his third with the Texans. He has been on Cleveland's radar for months, starting soon after the club traded Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for a first-round draft pick. Tate has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and he's rushed for 1,992 yards and 10 TDs.
The Browns didn't adequately replace Richardson and their rushing game was almost nonexistent.
Earlier in the day, the Browns signed tight end Jim Dray to a three-year, $5.62 million contract, with $2.25 million in the first season. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder spent the past four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, setting career highs with 26 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Primarily a blocker, Dray gives the Browns depth at tight end behind Pro Bowl Jordan Cameron and Gary Barnidge.
Dray was impressed that the Browns showed early interest in him.
"Just hearing from my agent that the Browns were pretty aggressive from the start of free agency," said Dray, drafted out of Stanford in the seventh round in 2010. "I thought that they'd be a great fit for me, so the feeling was mutual and I'm really excited to be here. I've been watching (offensive co-ordinator) coach (Kyle) Shanahan's offence for Washington the past couple years, and the way they used their tight ends seemed like a good fit."
The Browns also are waiting for what happens with Pro Bowl centre Alex Mack. They placed their transition tag — worth $10.039 million for one year — on him last week and will have five days to match any offer if he signs with another team. Mack has until July 22 to sign his transition tag and it's possible his situation could drag on.